Growing up, I knew I was different from most of the other boys my age. My brothers and I, we actually used the front door of our house while John Altieri, Mike Manganiello, and so many of our classmates only used the side and back doors of their houses. Every room in our house was lived in and used every day, while the Lestingis and dozens of other families had formal dining rooms and living rooms that were rarely ever entered unless the Holy Father himself showed up for dinner.
And once, I made the mistake of mentioning that my mother was making spaghetti for dinner, Brian Ruggiero and Paul Ricci laughed and asked if she made it with catsup. If they knew that the sauce was Ragu with ground beef and some spices added — and not fresh tomatoes stewed all day like their mothers made it — they would have been just as entertained.
This is all to say that when you are an ethnic or cultural minority, you can’t help but notice it. Among all the sufferings minorities of all stripes suffer, there is a benefit — a certain conceit we are spared. Minorities are blessed by being immune to one particular fallacy I call the WASP trap. The WASP trap is the belief that you have no ethnic or cultural particularities — that your tastes, habits, and customs are somehow universal.
The WASP trap might have its roots in the work of German philosopher GW Hegel, who believed that history was a steady march of faulty, limited ideas, wherein each idea took in a broader perspective, became less parochial, and brought us one step closer to universal truth.
To bring this back the Italians of Pelham, when yours is the dominant culture within your experience, it’s easy to think that you don’t have a distinctive culture — just as British people think they don’t have an accent. Most of my Italian friends watched enough television, or traveled enough to realize that their family’s way of doing things and their individual way of talking and dressing — although the norm in Pelham — was something particular.
In the 2006 film The Good Shepherd, Matt Damon plays Edward Bell Wilson, a WASP Yalie at the head of the CIA. At one point, Joe Pesci’s character asks him: “You know, we Italians have our families and the church, the Irish have thire homeland, the Jews their tradition, the niggers their music. What do you guys have?” Damon replies, “We have the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.”
Damon’s reply gives the path out of the WASP trap. If the Wilsons, Bushes, Rockefellers, and Mathers run the show — and they used to, at least — that means it’s a WASPy show. If they shaped our culture — and to a large extent they did — then it might be hard for them to see there are particularities about our culture. It is easy to start thinking that American culture is just plain American. Even worse, we might start to believe that American culture, with all of its melting pot action and enlightenment rhetoric, is simply human nature unadorned by the particularities of time, place, or history. This is the WASP trap.
I call this a trap because it is dangerous, and this way of thinking is causing us problems today.
Why have our efforts to spread Western-style democracy around the world not met with smashing success? Some will answer that the culprit is stubborn people clinging irrationally to their old prejudices. The culture of America, “a nation conceived in an idea,” in the words of John McCain, is a universal culture these types will argue. We have people from many cultures, but as a country, our only creed is liberty, and all men being created equal or something like that. But in truth, our form of democracy works because of our particular cultural makeup.
It is a new notion, relatively speaking, that one should render unto Caesar that which is Caesars and unto God that which is God’s. It is a specific, sectarian (again, relatively speaking) doctrine that you should pray for those who oppress you, turn the other cheek, and not just make war against all the infidels. For our forms of government to work in their countries, we don’t just need to get them to give up their cultures — we need them to adopt ours, which is a tall order.
But the WASP-trap insists that giving up one’s cultural peculiarities moves one towards the universal. In real life, giving up your culture means adopting another culture.
And so this weekend, after I raised a glass of Jameson to St. Patrick to thank him for converting Ireland, I also raised a glass to those long-faced Anglicans to thank them, and their unique culture for making this country the wonderfully odd creation it is.
Tim Carney is the author of The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money. He is the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire