"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

American Aristocracy–Where Is It When We Need It Most?

The West End of New Brighton was an enclave of Anglo-Saxon privilege.  Families there were descended from the great captains of industry of the 19th Century, and were proud of their legacy.  Their factories provided the tools and armaments in the early years of the Republic, and their sweat, blood, and entrepreneurial genius were responsible for the making of America.

The Worthingtons, Cutlers, Emersons, and Booths were among New England’s finest families and proudly carried on the tradition of hard work, parsimony, enterprise, patriotism, and culture. Although their bloodline  might have been attenuated somewhat by intermarriage, they carried on the traditions of their ancestors.  Bobby Worthington, for example, was directly descended from the Fourth Earl of Barnstable, a noble in the court of Henry V who had fought along with Prince Harry at the Battle of Agincourt.  Arthur Emerson was a direct descendant of one of the few English Knights Templar who had fought the Saracens in the Third Crusade. Louis Hutchinson was related to Charles Moore, a confidant of Cardinal Woolsey, and martyr to the cause of anti-Lutheranism.

Today’s Worthingtons and Emersons are immensely proud of their heritage; but they do not rest on their inherited laurels – the 17th Century silver cruets engraved with the family crest, the tattered piece cloth that had been part of the banner of the armies of Elizabeth I against Mary Queen of Scots, the ceremonial sword presented by the senior member of the House of Wessex.  They feel it their duty and responsibility to purvey the same civility, sense of honor, and respect for God and country to their fellow Americans.

The West End of New Brighton in the Fifties was one of the last redoubts of pure Anglo-Saxon culture in America. With the onslaught of the Sixties, the foundations of traditional Madisonian democracy were shaken, and the ways of the WASP were disparaged, marginalized, and rejected as old fashioned at best, irrelevant and retrograde at worst.  West End families didn’t know it then, but their years of anointed aristocracy were over.

So if this honored legacy was not a matter of silver cruets, heralds, and crests, what was it?  What was there to revere and promote in the new age?

“Good taste”, said Hobby (Hetherington L. Shattuck III) over drinks at the Savile Club, the most exclusive men’s club in New York, “and a healthy respect for Cato the Elder”.

This was Hobby’s mini-speak for a long tradition of Greco-Roman values – honor, courage, discipline,compassion, rectitude, and honesty – which had always been the foundation of the English aristocracy. “Yes”, he said, “those outside the palace gates were of a different sort, but when did they ever matter?”

A word here to put Hobby’s seemingly anti-democratic sentiments in context. “What goatherd imagined the Palais de Versailles?”, he asked in his abbreviated, metaphorical way of confirming the European/American aristocracy as the creators, guardians, and purveyors of high and enduring culture.

The ancestors of Hobby's friend, the Vicomte de Miramon-Lascaux, had fought in the Third Crusades; and the family had ever since considered it their duty to defend France against the Infidel.  They had marched to Jerusalem to rid the Holy Land of the Other; and in so doing were fulfilling the legacy of Roland and Charlemagne who held off the Muslin assaults at Roncesvalles.  His friend, Emmanuel, had been born too early to sense the irony of an Islam Ascendant in the early 21st Century; but not too early to understand that the time was never more right to defend and promote the principles and convictions of his ancestors.

“French art, dance, music, and ideas all come from the court tradition. Louis XIV was France.”

Louis XIV of France.jpg

The Sun King had raised art and culture to a new level. He allowed Classical French literature to flourish by promoting such writers as Molière, Racine and La Fontaine. He was a patron of the arts and commissioned French and Italian artists.

French fashion, cuisine, and mode de vie were all the products of the aristocracy.

Hobby was passionate about the legacy of the English-Americans of the new Republic. They were indeed slave traders, land speculators, and cagy investors; but, Hobby reminded me, were also the Founding Fathers.  Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton were privileged intellectuals who appreciated the English and Scottish Enlightenment and liberally borrowed from their intellectual premises. If it had not been for the intellectual elites of England, Scotland, and Europe,where would we be?

Hobby was used to the usual, predictable arguments of colonialism, entrepreneurial greed, and inherited privilege to which he countered (and clotured the discussion), “The proof is in the pudding. European and American aristocracies were the architects of Western culture.  We owe all to them.”

It is hard to isolate these aristocratic influences amidst the noise of multiculturalism.  Cato the Elder’s principles of education and right behavior have been criticized as antediluvian and reactionary.  Honor, courage, discipline, respect, and compassion are relative, culturally-laden terms which mean nothing in a pluralistic world. Not only must the advocates of Anglo-Saxon, Christian principles of morality and right behavior take a number and wait their turn; but are often dunned out of the debate, kicked out of the big tent, marginalized and sent out to pasture.

Hobby Hetherington’s parents never were casual. Place settings, silver, candles and 17th Century cruets were always part of dinner as were linen napkins, napkin rings, and crystal. “There is no such thing as airplane reading in my family”, Hobby said.  They made no distinction between high and low culture.  There was only culture – a social universe of high and uncompromised standards.

Anyone who had anything to do with the West End cringes at today’s democratic excesses.  “Even Martha’s Vineyard has golf courses”, lamented Hobby.  Despite years of vocal and legal opposition, the bastion of New England WASP culture had been penetrated.  New York (Jewish) interests had prevailed.  The Hargroves, Brittens, and Booths, seeing their grandchildren moved to Los Angeles and Barcelona, were willing to sell their waterfront properties to the highest bidder.  The Hetheringtons, who owned land in Gay Head, voted in opposition.  “No” to the interlopers who, for a nickel, were destroying the New England, aristocratic patrimony. “No” to commercial rapacity, greed, and bourgeois laxity.

It was a losing battle.  WASP redoubts like the Vineyard, Nantucket, Newburyport, and the Hamptons were being dismantled, sold at auction, and chucked into the common, steaming pot.

The democracy envisaged by the Founding Fathers was indeed elitist, Hobby said, derived as it was from English intellectual tradition and applied with an American sense of fairness and equality. Neither Jefferson nor Hamilton could possibly have envisioned the potpourri of eclectic ideas and notions that characterize American society today; and they would have been appalled at the fact that a moral center no longer exists. Everything is questioned, and nothing is taken for granted. Honesty is relative given socio-economic, racial, and ethnic variables.  Courage and honor are characterized by ‘respect’, turf, and bragging rights. Devotion, whether to God or country, has been discredited as nativist and exclusive.

“It is not too late”, said Hobby; but perhaps it is. Despite the fact that the principles of Cato the Elder have characterized every civilization in human history, they are dismissed as archaic and irrelevant. 

“I am not an intellectual prepper”, said Hobby, “and am not overly worried about the decline of American civilization and culture. Yet relativist multiculturalism still sticks in my craw. How is it American?"

Ivan Karamazov in The Grand Inquisitor challenges the returned Christ and says that men do not want mystery.  They want food and authority. Free will, freedom, and individual liberty are way overvalued.  Although, in Ivan’s opinion, the Catholic Church has overstepped the authority granted to it by Peter and Christ, it is still what people want.  “Tell me what to do”, they say, “and we will do it.”

The aristocracy has always functioned like the Catholic Church – an arbiter of social, artistic, and intellectual values.  People like the idea of freedom of choice, but when push comes to shove they want to be told.

Eventually a new American aristocracy will emerge out of the cultural mess of today. It will, like all others before it, be the be-all and end-all of art, fashion, cuisine, and popular culture.

It is wrong to criticize the One Percent as being out-of-touch and elitist.  No matter how the unwashed protest, they still love the neo-captains of industry and the new arbiters of culture who provide examples of good, righteous, and popular behavior.

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