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Thursday, August 07, 2008,7:45 PM
Condescension, or by Another Name, Snobbery

The American Version

The great thing about snobbery is that there is a snob pecking order. Since it is all about looking up and looking down at people, snobs are quick to decide who merits disdain and who deserves esteem. For instance, driving an expensive and ostentatious car is snobbery to some, plain bad taste to others. Private snobbery, in contrast, requires a sophisticated audience: there is no point in dropping the name of an eminent philosopher if no one has heard of him. Then, more subtle still, there is reverse snobbery, like doggedly ignoring fashion. But whether crass or disguised, Joseph Epstein argues in his new book, ''Snobbery: The American Version,'' just about everything we say or do to assert our identity can be gauged as snobbery.

Unsurprisingly, then, as part of his dissection of American snobbery, Mr. Epstein engages in an extended mea culpa of his own peccadillos. Now a lecturer at Northwestern University, he caught the snobbery bug more than four decades ago when, as a student at the University of Chicago, he learned that the only worthwhile careers were artist, scientist, statesman or teacher of any of these three. ''Henceforth the snobbish system under which I would operate would be artistic, intellectual, cultural,'' he writes. In time, though, he broadened out: today he confesses to owning a classy fountain pen and good clothes, to driving a Jaguar and to feeling pleased with himself when his son was admitted to Stanford.

Is this snobbery? Can exhibitionism, boastfulness, pride, political correctness, name dropping, rudeness and one-upmanship all be attributed to snobbery? ''The essence of snobbery is that you wish to impress other people,'' offered Virginia Woolf, herself no mean expert on the subject.

Mr. Epstein goes further. ''The essence of snobbery, I should say, is arranging to make yourself feel superior at the expense of other people.'' So all is well. By his own definition, Mr. Epstein is a harmless snob because ''in everyday actions I am not a snobbish person.'' He explains, ''It is only in my thoughts that my snobbishness lives so active a life.'' But can one be a snob if nobody notices, if nobody is offended? Perhaps Mr. Epstein should be acquitted, so he can get on with his story.

The real problem, in his view, is that snobbery has become enormously complex and time consuming. In the old days, by which Mr. Epstein means before the 1960's, snobbery was perpetuated by a class system, itself reinforced by association with the right neighborhood, school, college, club or profession. ''The minimal but unrelenting qualification was to be white, Anglo-Saxon in heritage and Protestant in religion,'' he notes. True, up to a point. If endowed with wealth, breeding and position, many Wasps probably did look down on the rest of America. But did that automatically make them snobs? Elsewhere Mr. Epstein suggests snobbery is a sign of weakness. One characteristic of a ruling class is its presumption of its right to rule.

In any event Mr. Epstein's point is that there was less snobbery in what was known as Society than there is in today's more open and egalitarian society. ''What the demise of Waspocracy did for snobbery was to unanchor it, setting it afloat if not aloft, to alight on objects other than those connected exclusively with social class,'' he writes. Thus, traditionally admired professions -- medicine, law, clergy, engineering -- have lost their cachet, while architects, chefs, artists, television anchors and above all actors enjoy celebrity.

Graduates from top colleges are now drawn to mass entertainment, Mr. Epstein observes with disapproval, ''even if it entails heartbreaking compromise, turning out meretricious work and sucking up to some clearly loathsome characters.'' (Voilà! A good example of intellectual snobbery.)

Still, a far larger field for snobbery has opened up in the world of taste. In the old days you were raised with good taste. Now taste can be bought in the form of clothes, furnishings, library, cuisine, wine cellar and the like, yet not everyone learns how to use it properly. ''For the snob, this fear of ridicule -- or if the snob has the social whip hand, the delight in inflicting ridicule -- is uppermost in questions of taste,'' Mr. Epstein warns. Getting taste right, though, brings the reward of status. ''Status is not in the possession of its holder but in that of the beholder,'' he explains. To win the accolade, you need a knack for following the taste du jour without seeming to try too hard. It is a perilous game, though, because taste is defined by others.

Here Mr. Epstein offers a bizarre theory. ''The reason so many Jews and homosexuals (chiefly, though far from exclusively, homosexual men) have been involved in the formation of taste, and hence in the changes and twists in the character of snobbery, is that Jews and homosexuals have always felt themselves the potential -- and often real -- victims of snobbery, and of course much worse than snobbery,'' Mr. Epstein claims. Whether or not this reasoning is valid, it is certainly true that many Jews and homosexuals are now at the center of the American taste industry. And in that sense, while they may still be targets of snobbery, they are now also well placed to hand it out.

A lingering problem with this book, however, is that Mr. Epstein has chosen to view all social intercourse through the prism of snobbery. Surely not everyone is enslaved to humiliating or being humiliated. Surely a snob is both entertaining and offensive precisely because he or she stands out in the crowd. Still, striking closer to his own academic and literary habitat, Mr. Epstein makes a good case that much American intellectual snobbery ''has its roots in the cultural inferiority that Americans have felt in comparison with their European counterparts.'' He then pronounces himself an Anglophile. ''Being well educated and openly distinguished has always seemed easier in England than in the United States, where either quality could be held against one, especially in public life,'' he writes.

Finally, having concluded that snobbery is an intrinsic part of the American way of life as well as of his own, Mr. Epstein feels a need to condemn it. He quotes Marcel Proust as writing that ''snobbery is a grave disease, but it is localized and so does not utterly corrupt the soul.'' Mr. Epstein cannot agree. He prefers to imagine a day when all injustice is eliminated, ''when fairness rules, and kindness and generosity, courage and honor are rightly revered.'' In other words, he concedes with regret, snobbery is here to stay.

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posted by R J Noriega
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