Posted: December 5, 2002
here are those who would bristle even at the suggestion that there is an "American version" of snobbery. We are a democratic, practical people, not given to affectation and display like those Europeans with their lords and castles. Nor do we, like the cold and formal Japanese, go in for a lot of ceremony over social status (all that bowing!). We believe that all men are created equal, and we judge a man by the content of his character, not the color of his kimono. Snobbery? Not in the land of Ben Franklin and Tom Sawyer.
Joseph Epstein, however, does not quite agree. And that by itself is enough to warrant reconsideration. The author of several collections of essays and two books (on ambition and divorce), Epstein is likely known to readers through the pages of Commentary, The Weekly Standard, and above all, the American Scholar, of which he was the distinguished editor for many years.
Epstein's snob is a pretty disgusting specimen. Simultaneously a toady to those above him and a bully to those below, the snob is a liar and fraud, constantly wracked by "uncertainty, uneasiness, and a worrisome self-consciousness about his true status." The snob, always on the move to suck up, brush off, or put down, can never be at peace.
For all its ugliness, however, snobbery can be something quite complicated, varied, and subtle. In addition to the usual snobberies of wealth, class, intellect, and "with-it-ry" (the snobbism of the hip or cool), Epstein shows that snobbery turns up in unexpected forms. Consider the snobbery of victimhood. A person can be a snob by ostentatiously showcasing his sensitivity—usually nothing more—toward the oppressed. But it is even more effective, and delightful, to vaunt one's own supposed oppression and mistreatment.
Then there is snobbery within snobbery; what he calls "infuriating snobbery,"
—infuriating that is, if aimed at you. This is the snobbery that one is sometimes subjected to by people who don't understand what matters to you. ...One wants to explain to the people looking down on you that they really must get it clear that your own standards are well out of the range of their pathetic snobberies.
Snobbery, according to Epstein, only began in earnest in the modern world, specifically with the advent of democracy. "Where social rank is clearly demarcated, as it is when nobility and a gentry are present, jockeying for position of the kind that is at the heart of snobbery tends to play a less than strong part in daily life," he writes. "Snobbery thrives where society is most open." The reader may recognize here echoes of Tocqueville, whom Epstein quotes: "democratic institutions most successfully develop sentiments of envy in the human heart." Thus today's public figures do not pride themselves on honor or reputation gained by rising above the crowd. Instead, "virtuecrats"—a species of political snob Epstein finds predominantly on the Left—preen themselves on their empathy with the ordinary man, whose presumed goodness they love to flatter. Epstein seems to endorse the putatively Tocquevillian observation that Americans, as the epitome of "democratic man," are especially prone to a snobbery of egalitariansim, and resent any claim to rising above an "equal" station. Yet, this is not Epstein's final word on the matter.
A central aspect of Epstein's thesis is that snobbery is not the recognition of true worth or excellence. "The essence of snobbery," he argues, "is arranging to make yourself feel superior at the expense of other people." So "it will not do to call everything that is extravagant, elitist, high-brow, or a minority taste snobbish. Something can have all the earmarks of snobbery and turn out to be—of all things!—absolutely worth it." Nor does a feeling or even display of individual superiority equal snobbery. Just as some goods are absolutely worth it, some people are—of all things!—better.
So where does this leave the "American version" of snobbery? This seems to be a difficult question. On the one hand, Epstein says that "Americans, for all their official allegiance to the notion of democracy, seem to long for an aristocracy." Nevertheless, "we hate what seem to us distinctions of rank not based on merit." Which is it? Or could this contradiction be merely a paradox? Americans may long for an aristocracy, but—in principle, and at our best—we seek the "natural aristocracy" made famous by Jefferson, the aristocracy of true ability and talent.
Tocqueville claimed that democracy lures us into the inordinate desire for total equality. But he also thought it intrinsic to human nature that "the particular pride of individuals will always seek to escape the common level." We want to rise above the herd, through old-fashioned virtue, hard work, and true grit, if possible. But as Epstein incisively and often hilariously reminds us, the glitter of tinsel aristocracy is all around. And at one time or another, perhaps, we all pick up a strand or two.
The trick, one suspects, is being able to admit it, which helps us keep our perspective. Consider this small, elegant, erudite man who has literally written the book on the subject. Is Joseph Epstein in any meaningful sense a snob? Surely not about money or possessions; nor the pleasures of the table ("I think it's almost immoral to spend more than $30 on a bottle of wine"). If anything, this accomplished man of letters should be a language snob. Yet in an article last year in The Wall Street Journal, he admitted:
Having voted for George W. Bush for president, I find myself in the slightly awkward position of having to defend what I gather might be four or more years of a continuous drizzle of our forty-third president's ill-formed sentences, persistent errors of verbal tact, and hilarious malaprops of a kind on which liberals can dine out.... [But] to be ungrammatical doesn't impugn a person's integrity; nor is a faulty metaphor a sign of bad character.... My advice to our forty-third president, then, is: let 'er rip, cowboy.
If Epstein is a snob, at least he is the American version.