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Snobbery flourishes at every level of society

August 6, 2002


To paraphrase Moby, we are all made of snobs. There's a bit of the snob in all of us, from the most status-conscious North Shore yuppie to the homeless man who thinks his cardboard box is much better than the cardboard box of the guy one grate over.

The guy who wears a T-shirt that says "Free Willy" with an arrow pointing to his crotch, who has a velvet painting of Elvis playing poker with dogs on the living room wall, who has had the same mullet haircut for 20 years--that guy will be quaffing a Meister Brau at a Billy Ray Cyrus tribute band show, and he'll say to his gum-cracking wife: "Look at the red cowboy boots on that guy. Get a clue, buddy!"

Or as a friend of mine put it: "Of course we're all snobs. I'm sure the $10 hookers look down their noses at the $5 hookers."

Some countries are built on snobbery. France is populated almost entirely by snobs, even though many of these French snobs smell bad and have nicotine-stained teeth. But there's no shortage of snobbery right here in the United States--or for that matter in Chicago, in your particular suburb, in your office and within your circle of friends and family.

Joseph Epstein has been getting quite a bit of attention this summer with his book Snobbery: The American Version, in which he examines the state of snobbery in the 21st century, and in the process cops to being a first-class snob himself. Early in the book, Epstein, an author and a lecturer at Northwestern University, gives examples of snobbery:

"It is sitting in your BMW 740i and feeling quietly, assuredly better than the poor vulgarian ... who pulls up next to you at the stoplight in his garish Cadillac. It is the calm pleasure with which you greet the news that the son of the woman you have just been introduced to is majoring in photojournalism at Arizona State University while your own daughter is studying art history at Harvard. It is the delight you feel when an associate at your law firm walks into your office wearing an ill-fitting Italian suit that costs three times your own better-fitting traditional clothes. In such comforts ... does the snob find paradise."

I know people like that, and I've got a funny little name for 'em--but it's not "snob." This word begins with an "A" and ends with an "e."

And it ain't Aristotle.

Epstein is at his most endearing and entertaining when he's noting his own obsession over his clothes, his education, his career achievements, his taste in music--and his even greater obsession with the habits and practices of his colleagues and peers. The man may be a 30-year veteran of upper academia, but he's never left high school.

Whereas status was once defined by bloodlines, Epstein notes that in modern society, it's not so much where you came from as what you do, what you wear and what you own. Much of today's snobbery is about things: the right car, the right home, the right coat, the right wine, the right cell phone, even the right breed of dog. The idea that someone would fret about whether their King Charles spaniel has gone out of fashion is beyond silly--but not an exaggeration of a certain type.

At one point Epstein waxes rhapsodic over a lighter--"a gold, pebbly grained Dunhill that sold for $45, when $45 represented close to a half a week's salary"--that he coveted with something approaching lust.

"I must have thought about that lighter for the better part of two weeks--thought more about it than I did about world events, my family, my work, even my brilliant future," he writes.

Eventually, Epstein bought the lighter and "looked down [his] nose at poor devils forced to use Zippos and other coarser instruments, not to speak of paper matches." But then, after about a year, he lost the lighter--and good thing, too, because if he still had it, I was going to drive to Evanston, find him and take the goddam thing away from him.

Much of Epstein's focus is on education, where elite status is a prime concern from the moment a child emerges from the womb (and much earlier than that, for many parents). Snobbery reigns among parents angling to get their wee ones into the best preschools; at high schools such as New Trier, where every academic and extracurricular activity is not an experience unto itself, but a gold star for the college application; and of course in the world of higher education, where Yale is better than Stanford and Stanford is better than Michigan and Michigan is better than Michigan State--and if you have to start at a community college, have you considered suicide as an option?

But not all snobs are so smug and obvious. Consider the stealth snob, who "conceals" his wealth and status by driving an old car and wearing a Timex watch and eschewing wine that costs more than $10 a bottle. In a way, this aggressively muted type is more patronizing than the nouveau snob with the Escalade and the Rolex and the bottle of Cristal.

And then there are the "reverse snobs," like me--and maybe like you. We take perhaps a bit too much pride when trumpeting our humble, working-class roots and talking about our disdain for twee types like Epstein who spend so much of their lives in an endless competition.

Thank God we're not like them, we say. Thank God we have more important concerns in our lives. And when we say it, what we're thinking is: Yeah, we're not like them. We're better.

And doesn't that make us snobs too?

-- Anonymous, August 06, 2002


I think we're above that sort of thing. sniff!

-- Anonymous, August 10, 2002

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