SNOBBERY: THE AMERICAN VERSION
by Joseph Epstein (Houghton-Mifflin, $25)
Vowing to clear the air of all our stuffy, down-the-nose, anti-demotic little arrogances, essayist Joseph Epstein has taken aim at the long and lingering tradition of snobbery in American society. It's a nice gesture but a bit disingenuous: The only thing Epstein actually clears in Snobbery is his throat—right before laying a big, nasty oyster across the face of popular culture.
Snobbery advertises itself as a dose of strong medicine for what ails the elitist in us all. An overdose is more like it. What really rankles is that Epstein, in a book 150 pages too long, refuses to come clean about what he's up to. The sheep in him might bleat like Christopher Lasch1, but the wolf bites just like Alan Bloom2.
Epstein—author of Narcissus Leave the Pool, former editor of The American Scholar, and a regular contributor to The New Yorker and Harper's—breaks the gates jauntily enough, devoting the first half of his polemic to a sort of philosophical survey of contemporary American snobbery. Here, in the realm of abstract categories, Epstein's prose is nimble and quick-witted, entertaining; he dutifully sniffs out our impulse to snootiness in such essentially malodorous notions as social rank and intellectual cachet, by which a desire to distinguish one's self from the lumpen herd leads to a covetous and cruel relation to so-called good taste. It's all, really, just a matter of assertion, Epstein says. Ever made fun of Burien? Mullets? Monster truck pulls? Snob!
Epstein argues that democracy, that great buster-up of aristocratic bullshit, might in fact prove more felicitous to snobbery than other, more class- entrenched social arrangements. He writes that "our social fluidity . . . gives much room to exercise condescension, haughtiness, affectation, false deference, and other egregious behavior so congenial to the snob." Of course, such social mobility by its very nature creates massive uncertainty, such that the snob, ever looking for a leg up, continually operates from a position of weakness and envy. Think here of the "upward-looking" snobs played by comedian David Spade3 and how every stinging barb seems motivated by a kind of Napoleonic anxiety. Think of the hyphen connecting passive and aggressive.
So far, so good. Had Epstein stopped with part one of his book, he'd have a nice little curiosity, something a little short on humor but nonetheless worthy of a stint on the toilet's water tank. Judging, however, from the latter half of Snobbery, the author had some sneaky ideas about bigger fish and how to fry them.
Behind the pretense of di-agnosing particular instances of snobbery in American society, Epstein proceeds to cut loose on a handful of very specific and very telling targets: higher education, political "victimhood," and so-called "virtucrats" (i.e., soft-soap liberals) being the most notorious among them.
Such swipes are fine, but they belong in a different book. As it stands, Epstein gets completely derailed by a sort of conservative, septuagenarian4 bitterness, and he himself, quite unironically, falls victim to the worst kind of snobbery: that inspired by resentment and frustration.
One doozy of an example will do. Epstein uses the fatwa taken out on author Salman Rushdie by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini5 as an opportunity to excoriate those who seek political prestige by identifying with the culture of victimhood. "A Third Worlder, an artist, and now a true potential victim, Rushdie—from many accounts a difficult and unpleasant man—became a grand object of snobbery." (It's unclear how being merely unpleasant mitigates the outrage of having a price put on one's head, but whatever.) The problem with this statement is that Epstein isn't talking about snobbery anymore; he's tripping into the gray of the culture wars, and it's obvious he's a partisan of those who believe liberal squishiness, multiculturalism, and p.c. politics have destroyed high culture. Other victims of Epstein's wrath include Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, and The New York Review of Books6. And he really tips his hand when he names Tom Wolfe as an intellectual compatriot7.
"I would like to spend the rest of my days without anger or bad feeling and with a fine social indifference," Epstein blithely concludes, apparently oblivious to the emetic8 he has just foisted off in the name of cultural rehabilitation. Either he's dishonest about his aims or his tenured gall9 got the better of him with this one. I suspect the former, but then, I'm just a snob. My suggestion to Epstein would be to retitle the paperback release The Closing of the American Mind, Part II, and have done with it.
As it stands, the thing's a con job, a flimflam by an author whose understanding is often unequal to his ambition. A better book on the subject would best be written by a total snob or a total saint—just not someone caught unattractively betwixt the two states of being.
1Lasch was a left-leaning social critic whose trenchant analyses of America's "malaise" focused on the toll of consumer capitalism. His famous book is The Culture of Narcissism.
2Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind, in which he argued that the only important books are those written by traditionally respected, dead white guys.
3Spade became famous for playing petty snobs on Saturday Night Live.
4A big word that refers to anybody between ages 70 and 80.
5Rushdie's The Satanic Verses was deemed so insulting to the Islamic faith that the Iranian spiritual leader condemned Rushdie to death in 1989.
6Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, and The New York Review of Books are all aging figures of lefty intellectualism.
7Tom Wolfe is a diminutive snob who wears a white suit and whose novels include Bonfire of the Vanities.
8An agent that causes vomiting.
9"Tenured gall" is the malady that afflicts jaded academics.