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Jewish World Review Aug. 3, 1999 /21 Av, 5759

Sam Schulman

Sam Schulman
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Snobbery for dummies --
ORIGINALLY THE WORD "SNOB" meant someone who sought the company of those above one in rank. So only lower-bred people could be snobs. (Thackeray's masterpiece, "A Book of Snobs," detailed the doings of various lickspittles, flunkeys, and aristo-chasers in the 19th century.) But we've taken the term and turned it on its head. To be a snob means to despise those beneath one not admire those above. To be a snob proves that you've made it--not that you haven't. And we've democratized snobbery perfectly. In this country everyone can snub someone else. I'll show you how.

It used to be something of an achievement even to be a snob--you needed to know people with more wealth or higher rank who would be willing to consort with you. But now it's easier: simply hold an opinion. An opinion is intangible, odorless and tasteless, and it's free. It doesn't even require thinking, from which it must be distinguished. No one has done it better than A.E. Housman, who was as tough-minded a scholar as he was tender-hearted a poet, and who demolished the opinion of a rival Latinist by saying "three minutes' thought would have discovered his mistake. But thinking is irksome, and three minutes is a long time." Opinion-quick and easy--now offers the royal way to social superiority in our classless country, not birth, not achievement, not thinking-that's work.

But what opinion? It's no accident that since the 1920s, magazines like The New Yorker have offered to the great masses of Americans not only entertainment, but a way socially to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, whom they can regard truly as lesser breeds without the Law. The New Yorker, then and now, consists of nothing but opinion. And The New Yorker's masters, from E.B. White then to James Atlas now, masterly serve up opinion devoid of thought, but with complete assurance that the opinion is not only correct but Correct, Smart not only smart. Sharing this opinion--whatever it is--marks him who holds it as socially safe, upwardly mobile, not a slob, a nob.

The snobbery of opinion is the secret of liberalism's lock on the hearts and mind of our vast elite masses since the New Deal. To be a liberal offers a great thing to those who have nothing: the ability not merely to disagree with others, not merely to feel onself morally superior, but the rarest gift of all in our country: the ability socially to look down our noses at another class. For example, I am not a liberal, but I look it. And I encounter from liberals not arguments, not outrage, but a sense of wounded betrayal. It's as if I paid a gambling debt at my London club (and I don't have one!) with a bad cheque. I've let down the side.

The most correct, the most fashionable, and the most fascinatingly nauseating subcategory of this kind of snobbery is anti-Catholicism. In the New York Observer last fall you could have read a piece by Anne Roiphe that offers a masterpiece of the genre. Mrs. Roiphe can't be all bad because she has, as Norman Mailer said of Richard Nixon, produced such nice daughters. But in her piece this nice woman was as a Jew protesting the canonization of Edith Stein, the nun who was born a Jew. (Full confession: I admit that as a Jew I don't care whom the Catholic Church canonizes--I couldn't possibly regard it as any of my business.) Mrs. Roiphe agonizes about how the Pope has insufficient understanding of the Jews. Then she herself demonstrates how a person of one religion might better show understanding of another.

How? First she interferes in the private affairs of a different church from hers by asserting that to canonize a convert from Judiasm mocks the Jews--as if Edith Stein remained the property of Mrs. Roiphe against her will, though she converted as an adult without any coercion. Then she makes fun of Catholic beliefs: Has a prayer to Edith Stein apparently saved a little girl from death from an overdose? "This is pretty weak as miracles go." Then she gets good and mad, and prettily ridicules Catholic ritual: "Never mind relics and prayers and candles at the shrine."

What allows this breathtaking demonstration of prejudice is the comfort of class solidarity: Mrs. Roiphe and her readers feel socially so superior to Catholics that neither notice the hurtful descriptions she is so free with. If one has class, then the golden rule Mrs. Roiphe's faith depends on is suspended. Denied a class identity by having been born in this wonderful country, the social acceptability of being anti-Catholic permits Mrs.Roiphe to act like a reckless young nobleman of the ancien regime , running over the village children with his carriage-and-pair--and feeling good about it.

Sam Schulman Archives

JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.


©1999, Sam Schulman