Monday, February 20, 2012

If this makes me a snob…

The nobly snobby Meandering Mouse enjoying quality cappuccino

Lately, the media has been making a giant fuss over Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray wisely added the “white” qualifier because he co-authored a book called The Bell Curve, which insinuated that darker-hued skin correlated with lower IQ.

In a nutshell, Coming Apart says that poor and working-class whites are mired in moral and social decay (which Murray interprets as meaning out-of-wedlock births and low male employment). It is the duty of those in the upper classes to proselyte the benefits of marriage, education, and work to those in the lower classes and not be so fashionably nonjudgmental.

The book includes a quiz that purportedly reveals if you’re in the upper-class “bubble.” I had a score of 37, which makes me either “a first-generation upper-middle-class person with middle-class parents” or “a second- generation (or more) upper-middle-class person who has made a point of getting out a lot.”

Technically, I am not (yet) an upper-middle-class person. But it appears I think like one. I read the New York Times, listen to NPR, choose literary fiction for my reading list, shun country music, think that car racing isn’t a sport (if it was, most of us “jog” weekdays to and from work), think that Sundays are for brunch, not church, watch movies with subtitles, avoid “family” restaurants, prefer wine to beer, and never, ever hoot.

Virginia Postrel, a Bloomberg News columnist, recently wrote a feature about Coming Apart which showed that America was never as culturally cohesive as Murray claims:

The truth is that during Murray's golden age, a lot of smart people were constantly irritated and angered by what they saw as America's lowest-common-denominator bad taste."A vast wasteland," Newton Minow, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, called television.

Some critics wanted to impose their idea of better taste on everyone. Others simply wanted to pursue excellence as they saw fit. Either way, mass culture offended people with refined or idiosyncratic preferences. They may not have lived next to each other or constituted an identifiable social class, but these people definitely felt different from, and in most cases superior to, their fellow Americans.

Hence all those scathing reviews of "The Beverly Hillbillies" – and all those midcentury books about the horrors of mass culture, consumerism and other-directed conformism. These books were written by and for a self-selected elite. A blockbuster like Vance Packard's anti-advertising tome "The Hidden Persuaders" might sell a million copies, but even that represented barely half a percent of the population.

With five decades' distance it's clear that books as seemingly different as "The Organization Man," "The Lonely Crowd," "The Feminine Mystique" and "Atlas Shrugged" were really all about the same thing: the alienation and discomfort of gifted, independent-minded individuals in a society in which the "normal" ruled. The "cognitive elite" felt left out of or oppressed by the country's culture and, as a result, scorned it.

That’s me. I have refined and idiosyncratic preferences, and I feel alienation and discomfort when something trashy gets too close. Yes, I used the word “trashy.”

All cultural artifacts have a right to exist in a democratic marketplace – but these artifacts will not be equal in quality. There is a significant difference between, say, PBS’s Frontline and Jersey Shore. Between the Sun magazine and the Star tabloid. Between a literary author who yields, at most, one new work a year and a romance writer who pops off seven books annually.

If knowing what quality is – and choosing it over trash – makes me a snob, well, I’m a snob. And a proud one who knows that life is better this way.

This is the definition of noble snobbery. Noble snobs do not put other people down for doing the “wrong” things, but insist on quality experiences for themselves.

Example: suppose I went to a grocery store to buy the needed ingredients for a small gathering for three of my friends and myself. After buying some fruits, cheese, and chocolate, I have only nine dollars (not including tax) left to buy wine. What do I choose? This 4-liter jug of Carlo Rossi chablis…

…or this 750 ml bottle of Estancia chardonnay?

I would pick the Estancia, even though that would yield only one glass each for my three guests and myself. It is far better to drink one glass of good wine than two of bad.

It is no sin to choose the best of everything that you can afford. If you have a radio, it doesn’t cost more to turn on All Things Considered than John and Ken. At the library, there is not an extra fee to check out the classic instead of the potboiler. Quality experience is not just for the rich – it is available for everyone who cares enough to find out exactly what that means.

So go out and look for quality today, my nobly snobby friends.


  1. Wow, this was one of your best thought-provoking! For one thing, it demonstrates how income level is not necessarily an indication of taste or sensibilities. Sometimes people prefer "the better things in life" due not to cultural demographic but more to education and experience. (I dare say that was a much rarer thing 100 years ago. The breakdown of the class system in the west, particularly the U.S., had this as a happy result.)

    Anyway, I am a noble snob as well...probably because I was raised to appreciate culture, literature, etc. while also being taught about fairness, empathy, and diversity. Just another thing we have in common!

    It important too to keep your ideas here in mind when examining socio-economic diversity in America today. We shouldn't point fingers at "the one percent" for their taste or lifestyle. These are not elements of character. It's not whether you drive a Mercedes, but rather whether you are the sort who prefers to drive a fleet of Mercedeses to paying your employees a decent wage or donating to charity.

    Thanks for the excellent post, fellow noble snob!

  2. Thank you. Excellent posts are what I'm here for :)