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Nobbery is one of those loaded concepts that’s hard to define but easy to spot. It lurks in the friend who won’t eat salads made with iceberg lettuce. It lives in the aunt who simply refuses to fly coach. It festers in the Gauloise-smoking coworker who insists on calling movies “films” (and, in fact, won’t see one unless it features subtitles). But snobbery isn’t reserved just for, well, snobs. In fact, there’s a little superciliousness in every American, no matter how democratic, egalitarian, or politically correct our society purports to be. At least that’s the theory offered by Joseph Epstein in his breezy, erudite new book, Snobbery: The American Version. Epstein, an English professor at Northwestern University and former editor of The American Scholar, is no stranger to the topic. In a 1999 collection of essays, he mused on subjects near and dear to a lot of haughty hearts: Anglophilia, name-dropping, and the horror of hearing words mispronounced. But those discussions only set the stage for his latest book, a blend of scholarly and anecdotal observations concerning “[the act of] arranging to make [oneself] feel superior at the expense of other people.” Epstein shows that, while contemporary American society becomes less stratified from decade to decade, old-fashioned, turn-up-the-nose elitism refuses to fade away; it just finds new outlets. Sniffing at Pinot Noir Early in the book, before Epstein hits full stride, he makes a key observation. Snobbery, the author argues, is born not from nascent smarts or acquired refinement, but from human frailty and insecurity. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in psychology to intuit that Epstein is probably right. (And what a relief if he is! Then we can feel sympathy, not spite, for the waiter who sniffs at our Pinot Noir selection.) Its American roots date back over decades. But prior to the late 1960s, he argues, divisions based on race, class, and lineage actually helped keep overt class arrogance at bay in this country. “Where social rank is clearly demarcated,” the author writes, “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 makes a counterintuitive but sensible point. It’s hard to imagine that an undergraduate George Herbert Walker Bush ever felt the need to put a Yale sticker on the back window of his Mercedes-Benz-or, Epstein might argue, actually drive a Mercedes at all. Lawyers: A Dreary Necessity But in the late 1960s, Epstein asserts, the so-called WASPocracy started cracking under the weight of multiculturalism and shifting notions of taste. Class inequities didn’t go away, of course, but the traditional signifiers, like jobs, lost their importance. Take Epstein on attorneys: “Lawyers were once thought erudite, honorable, trained for leadership. They are now thought, at best, a dreary necessity to negotiate an astonishingly intricate web of laws that, the suspicion is, these spiderish creatures have themselves erected to add to their profits.” Overly harsh? Perhaps. But it’s hard to deny his point: Mere membership in the “professional classes” no longer guarantees an exalted social position. Curing the Disease This sets up the central question of the second half of the book. If not jobs (or breeding, WASPishness, or family history), what can we Americans use to feel superior to one another? Epstein counts the ways, devoting a chapter to each of about a dozen methods we use “to elevate ourselves above those among who we live.” It’s both the strongest and weakest part of the book. His chapter on the irresistible silliness of fashion seems almost painfully on point, and Epstein’s years in academia gives him plenty of pointed ammunition for his discussion on “intellectual snobbery.” He skillfully unpacks the pedanticism of Susan Sontag and Robert Lowell, and seems perfectly at ease kicking around high-handed, patronizing quotes from the likes of V.S. Naipaul. But other chapters miss the mark. His meditation on clubs (think New York’s Century Club) feels fusty and out-of-touch, and his thoughts on the hierarchy of American universities will likely seem obvious to anyone who’s taken the SATs. So where does all this lead? Will we ever escape life in Snobby Nation? Epstein says that the “disease” of snobbery will be cured on the “day [that] kindness and generosity, courage and honor are all rightly revered.” He, for one, isn’t likely to start subscribing to the New York Post any time soon. Jones is a reporter at Corporate Counsel .

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