To Be A Snob Or Not To Be

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"It takes one to Know One" is the title of the opening chapter of Joseph Epstein's engaging taxonomy of snobbery. The self-awareness is laudable but also necessary, for it is impossible to write a book about snobs without being one.

Epstein, one of America's best essayists, is a snob of the intellectual variety, which means he's a reverse snob. In other words, he disdains the trendy: "Sometimes all it takes for me to drop an enthusiasm is the knowledge that someone I think commonplace has picked it up." Candor always takes the sting out of snobbery.

In Snobbery (Houghton Mifflin; 274 pages), Epstein's subject is the modern American version of this age-old vice. It's counterintuitive, but snobbery is a weed that flourishes in the soil of democracy. In the Old World, where hierarchies were strict, there wasn't much point in looking down on people who accepted that they were below you. Democracy, H.L. Mencken wrote, "is always inventing class distinctions, despite its theoretical abhorrence of them."

In fact, most snobbery is local. We're amused by the excesses of rock-star taste on mtv's Cribs, but we get genuinely snippy about our neighbor's tacky lawn ornament. Snobbery, Epstein suggests, is all about asserting our superiority, and we do that mostly with those around us.

Although he is also an old-fashioned snob about taste, Epstein well knows that old-fashioned snobbery is dead. The Waspocracy, as he dubs it, is no longer the arbiter of much of anything — particularly when George W. Bush, a genuine Wasp aristocrat, portrays himself as a good ol' Texan with mud on his cowboy boots.

The true currency of snobbery today is celebrity, which is probably the greatest American art form. Proximity to the famous, not the wellborn, is the way we raise our own stock. While Epstein's definition of snobbery is conventional — the exaggerated respect for status — his critique of it is uniquely moral: "The snob's error," he says, "is to put good taste before a good heart." Epstein's distinction is that he writes with both.