Slate Magazine recently posted a long-winded and at times insufferable meditation on snobbery by a prep who came of age in the ’80s.
The author’s resumé would certainly suggest the presence of snobbery:
Mark Oppenheimer writes about religion for the New York Times. He is the author of a memoir, Wisenheimer; is an editor of the New Haven Review; and on Feb. 13 debuts Paper Trails, his new public radio show about books, on WNPR.
In fact, he reminds me a bit of Tad Friend, another smart and educated writer full of snobberies and insecurities, also prone to the public confessional, whose book “Cheerful Money” I wrote about here.
After 5,000 words, Oppenheimer doesn’t reach much in the way of conclusions, save that snobbism may be a vice but he can’t help himself. Here’s a condensed version with highlights in pink and green.
The author’s sense of superiority, that would later become realized in his Northeastern establishment/media elite/PBS-NPR moral superiority resumé (bolstered even more by his religious nature, putting pretty much 99 percent of humanity beneath him), began at a precocious age:
By the time I graduated from New North, I was preening about more than my verbal ability. I had become, in my mind, an aristocrat, my superiority evident in my bloodlines, my parents’ education, my clothes, my pronunciation of words, my taste in reading, and even my haircut (I had a goofy bowl cut, which I deemed nobler than my classmates’ buzz cuts or proto-Kid ‘n Play creations). Even though I was happier than before, I was, like all 10- or 11-year-olds, still very much unbalanced, unsure of where to plant my feet in the world. So I looked all around, and steadied myself with fragile certainties that whatever I did, it made me better than those around me.
In the following passage, Oppenheimer contrasts himself with a bow-tied pal:
Snobbery is the most self-aggrandizing of dispositions, but it is not self-centered. Somebody who truly does not care what other people think—we might call her an eccentric—is not a snob, even if she bears traces of elitism. My friend George, for example, is famous for wearing bowties and blazers everywhere, even to casual brunches. He attended all the fanciest schools, was a fencer in college, and is a partner in a white-shoe Boston law firm. But he is so clearly more interested in self-expression than in what other people think of him that nobody would dare call him a snob. He’s not trying to prove anything by how he lives; he just cannot imagine living otherwise. A man who wears a bowtie to brunch on a Sunday morning is almost inviting derision, and it is a sign of his supreme self-confidence that he persists in doing so. The snob, by contrast, can never quite forget what other people think of him.
Despite his innately patrician disposition, Oppenheimer is easily seduced by glossy magazine ads:
I fixed on the New York Times Magazine, in particular the lush advertising spreads that Ralph Lauren seemed to purchase nearly every week, in the expensive space before the table of contents. They were veritable guidebooks to a leisured, monied, Gentile fantasy world, where the country squires never went bald, only silver; where their wives were nowhere to be seen; where their daughters were honey-blond, freckled, and happy to walk the Irish setter; and where their sons, home from college, never looked better than with hair tousled, clothes rumpled, and leather satchels loosely slung. I fetishized these lovely, landed people.
Though his dad was a Yalie and he attended a private school, Oppenheimer learns about preppy style from advertisements, catalogs and retailers:
From those advertisements, I learned the preppy style. I began to see it all around me. I saw it on certain pages of the L.L. Bean catalog, which we received every month or so, and I saw it in the window of the Brooks Brothers store at Westfarms Mall in Connecticut, the mall where my mother took me shopping when she needed a skirt for a special occasion, when the shops at Enfield and Eastfield malls just would not do.
He soon notices that not everyone dresses like this:
On my street and those parallel streets to the south, one might spot a Polo shirt, or a pair of Blucher moccasins. But on all the streets to the north, beginning with Olmsted, just around the block, the uniform ran to acid-washed jeans, Flashdance-inspired leggings, hair-sprayed big-hair, and Reebok aerobics shoes for the girls, Nike basketball high-tops for the boys.
On my street, people dressed in the Ralph Lauren spirit, even if they could not afford his clothes exactly; on Olmsted, nobody dressed that way. I saw the correlation; it was quite apparent; it was undeniable. There was a uniform of civility and decency, and the people who wore it were likelier to be nice to me, and to one another. They were better.
The girl he likes is fond of wearing Benetton and Esprit, which, upon further reflection, makes her not so desirable after all:
And yet I perceived that there was something subtly déclassé about Benetton and Esprit, precisely because they were so of the moment. The Ralph Lauren ads, by contrast, announced the clothes’ archaism; even as they defined a kind of trendiness, they practiced a denial about that trendiness. Like all good totems of snobbery, they were for a defiant minority, definitely not for the majority.
We’re all impressionable when we’re young, and the author soon begins taking cues from the eighties’ most iconic (and only) young Republican television character:
Inspired by Alex P. Keaton, the preppy conservative teenager on the television show Family Ties (another nerd who found dignity in snobbery), I one day brought a briefcase to school, an old clunker my father had abandoned in our basement. “It’s for my important papers,” I told Mrs. Britt, our school-bus driver. But the stares I got in the hallways were too much, and I abandoned that project immediately—one more bit of evidence that I was not a true eccentric. My sense of superiority was too close to its roots of inferiority; I could not choose to stick out on purpose. Where difference was unavoidable—I could never have pulled off Air Jordans and acid-washed jeans—I made a virtue of my difference. But I soon was forced to admit that I couldn’t make a briefcase cool.
Inevitably, the poisonous tome is discovered. I mean, of course, “The Official Preppy Handbook”:
I found this 1980 book around 1989, I think the summer after my first year at Loomis, a reasonably well-regarded prep school in northern Connecticut, one that now might be described as producing good food writers: Corby Kummer of the Atlantic magazine and Frank Bruni, past restaurant critic for the New York Times, are both alumni. In my first year at Loomis, I had just begun to make sense of the welter of different fashions, codes, and shibboleths that constitute boarding-school style (it did not help that I was a day student, so definitely second-class). For example, I had figured out that there was something classy about leaving old lift tickets from ski slopes dangling from the tab of one’s parka zipper. I had quickly mastered that a certain amount of fraying of the cuffs connoted elegance. There was a premium on the appearance of age: nothing too shiny. And there was something special, I gathered, about wearing clothes bearing the names of prep schools other than one’s own: It suggested that your friends, whose shirts you gathered off the floor of one Maine cabin or another, also attended prep schools.
Later, that other poisonous tome is discovered:
At about the same age, my friend Derek’s father, a minister with a mischievous sense of humor who himself liked to observe, and indulge in, various benign snobberies, took me and Derek into a shopping-mall Waldenbooks and bought for me a copy of Paul Fussell’s Class, a crueler, funnier, and more intellectually penetrating improvement on The Official Preppy Handbook.
As an adult Oppenheimer eventually found his soulmate, someone to share all of life’s pleasures with, such as visiting the homes of people whose TV sets are too large or prominently placed (see Fussell, page 90), thereby allowing Oppenheimer and his wife to experience the simultaneous frisson of a moral superiority head rush, as well as a sense of romantic destiny:
I never feel more married to my wife than when we enter another couple’s house for the first time and, on seeing that the television is a bit too large, or too prominently placed in the front room, look at one another and—well, I was going to say “arch out eyebrows,” but of course we do not even need to do that. The mere look, the meeting of the eyes, does it all.
In the end, snobbism is a kind of Original Sin we are born to. Oppenheimer closes his essay with the following:
God—the universe—the perfect good—whatever you want to call the arbiter of moral truth—does not care whether my floors are parquet or covered by wall-to-wall carpeting. That I do care is a fact about me, best confronted and managed. It is not to be exalted, but it cannot be honestly denied.
Pray for his soul. Pray for all of ours, for that matter. We all have snobberies — some justified, some to bolster our own fragile egos — when it comes to the things we care about.
I, for example, have a very simple one: There’s the five percent of the population knowledgeable about classical music, and then there’s everybody else. — CC
This post was written while listening to Jean-Baptiste Lully’s “Ballet Music for the Sun King.”