The Unholy Pleasure
My life-long recovery from snobbery.
After all, as Fussell writes elsewhere in his book, "If you find an American who feels entirely class secure, stuff and exhibit him. He's a rare specimen." So even though I know that Fussell does not quite mean what he writes, that he is laughing at all of us, I also know that whenever I see someone with a Mini Cooper convertible—an expensive car I truly covet—I tame the beast of envy by reminding myself that, according to Fussell, my 1999 Honda actually has more snob appeal.
The problem, of course, is that after a while the snobbery game, like any game played consistently over many years, becomes quite serious. Just as there are no true "recreational" golfers, there is after a while no such thing as a recreational snob. The judgmentalism moves to the fore, and the snob really begins to see people as mere butterflies, objects for classification. Fussell is particularly insidious, because he has thought of everything; his class-based outlook is a satisfyingly complete system, like Marxism, or Christianity. Once you have read Class it becomes hard not to evaluate a friend's living room according to Fussell's simple, handy point system: "Hardwood floor: Add 4 ... Vinyl floor: Subtract 6 ... Threadbare rug or carpet: Add 8 (each) ... Ceiling ten feet high, or higher: Add 6 ... Any work of art depicting cowboys: Subtract 3...." When my wife bought a swing set for our daughters to use in our backyard, I found myself asking what Paul Fussell would have to say about it.
Looking back, I suspect that this tendency was particularly poisonous to my dating life. How many eligible women, I wonder, did I dismiss with prejudice because they had school stickers in the back windows of their car? (Fussell: "You can drive all over Europe without once seeing a rear-window sticker reading christ church or université de paris.") Or because they mourned a relative who had recently "passed away"? (Only middles say "passed away"—or, Fussell would add if he were writing today, the barbarism "passed," made popular by the TV "psychic" John Edward; the upper says "died," the prole, "taken to Jesus.") One time a woman broke my class-o-meter on our first date by saying "rather" with a broad "a," as "rahh-ther": It first struck me as a bit of middlebrow pretension; then I remembered that a true Boston Brahmin I once knew, boarding-school- and Yale-educated, had said the word that way; but then I remembered that she always struck me as pretentious herself, surprisingly considering how class-secure she should have felt; and before I could figure it all out I had lost enthusiasm for the dinner, and the company.
Yes, because snobbery is ultimately a dysfunction, and if my daughters were to lose potential close friendships, and someday lovers or partners, because of the trivia they imbibed, via their father, from The Official Preppy Handbook and Class, then I would have a lot to answer for. And once you learn snobbery, it is very hard to unlearn. They would be wrecked for life, like me.
Also, of course, snobbery is immoral. It is unkind, and frequently vicious, and built upon lies about what other people are really like.
And yet I am not convinced that I can give up snobbery so quickly. Because as much as it could harm my daughters, it could also make them Oppenheimers. For after all, snobbery is one of the great midwives of human closeness. Almost nothing I can think of unites two people better than shared snobberies. 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.
When she asks me to describe a town that I have seen on my travels, and I can use the shorthand of, "Well, you know—a lot of above-ground swimming pools," I am grateful that we are united in our dim view of above-ground swimming pools. Call this a shared aesthetic, call it a shared sensibility, but please do not lie: It is also a shared snobbery. And one reason that we feel so much that we belong together is that while we share much more, we share at least that much.
I cannot bring myself to want my daughters cut off from that aspect of Oppenheimerness. I sometimes ask myself if there are those who truly think that all people are equal, who have no problem not saying anything at all if they can't say anything nice. I think I have met people like that; from what I can tell, there seem to be some in the Midwest. They go through life not judging, not condescending. I suppose they are close to God. They certainly have an easier time making friends. But I think that what they call friendship is what I would call mere fellowship.
I cannot imagine closeness without some sort of secret handshake. I may be one of those people P.N. Furbank had in mind when he wrote that "if one person speaks to another about 'class' he or she is ipso facto creating a tacit understanding with the other." I do wonder if I can ever change; I cannot decide if I even want to. I think the best I can hope for is to see my snobbery as a set of neutral, amoral preferences, most of them arbitrarily chosen. The art critic Dave Hickey has written that good taste is just the residue of someone else's privilege, and I have to admit that's right. 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.
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.