That certain snob appeal Essay: People who look down their noses at one thing or another should be honored for a healthy, life-confirming sense of individuality.


An anxious woman was wandering near my house looking for her cat.

"It's a Somali cat," she said. "Very rare. Long ears."

Never found the cat, but maybe I found something else: a new snobbery. Rare Somali cats.

Somalia? I've been there, but don't recall ever seeing one of those fine cats. But those were difficult times, and maybe all the cats were eaten. That could be why they're so rare.

Some people collect snobberies, make lists of them the way bird-watchers do with birds. Aldous Huxley, the late English writer, was one such. Huxley identified the 19th-century adolescent "Consumption Snobbery," the desire "to fade away in the flower of youth" in romantic emulation of the glum poet John Keats.

Death and disease snobberies have not faded, not in Baltimore at least. Richard Oloizia, of the fiction department at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, reports that one of the authors most popular with young girls who visit the library these days is Lurlene McDaniel. "She writes novels about teen-agers in which the main character almost always dies, or has a serious illness."

The English, a creative people who invented soccer and other popular games, also invented snobbery, which is also a game, though some people live or die by it. G.B. Shaw called snobbery the great strength of the English nation, but didn't explain why. How Irish.

The English are accomplished snobs. They know when to take up a snobbery and, more importantly, when to drop it. Americans aren't entirely competent snobs. This infers no moral superiority so much as slowness to perceive when too many people have gotten into the "in group." Moreover, some Americans still think golf separates them from the hoi polloi. Or cell phones.

There is no end to the snobberies. There are opera snobs (they complain about surtitles) and jazz snobs (they complain when the musician gets too close to the melody). There are radio snobs (NPR only) and television snobs (they never watch). There are even adoption snobs (is this the season for Chinese babies or Brazilian?).

Art snobbery endures. It's usually an expression of culture snobbery, but sometimes of possession snobbery, if the snob in question is rich enough to buy the stuff.

Wine snobbery came to these shores from the Old World really only within the past three decades or so. Murray Milner, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, who studies social status, regards it as an enduring snobbery: "People becoming obsessed with being a connoisseur as a way to signal their 'in-ness,' their sophistication. To be a wine snob you have to learn a whole set of norms about wines." And a new language.

Beer snobs try but don't attract the same hateful respect wine snobs do. They are more like beer nerds, though they do have an argot: "Sports a fine reddish/deep amber/honey color, off-white foam, average head retention; the nose is delightfully fruity and berry-like right from the start. ..."

People can be snobs about the oddest things. Ignorance, for instance. How many times have you heard educated people boast of their lack of knowledge of machines, especially computers? What else is that but ignorance snobbery?

Snobberies come and go. Two newer ones have to do with recycling and fly fishing. Both are derivatives of eco-snobbery. Recycling snobs are like anti-smoking zealots: They have a religious fervor. "That goes in the blue bin, fella! Not the white bin! Get it right!"

Torquemada probably recycled.

Certain yuppie fishermen in Washington State, I've read, will fish only for the declining wild steelhead trout. Other fish need not apply. Imagine, fishing snobs!

It gets worse, for within this limited group of anglers is a smaller clique who fish with unbarbed hooks. It doesn't matter to them that they may die before ever feeling the tug of a steelhead trout. This could be an ultra eco-snobbery. Or maybe even a glimpse of the rare stupidity snobbery.

None of this should be taken for disapproval of snobbery. Not at all.

Snobbery is evidence of social and economic vitality. Preoccupation with fashions in clothes, cars, mates, mannerisms, language or personal style may seem like lunatic obsessions, but they are not entirely negative. Money lavishly spent for the empty purpose of raising oneself above one's neighbors helps all: It costs money to keep up; it creates jobs.

Primitive societies are bereft of snobberies and unappreciative of their advantages. You have your taboos on one side and your traditions on the other, and there isn't much room for self-expression in between. For that's what snobbery is, an effort by conformists to express individuality.

Small towns don't like snobbery. They don't like individuality either. Small towns will tolerate maybe one drunk and one eccentric, preferably within the same person. (Actually there is not much distance between snobs and certain eccentrics. Men who favor suspenders, for instance, are fusty eccentrics. They are also snobs holding on to an archaic fashion convention against those who have defected to belts.)

In the end, Huxley got it right: "A society with plenty of snobs is like a dog with lots of fleas: It is not likely to become comatose."

Pub Date: 2/10/98

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