American Snobbery

As a Brit from a working-class family, raised in a northern working-class town, who attended (at taxpayer expense) a fine quasi-private school and then went to Oxford, I'm interested in snobbery. It's a trait I despise. I've seen plenty of it in my time, though there's far less in Britain than there used to be.

As a young man I aspired to live and work in the US because I wanted to be part of a thriving classless society. Of course that was naive. America is not a classless society. I'm not talking about the 1% and the 99%, and I'm not talking about mainstream America and the underclass (shocking though that gulf is). I'm talking about elite disdain for a much larger segment of the country. It's a cultural thing: American snobbery.

At an event I attended today I listened to an expert on retailing speculate that the key to Target's success in the US was that it wasn't Wal-Mart. Target's a big-box discounter for people too pleased with themselves to go shopping at a big-box discounter. The idea struck me as absurd--and then, once I thought about it, as plausible. Many of my American friends have an irrationally intense loathing of Wal-Mart, as though delivering bargains to the masses isn't quite proper. I mean, have you seen the people who shop at Wal-Mart?

The retailing expert said that Target's appeal in Canada, "which really is a classless society", needed to be modified. I can vouch for the fact that in Britain shopping at Tesco or Asda, Wal-Mart's British equivalent (and subsidiary), isn't looked down on. Everybody does it.

In Britain, in fact, elite culture is being absorbed and marginalized by the demotic. These days, TV talking-heads are required to have regional accents. Talking posh is a disqualification. Oiks (a term that has fallen out of use: the US equivalent is rednecks, a term that hasn't fallen out of use) no longer try to pass for quality. It's the other way round.

In America elite and demotic cultures aren't merging, they are moving farther apart. The elite is ever more confident of its cultural superiority, and the demos, being American, refuses to be condescended to. I don't think it's economic pressure that causes much of the country to cling bitterly to guns and their religion, as Obama put it so memorably. It's a quintessentially American refusal to be looked down on.

I was still mulling the Target/Wal-Mart thing when I read this review by Frank Furedi of Charles Murray's "Coming Apart" (thanks for the link, RealClearBooks). Furedi crystallizes a thought that half-formed in my head when I read that book. Murray complains that the American elite has abdicated its responsibility to lead: It won't preach what it practices. I thought that was ridiculous: If only the elite would start preaching to Fishtown, cultural decline outside Georgetown and Greenwich would be arrested? Please. But Furedi makes the much more interesting point that the American elite does in fact preach what it practices--though not in a good way.

[I]s it really the case that [the American upper class] does not preach what it practices? [Murray] notes that, at the very least, this ruling class preaches the doctrine of non-judgmentalism. He also observes that, from time to time, the new upper class feels comfortable with using derogatory labels, particularly towards fundamentalist Christians and rural working-class whites. However, the preaching of this privileged elite is not confined to the denunciation of the backwoods redneck and the gun-loving members of the National Rifle Association. In fact, when it comes to preaching, Murray's SuperZips are in a class of their own. They may use a self-conscious rhetoric of non-judgmentalism - words like 'inappropriate' and 'challenging', or phrases such as 'people in need of support' and 'people with issues' - but they have no inhibitions about instructing others about what food they should eat, how they should bring up their children, or what forms of behaviour are healthy. Outwardly they eschew the language of morality. Instead of sermons, they use the language of 'raising awareness'.

Indeed, it could be argued that the unprecedented level of socioeconomic segregation in America is actively promoted by an elite that is continually attempting to create and inflate behavioural and cultural distinctions between itself and the rest of society. What is important about its lifestyle is not so much the values that it invokes, but that it is different in every detail from those obese, junk-food eating, gas-guzzling, gun-obsessed, fundamentalist Joe Sixpacks. The elite project of 'raising awareness' serves as a form of self-flattery, through which the upper classes can highlight their moral superiority to the rest of society.

American snobbery.