November 1, 2002
7:59 AM   Subscribe

Time was, American society had at least a loose pecking order, with the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, et al, setting standards for snobbery and WASP-y elitism. Now, says David Brooks, “we’ve democratized elitism in this country,” with everyone finding their own niche in which to be a snob. [more inside…]
posted by arco (19 comments total)
The article brings to mind Joseph Epstein’s “Snobbery: the American Version,” which “[describes] the state of snobbery in this country from the decline of the WASP meritocracy to the present day.” (Note: I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t comment on it directly, but the reviews make it sound intriguing, though there may be a few too many “flabby, Andy Rooney-like observations” [quote from].)

We can all think of instances of snobbery vis-a-vis music, books (Jonathan Franzen, anyone?), and the Internet (the Slashdot circle-jerk on the Blogger hack comes to mind as a recent example). Brooks’ take on the issue may not be groundbreaking, but his summary of the state of American micro-elitism is on-target: “You can construct your own multimedia community, in which every magazine you read, every cable show you watch, every radio station you listen to, reaffirms your values and reinforces the sense of your own rightness. It is possible, maybe even inevitable, that you will slide into a solipsism that allows you precious little contact with people totally unlike yourself. But in your enclosed sphere you will feel very important.”
posted by arco at 8:01 AM on November 1, 2002 [1 favorite]

everyone finding their own niche in which to be a snob

Such as explaining how society 'really works'?
posted by Dark Messiah at 8:02 AM on November 1, 2002

I guess Brooks' microcosm is why we need places like this to tell us just how stupid we are.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:09 AM on November 1, 2002

The article might as well have been "why the successful people of this world suck". The byline should read "yeah, mine's bigger than yours".
posted by Dark Messiah at 8:18 AM on November 1, 2002

something of a salad connoisseur

This made me laugh like nothing else....."This arugula would be better served by the imported Greek feta rather then that domestic crap!"
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:21 AM on November 1, 2002

I only got a few paragraphs into the main link when I realized I am way too good to be reading that tripe.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:29 AM on November 1, 2002

Somewhere there are those that see a New Gilded Age.
posted by four panels at 8:51 AM on November 1, 2002

Brooks' problem, and it's the same in "Bobos in Paradise," is that for him "we" and "Americans" mean middle-class whites and extremely assimilated minorities. It's akin to people who talk generalizations about New York City and Manhattan but really mean certain areas below 100th Street. There's a big world out there, but Brooks is blind to it. For him, the country has populized elitism because Jews and blacks can now get into Ivy League schools.
posted by risenc at 8:56 AM on November 1, 2002

I enjoy David Brooks. His schtick is pretty good. He has basically taken the successful tropes of the sitcom and applied them to cultural criticism. He's very good at setting up, not so much people or characters, but Types by dressing up a vague outline of a person in details on either side of a stereotypical divide between two kinds of consumer behavior and the accompanying attitudes toward consumerism. At the same time he dresses down consumerism by pointing to superficial, or self-centered motivations behind consumptive patterns.

I think know what I just said. Anyway, I think it's funny. Not deep, not particularly enlightening, but funny.
posted by putzface_dickman at 9:09 AM on November 1, 2002

yeah, it's kind of like a rehash of "communities of interest" :D

We are a nation in which almost everybody is above average.

this was also being discussed on this post by bradford delong, but i think the relevant point is that this kind of misperception (self-delusion :) can lead to winner-take-all markets. like the 1995 book, the winner-take-all society, describes a survey where 2/3 of respondents or something (more than half!) described themselves as having above average intelligence. so in certain endeavours involving groups of individuals required to make 'intelligent' choices there occurs a sort of unproductive competition, the results of which encourage "economic waste, growing income inequality, and an impoverished cultural life."

what brooks seems to be describing (complaining about :) is the marriage of communities of interest with winner-take-all competition, that this kind of balkanization is somehow unhealthy for civic life in america or something, which i find kind of unpersuasive. like i think robert"bowling alone"putnam would argue otherwise, that these types of communities are the lifeblood of american civic integration!

and if you formulate brooks' argument as a winner-take-all problem of microcommunities it becomes nonsensical--network effects in limited attention economies?--or obversely, that microcommunities are themselves delusional! who's to say, some of them might be! but bemoaning the loss of engagement with the 'larger community' isn't very convincing--altho it is perhaps to a national greatness conservative :D
posted by kliuless at 9:32 AM on November 1, 2002

I am totally perplexed, though intrigued, by what you just wrote kliuless. :)

I like The Atlantic, and Bobos in Paradise is okay, but David Brooks' whole point-of-view always seems kind of inconsequential to me. As a Princeton student I was a victim of last year's "The Organization Kid," an article which seemed to suggest, by the same odd inverted tactics Brooks uses here, that being hard-working was bad not only for individuals, but for capital-A America as well. A lot of the article seemed to boil down to a sentiment along the lines of, "When I was in college in the '70s, people just, you know, took it easy"; Brooks did a great job of indicting a whole generation of achieving students for not marching in the street for, as he put it, "some cause." He is not a very deep thinker.

It's true that people today are 'niche-snobs': but so what? How does that compare to the socially Darwinist snobbery of the elite in the 1980s? To the bland, conformist, Beatles-esque 'protest' snogging-snobbery of te 1970s? To the patriarchal, nationalist snobbery of the 1960s? The nostalgia in this article is completely nonsensical, as is the argument. Being a punk-rock or skateboarding snob -- some would say 'fan' or 'enthusiast' -- doesn't mean being disengaged. It just means not that people are not the same 'type,' something about which Brooks seems to feel alternately plesaed or alarmed, depending on the article he's writing.

America is balkanized because we are not uniform in our snobbery? This is why cultural criticism gets a bad name -- this article belongs in The New Criterion, not The Atlantic.
posted by josh at 11:20 AM on November 1, 2002

Is this not simply another aspect of our society's obsession with ultra-specialization?
posted by rushmc at 11:35 AM on November 1, 2002

Is this really new though? I recall Descartes saying somewhere that common sense was the only thing ever equally distributed in the world since most people thought they had more than average.
posted by quercus at 11:52 AM on November 1, 2002

My impression of this article:

"Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. The end."

David Brooks, an Atlantic correspondent, is also a contributing editor of Newsweek, a senior editor of The Weekly Standard, and a political analyst for The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. His most recent book is Bobos in Paradise (2000).

posted by Hildago at 12:27 PM on November 1, 2002

I just want everyone to know that I'm a Unix snob. I'm a FreeBSD user and I look down my nose at people who run Linux servers. And I despise people who run Windows "servers" *.

*(mathowie and this site wholy exempted, of course.)
posted by Loudmax at 1:05 PM on November 1, 2002

josh: just trying out my rorschach-like sokal-bogdanov h04xr 5killz on the mefi community! ... on reread that didn't make any sense to me either :D

uh lessee, i guess all i'm saying is that brooks seems to think people mis-identify themselves as self-worthy as part of some particular groups and this is somehow damaging to the greater community, whatever that is because it enables "moral mediocrity," and i disagree with that. who's to say with what group or what activity one derives one's self-worth? j/k :D

it also presupposes people are incapable of dialog. maybe we should rename universities "diversities" then, keke :D it's like he's saying "empathize with other people!" "think globally, act locally" he admonishes. okay! *blink, blink*

the winner-take-all part was just to point out that in group decision making damaging outcomes DO occur as a result of people's skewed views of themselves within the population. um, so like if only we were all so self-collectively-aware :D

BUT, so called communities of interest, which brooks seems to be railing against--that their collective perception of themselves and comportment within larger society is somehow unamerican or something--are like almost precisely the antidote to winner-take-all societies!
posted by kliuless at 1:46 PM on November 1, 2002

Brooks is confusing "specialization of opinion" with power and influence, the latter being the qualities that actually determine who is, and who isn't, an member of the "elite" in the United States. Just because middle-class Americans can all now find some social or intellectual niche in which they can fool themselves into feeling important, doesn't mean that there has been any real shift in social dynamics. If anything, the wealthy and powerful, who have always called the shots to one extent or another, have more influence now than has been true for decades. You really would have to go back to the pre-1930s to see an equivalent inequality of power.

The realms of snobbery that Brooks discusses, should more clearly seen as realms of distraction - the equivalent of the magician's art of misdirection. The magician in this case being the power elite of wealthy individuals, families and corporations, and the trick being pulled off the complete dominance of the social and political landscape.
posted by edlark at 1:49 PM on November 1, 2002

edlark - Damn! I was just going to say that. Too bad I noticed the post a day later.....and you said it very well anyway. Maybe some CIA nebbish is feeding Brooks a little stipend to write this sort of obscurantism [or maybe they have him by the balls over some secret perversion....] or maybe he just realized that actual SCHOLARSHIP about the structure and distribution of elite society in the US (a la Domhoff) doesn't sell very well, whereas cleverly written anecdotal pseudo-theorizing can be quite lucrative.....

Diversionary magic trick indeed! Or, to put it differently: "Everyone's a king for a day!" (but at the end of the day......)
posted by troutfishing at 8:37 AM on November 2, 2002

What Josh said. Nowhere does Brooks make a substantive case that this is anything new.

He's a funny writer and the article is an excellent excuse for his humorous caricatures. This is what makes it persuasive: you laugh, "I know someone just like that!" and having found the caricature true you conclude that the thesis itself must be true. But stripped of its contemporary cultural signifiers I suspect the phenomenon itself is as old as civilization.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:50 PM on November 2, 2002

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