Am I the only one to notice Louis Menand's discussion -- and inadvertent confession -- of snobbism in his recent "New Yorker" piece on intellectual provocateur Dwight Macdonald, the brilliant journalist, essayist, and editor of the finest anthology of Parodies we have? Menand opens his piece by defining the "liberal highbrow" as one who supported both the ACLU and the Metropolitan Opera. His own father was like that, Menand says. Such people were "democrats in the town square and snobs at home."
Now, in the context of the magazine and its readers, the word snobs has as negative a charge as the word democrats has a positive one, But if his father was a snob, that is a tradition the writer knowingly extends. "It doesn't matter what Webster's Third tells me: I always feel superior to a person who says, 'I am totally disinterested in that subject' (though I will also strive to treat that individual with the dignity and respect owed to any human being). I can't help it; it's the way I was brought up."
It happens that I disagree with Menand's premise and point of departure. I do not believe that snobbism is the same as "flagrant cultural elitism," and I don't trust "flagrant" in that phrase. No one has an obligation to embrace the things he or she doesn't naturally like, even if they are "popular" and therefore culturally "correct." Nevertheless, an appreciation of the Metropolitan Opera doesn't preclude a pleasure in, say, college football or murder mysteries, and the elitists who like Romantic poetry or Abstract Expressionism may also go to the movies, and not just the art house kind. In brief, a belief that correctness of grammar matters does not make someone a snob.
But I am impressed with the writer's insistence on the importance of the distinction between "uninterested" (lacking interest in a subject) and "disinterested" (impartial). I agree entirely and am dismayed only by his admission that this knowledge makes him "feel superior" to people who are not in command of English grammar, What does the possession of knowledge have to do with "superiority'? Is it "superiority" that the professor feels when surveying the students who know less than he or she does?
The parenthesis that follows -- "though I will also strive to treat that individual with the dignity and respect owed to any human being" -- would appear to be a piety convicting the author of nothing worse than a bad conscience, or is it bad faith? But . . .what do others think? I've been reading a stimulating book on Lionel Trilling and no doubt it is this reading that has prompted me to question these assumptions and terms in Menand's essay. -- DL