Dalrymple on Snobbery

“Horrible old man! Who’s over him, he cries;—aye, he would be a democrat to all above; look, how he lords it over all below!”—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Theodore Dalrymple comments with abundant irony on the enduring fascination that the American public has with British aristocracy: “At heart we are all snobs—whether we acknowledge it or not, however egalitarian we may be in theory and however nervous we might be about our own position in society. Everyone needs (and almost everyone finds) someone to look down on.”

The fact that our government was founded on equality cannot efface human nature. Dalrymple goes on to explain that the more conservative eighteenth century notion of equality meant, for most people, fairness and impartiality; not equal outcomes enforced by despotic ideologues. Of course, there were progressives even then, like Tom Paine or Mrs. Macauley, a wealthy radical “republican” acquaintance of Samuel Johnson. As Boswell records of his literary friend:

One day when I was at her house [says Johnson], I put on a very grave countenance, and said to her, ‘Madam, I am now become a convert to your way of thinking. I am convinced that all mankind are upon an equal footing; and to give you an unquestionable proof, Madam, that I am in earnest, here is a very sensible, civil, well-behaved fellow-citizen, your footman; I desire that he may be allowed to sit down and dine with us.’ I thus, Sir, shewed her the absurdity of the levelling doctrine. She has never liked me since. Sir, your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves. They would all have some people under them; why not then have some people above them?

When attacking some imaginary oppressor class, the Macauleys of the world act like outraged Jacobins. When dealing with the rest of us, they are as lordly as feudal chiefs. Indeed, as Dalrymple remarks, the new elites are even more condescending and irresponsible. The older ruling classes enjoyed certain perks but also had strictly defined duties. The English gentry admired by TV viewers marched off to battle in the First World War as officers. Leading from the front, they often incurred a higher rate of casualties than the men under them.

While I frankly do not envy the rigid class structure of a century ago, the fact remains that all economic groups and nationalities evince some form of snobbery. Americans are no exception, though they may display their hauteur differently from Germans or Japanese. For more background on this subject, see Ideology and American Democracy.

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