A Good Snob

Below, in hastily butchered and re-worked order, are excerpts from Lance Morrow’s 1983 article “A Good Snob Nowadays is Hard to Find” which appeared first in that year’s September issue of Time magazine.

It was not the Bach on the harpsichord that offended, or his way with celestial navigation, or the servants, or the phone calls from Ronald Reagan. No: his worst affront seemed to be the custom chopped-and-stretched chauffeur-driven Cadillac with the partition and the special back-seat temperature control. It was not even the fact that William F. Buckley Jr. rides around in such a car, like a Mafia don in his land yacht, that gave some reviewers eczema. It was the way that he wrote about it, with such a blithe air of entitlement. No right-wing intellectual on the go, Buckley seemed to suggest, should be asked to function without this minimal convenience, for God’s sake.

Some critics who object to Buckley’s politics, however, were outraged by his lifestyle, or more accurately by the obvious pleasure with which he described it. It is all right to live that way, but one should have the grace to conceal it, or at least to sound a little guilty about it; Buckley luxuriates in his amenities a bit too much, and one hears in his prose the happy sigh of a man sinking into a hot bath. So his enemies try to dismiss him as Marie Antoinette in a pimpmobile. They portray him as, among other things, a terrible, terminal snob.

To make the accusation is to misunderstand both William F. Buckley Jr. and the nature of snobbery. Buckley is an expansive character who is almost indiscriminately democratic in the range of his friends and interests. He glows with intimidating self-assurance. The true snob sometimes has an air of pugnacious, overbearing self-satisfaction, but it is usually mere front. The snob is frequently a grand porch with no mansion attached, a Potemkin affair. The essence of snobbery is not real self-assurance but its opposite, a deep apprehension that the jungles of vulgarity are too close, that they will creep up and reclaim the soul and drag it back down into its native squalor, back to the Velveeta and the doubleknits. So the breed dresses for dinner and crooks pinkies and drinks Perrier with lime and practices sneering at all the encroaching riffraff that are really its own terrors of inadequacy.

It is probably more difficult to be a snob now than it once was. The logistical base is gone. If Buckley were one, he would have to be considered one of the last of the great Renaissance snobs, a generalist capable of insufferable expertise on everything from Spanish wines to spinnakers. But the making of such a handsomely knowledgeable, or even pseudo-knowledgeable, character requires family money and leisure of a kind not often available in the late 20th century. “A child’s education,” Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked, “should begin at least one hundred years before he was born.”


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