The New Snobbery

Brass Knuckles

Debate over the New York City transit strike has brought to my attention an attitude I have been noticing more and more among Harvard and Radcliffe students this year. The best name for this attitude is, I think, the New Snobbery. It can be contrasted with the Old Snobbery shown by many students' parents when they were in Cambridge twenty-five or thirty years ago.

Like most people in the Harvard community, both Old and New Snobs are products of comfortable and usually affluent homes. (Even the University Administration, despite its efforts to recruit poor and minority-group students, must admit that Harvard is still predominantly a school for the rich and the near-rich.) The Old Snobbery consisted of a set of attitudes still often associated with the rich: political conservatism, which then meant violent and derisive opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, and a scorn for and lack of interest in the problems of members of minority groups and, in general, the less fortunate people in our society.

Today practitioners of the New Snobbery are largely political liberals, and many of them are even radicals. If they look with scorn at President Johnson and his Great Society, they make a point of looking from the left. Beyond this, the typical New Snob shows great interest in the problems of certain minority groups, and he sometimes goes to great lengths and makes great sacrifices to work for the rights of members of such groups.

Where is the snobbery then? It lies in the fact that the New Snob has little interest in or sympathy for people who are not members of the currently fashionable minority groups. The most fashionable minority, of course, is the American Negro, and quite properly so, for Negroes suffer the greatest discrimination and deprivation in our society. Puerto Ricans and the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant residents of Appalachia are also -- again, quite properly -- fashionable groups to champion. (The best index of fashionability is probably the number of articles about the group in the New York Times Magazine.) Other groups, however, which suffer less discrimination and deprivation -- for example, ordinary working people of Irish, Italian, or Polish descent -- are generally excluded from any fashionable sympathy.

The New York transit strike has brought the New Snobbery into open view. The leader of the Transit Workers' Union, Michael J. Quill, was born and grew up in Ireland, and many other leaders and members of the TWU are of Irish descent. They do not belong to a fashionable minority group, and therefore their demands -- and their problems -- can be dismissed with scorn. I have heard many Harvard-Radcliffe students, all thoroughly sympathetic to the civil rights movement and to the plight of the Appalachians, scoff at the idea that skilled transit workers should make more than $3.13 an hour.

Now this wage amounts to about $6200 a year, which is not exactly a lavish sum on which to bring up a family in New York City. It is, in fact, below the level of "modest but adequate" budget for a family of four set by the Labor Department. Persons who are worried about the impediments to social mobility in this country ought to be able to see that it is not all that easy for a man with a $6200 income to send several children to college. Just because there are other people who ought to be making more money (teachers come to mind, although in general teacher salaries have been rising fairly rapidly in the last ten years) is no reason why transit workers should not be earning something nearer the wages which other city employees get for comparable work.

One of the faults of New York's Mayor Lindsay, it seems to me, is that he is himself something of a New Snob. He is quite commendably concerned with the problems of Negroes and Puerto Ricans, and he seems to have a genuine sympathy for them and a real understanding of the tremendous problems they face. But nowhere in any of his statements or in the various celebrations of him that have been filling the New York and national press lately can I find much evidence of a sympathy with the less, but still somewhat, unfortunate groups in the city or an understanding of the considerably smaller, but still real difficulties they face.

Where Mayor Wagner could appreciate Mike Quill's typically Irish humor and trade jokes with him, Mayor Lindsay seems to have treated him with that cold distaste and haughty contempt that characterize recent New York Times editorials. "If he wants to talk to me so much," Mike Quill reportedly said after one of the few times Lindsay had bothered to enter the transit negotiations, "then why does he insist on looking over the top of my head?" It should hardly be necessary to point out which Mayor's approach has been the more successful in protecting the public interest by preventing or settling a strike.

The root of much of the New Snobbery, it seems to me, lies in a desire to separate American society neatly into the Oppressed and the Oppressors. This is not particularly difficult, because certain groups, Negroes for example, are by any standards oppressed. The New Snob then consigns most other groups to the ranks of the Oppressors; hence Irish-Americans, a large percentage of whom are casual bigots, are Oppressors, and that is all there is to it.

The New Snobs ignore the kind of environmental explanation for Irish-Americans' prejudice that they are so quick to advance when it is pointed out, for example, that Negroes commit a disproportionately large number of violent crimes. They can understand -- although not forgive -- the Negro's propensity to commit crimes, but they can only denounce the Irish-American for his racial prejudice. They forget that a tendency toward casual bigotry, as much as one toward violent crime, can be a result of an unfortunate environment; and that in American society the roles of Oppressed and Oppressor are usually intertwined within single persons and groups.