You learn a lot about people by noting what trivial things they obsess over, and today’s David Brooks column is a perfect example. Let me be really clear about this: people are freaking out about The Sandwich Bar Anecdote for one major reason, which is that they know the rest of the column is dead-on accurate and they’d prefer not to think about what it tells us about our social order.
But even The Sandwich Bar Anecdote itself isn’t bad — it makes a valid and important point, one that finds an analogue in the experience of many of us. Look at this post by Rod Dreher for some good examples, from his own experience and from some of his readers as well.
One Christmas I bought my parents the most expensive gift I had ever given them: a big basket of fruit and cheese and pastries and various other goodies from Harry & David. It arrived several days before I could get home myself, and when I arrived at their house I saw the basket sitting in a corner of the living room, removed from its box but unopened. They never did open it. They were pissed. They didn’t want to talk about it, but eventually it became clear to me that the basket was “fancy” in a way they thought totally inappropriate. “But it’s just fruit and cheese!” I said. “I can buy fruit and cheese at Kroger,” my dad growled. I started to explain that it was exceptionally good fruit and cheese, but then realized that that wouldn’t work: for one thing, it was the opposite of what I had just said (“It’s just fruit and cheese”), and for another, I knew that my parents would take any praise of the food in the basket as a criticism of the food they bought at Kroger. There was no way for me to win this one, so I just shut up. I expect they eventually threw the whole basket away without ever opening it.
It didn’t have to be food: I could have bought them clothes they also thought “fancy” and they probably would have been equally disdainful. But I think food is generally perceived as sending especially strong signals — perhaps because it involves “consumption” in a completely literal sense. It is what you take into yourself, and while Jesus may have said that it is what comes out of a man that defiles him, not what goes in, for most people that’s an unnatural point of view. I will always remember in this regard Rod’s story about how disgusted his family were when he and Julie made bouillabaisse for them — even though pretty much everybody in Louisiana has eaten fish stew.
I didn’t buy my parents any more food for Christmas, and from then on when I shopped for them I shopped at Wal-Mart.
Brooks writes, “Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else.” This is true, and true in very important ways; and the intuition that such rules are always in play can make people uneasy or angry when they think such rules are being enforced against them. If you can’t acknowledge this you’re just being willfully blind.