The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
I think there's much that's sensible in David Brooks's column about cultural elites—for instance, the criticism of zoning seems pretty reasonable—but I was one of the people who wasn't quite persuaded by the sandwich item:
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named "Padrino" and "Pomodoro" and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, "You are not welcome here."
Charlie Martin (PJMedia) has what strikes me as the right response:
The point is that for all Brooks' talk about "social signifiers" and how the different signifiers were presenting the less-educated classes from moving up, when his female friend was confronted with this menu, he didn't say "look, 'Pomodoro' and 'Padrino' are just names they gave the sandwiches, soppressata and capicollo are kinds of salami, and the other one is a kind of bread." Instead of "insensitively" explaining things to her and giving her a chance to try something new, he "sensitively" took her to a Mexican place, and so preserved her from needing to learn all those "social signifiers. …
David Brooks' friend doesn't need him to "sensitively" take her somewhere she already knows while pondering on the social signifiers that keep her from being as enlightened as he is. What she needs is for him to pull his nose down far enough to say "it's salami."
One other way of looking at this: I'm a foodie, and I love unusual food. (Burmese—Afghan—Chinese Islamic—really, those are among my favorites, and I'm not kidding.) I take friends and even just acquaintances all the time to places where they don't know the names of the foods. But we view that as a fun opportunity to explore new things from other cultures.
The interesting question, it seems, is: Why did Brooks think that his friend didn't take that view? I can think of a few possible answers:
1. She just isn't an adventurous eater, and he realized that. Nothing wrong with that! But (a) that wouldn't really fit Brooks's point, and (b) in fact the dishes themselves aren't that adventurous.
2. He read her wrong, and took her puzzlement as discomfort; and then when he asked whether she wanted to go somewhere else, she read that as his suggestion that she didn't really belong there and went along with that.
3. She really is so intimidated by the metropolitan upper-middle class and its tastes for the international and unusual that she was indeed uncomfortable eating there, rather than just (as my friends and I are at the Afghan restaurant) in need of a translation. Now that would indeed be an interesting story and would invite the obvious questions: Why do some people "freeze up" when faced with such social markers rather than being eager to master them, whether to better negotiate upper-middle-class society or just to enjoy some slightly different food? And, as Martin suggests, is taking them to their old familiar Mexican place really the best solution, or is it better to remind them—"it's just salami"—that one needn't be too intimidated by a sandwich?