MEMORABLE WORDS are better insurance of immorality than the tretises in which the are entombed. Hordes quite innocent of first-hand acquaintance with The Wealth of Nations cite Adam Smith's "invisible hand" in celebration of free market capitalism. Amgry radicals denounce profit as "exploitation" or "surplus value" without troubling themselves to trudege through three volumes of Karl Mrax's Capital.
That sardonic son of Norwegian immigrants Thorstein Veblen is an even better example of the lingering impact of barbed language. Among his enduring verbal coinages are "conscientious sabatoge" as shorthand for speculative misconduct, "vicarious consumption" as rubic for arrivistes' decking wives and daughters with expensive clothes and jewels as testimonials to the wealth of powerful males too busy to spend their own money on themselves, and, most famous, "conspicuous consumption" as summary of status strivings of the uneasily ambitious in a society barren of distinct, hereditary gradations of rank.
Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which these locutions are to be found, at the end of the 19th century. An academic drifter, a miserable teacher who muttered into his beard and awarded grades of "C" impartially to all, he compounded his derelictions by sexual misconduct. What is a man to do, he plantively complained, if the women simply moves in? His attitude toward the gaudy fobiles of the rich was always that of an unfriendly anthropologist among hostile natives.
John Brooks, relentless chronicler of corporate life in The New Yorker, contracted the felicitous notion of matching Veblen's theory to contemporary behavior. From Brooks' examination, Veblen emerges with a grade far higher than he gave the rare student who lingered long enough to receive it. The barbarians are still vanquishing the savages. The latter, Veblen's ideal, are cooperative instead of competitive, unambitious, and cherishers of good workmanship and "idle curiosity" about nature and huma conduct. By contrast, barbarians in Veblen's typology replace the ancient rivalries of hunters and warriors with the psycological equivalents -- competitive sport, manipulative of people and money, and conspicuous display of wealth, Brooks' "showing off."
As Brooks entertainingly demonstrates, the democratization of status competition in our time causes problems for the contestants. Anybody can pick up a bottle of Perrier and a lemon in the nearest Deli. Designer jeans cost more but their is a helpful market for cheaper forgeries. Crowds of strivers were caught by New York magazinehs pictures of in-spots to eat in the Hampton's. When so many people are in, a shortage of outsiders blights the aspirations of men and women who fancy themselves winning studets of the fashions of the minute.
Trained consumers are ingenous folks. As Brooks persausively speculates, ambiguity and irony embellish the behavior of the most successful strivers for lofty status. True virtuosos -- as they squirm in skin-tight garments, lunch on small salads and bottled water, and pay lofty prices for the privledge of visibility in the best, i.e. most fashionable, restaurants -- wink at each other over the finger bowls in wry acknowledgement that is all a game. At the same time, they proclaim their own exceptional comprehension of the rules and financial ablilty to play.
There are even parody lives. George Plimpton, veteran of successive roles in professional athletics as quarterback, pitcher, boxer, and golfer prefers to write accounts of these adventures instead of the serious fiction and literary citicism of which he is capable.
As human conduct goes, I suppose that all of this is comparatively harmless. A quirky social observer, Brooks keeps his prose light. Although he properly demolishes Veblen's peculiar, racist anthropology, he is himself attached to Lionel Tiger's controversial specualtion about male bonding, the asserted tendency of males, never females, to cluster in groups and clubs. From internal evidence, I suspect that Brooks belongs to the Century Association -- just down the block from The Nwe Yorker -- Manhattan's staid lunch spot for men only.
Brooks exaggerates the importance of The Theory of the Lesiure Class and underestimates other items in the Veblen canon. The clash between business enterprise and the machine process, the organizing dualtiy of The Theory of Business Enterprise, explains modern capitalism far better than contests between barbarians and savages. And the possiby because I am an academic by trade, I esteem more highly than Brooks does Veblen's mordant assault upon the conduct of unversities by captains of industry.
These quibbles aside, Showing Off in America deserves a large audience, some of whome ought to be moved to follow Brooks' advice (and mine) to read the original. Although Veblen's mock ironic style will not please every taste, an experimenter after a while is as likely to become addicted as already he or she is to dry martinis, raw oysters, snails, and artichokes, four status symobls that taste good.