Nouveaux Bohemians

journalism

THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW May 21, 2000

Nouveaux Bohemians

BOBOS IN PARADISE
The New Upper Class and How They Got
There

By David Brooks
284 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $25

EVEN THOUGHT IN COLLEGE I played at being a Marxist
— neo-Marxist” being the phrase of choice, just as a few years later I
became a ”neoliberal” — my favorite sociology class was a seminar taught
by Daniel Bell, whom the New Left punks he was teaching at the time considered
a neocon fogy. Exactly 25 years ago, Bell was explaining to us his ideas
about the end of ideology, the cultural contradictions of capitalism, the
coming of postindustrial society and, finally, the rise of the ”new class”
— that emerging elite of language and symbol manipulators, Brie-eating,
wine-sipping lawyers and journalists and creative directors, high-end hard-working
quasi bohemians, hedonistic meritocrats, people like us. Indeed, Bell’s vision
suggested that Harvard Square was a prototype for the new age — that, soon,
simulacra of our smug, twee neighborhood would be concocted all over America,
and thus the universal signifiers of upscale would be ochre-walled coffeehouses
serving labor-intensive European coffees, Marimekkoesque shops selling haute-design
everything, huge bookstores with unimaginably vast magazine racks and old
brick warehouses-cum-shopping malls patronized by computer-fluent young adults
wearing chinos and bluejeans.

Bell’s social forecasting was prescient. What’s more, that brief period
— 1975 and 1976 — looks in hindsight like a seminal American moment. It
did not seem so then. The spirit of the time was tapped-out, vague and vaguely
decadent, a kind of bewildered morning-after slough. But consider the defining
events and leading indicators: the Vietnam War ended and Ronald Reagan first
ran for president, the oldest baby boomers turned 30 and the youngest baby
boomers entered puberty, Jann Wenner moved Rolling Stone from a hippie dump
in San Francisco to a fancy building in midtown Manhattan, ”Saturday Night
Live” went on the air, an underdressed liberal who quoted Bob Dylan and
carried his own luggage became president, the Apple II was invented and Microsoft
was founded — all in a single two-year period.

 What was germinating, and reached full efflorescence
only during the last decade, was the reign of the bourgeois bohemian –
the Bobo, in David Brooks’s phrase. He calls ”Bobos in Paradise” a work
of ”comic sociology,” and it’s hard to imagine any other sort of sociology
that could depict this caste so well. What makes the book work, aside from
its intelligence and nearly pitch-perfect humor, is the fact that Brooks,
who’s a political conservative, confesses to being a Bobo himself. ”Bobos
in Paradise” is not a screed but a mixture of heartfelt fondness and dead-on
ridicule, animated by an energetic, glass-half-full ambivalence — all
in all, a very Bobo achievement.

 Brooks says the new Bobo hegemony appeared
starkly to him when he returned to America after a few years abroad during
the 1990′s. He found that his hometown, a regular upper-middle-class Pennsylvania
suburb, suddenly had half a dozen gourmet coffee shops, a fabulous independent
bookseller, a store called the Great Harvest Bread Company (”spare, so
you won’t think there is any salesmanship going on”), a Santa Monica-style
restaurant called Teresa’s Cafe and shop after shop selling ”hand-painted
TV armoires” and ”fat smelly candles.” He found that the premium parts
of white-bread America had become entirely whole-wheat and focaccia. ”Hip
lawyers were wearing those teeny tiny steel-framed glasses because now
it was apparently more prestigious to look like Franz Kafka than Paul Newman.
. . . The bohemian and the bourgeois were all mixed up . . . rebel attitudes
and social-climbing attitudes all scrambled together.” In short, ”people
seemed to have combined the countercultural 60′s and the achieving 80′s
into one social ethos.”

 This is a big idea. One of the prime narratives
of the postwar era has been the inexorable discrediting of the style and
values of the traditional bourgeoisie, first by an avant-garde of intellectuals
and beatniks, then by hippies and the youthquake generally and in the end
by the merrily capitulating mainstream culture itself. The revolution triumphed,
at least in a lite, everyone-can-play home version. Yet, at the same time,
the political agendas of the countercultural left were rejected repeatedly,
overwhelmingly and, during the 80′s and early 90′s, definitively. The long
economic expansion, our cold war victory and the marvels of digital technology
combined to reignite American optimism.

 So today we inhabit the 50′s redux, with the
luckier half of Americans exceptionally fat and happy. But in order to
be fat and happy nowadays, the bourgeoisie insists on wearing jeans and
sneakers, on watching movies (”American Beauty”) and television shows
(”The Sopranos”) that would have been banned in the 50′s. This is a new
and improved 50′s, in which Dobie Gillis and Maynard G. Krebs have merged.
If you’ve ever been unsure about the meaning of ”dialectic” — thesis
(stuffed-shirt squares), antithesis (generation-’68 vagabonds), synthesis
(Bobos) — here it is, precisely and entertainingly rendered.

 Brooks nails Bobos’ have-it-both-ways slipperiness
with a tolerant smile. ”Millionaire moviemakers tend to be merciless when
depicting millionaire businessmen and lawyers.” And: ”This is an elite
that has been raised to oppose elites. They are affluent yet opposed to
materialism. They may spend their lives selling yet worry about selling
out. They are by instinct antiestablishmentarian yet somehow sense they
have become a new establishment.” And again: ”They are prosperous without
seeming greedy; they have pleased their elders without seeming conformist;
they have risen toward the top without too obviously looking down on those
below.”

 Brooks’s big-tent bohemianism doesn’t run very
deep, of course. It is mainly about the things Bobos own. But that doesn’t
mean it’s insignificant in an age when Americans’ self-identity is probably
most intensely a function of their consumer choices (as opposed to their
political and religious choices). ”People in this class like to see themselves
and their friends as balancing opposites. . . . Selecting music, you need
Patsy Cline songs mixed in with the Mendelssohn.” Elsewhere he observes:
”The companies that sell to us have developed careful marketing strategies
for people who disdain marketing. They help make shopping seem a bit like
an honors project at Bennington College.”

 Brooks smartly posits Jane Jacobs’s 1961 book,
”The Life and Death of Great American Cities,” as the key manifesto of
modern Bobo-ism, since Jacobs ”reconciles the bourgeois love of order
with the bohemian love of emancipation.” But his history doesn’t extend
back much beyond the 50′s. In fact, Emerson, Thoreau and especially Twain
were ur-Bobos. And in its epicurean mixture of democratic and aristocratic
values, Bobo-ism was flourishing among American homosexuals and the European
middle classes decades before the United States had a single alternative
newspaper or Starbucks.

 Bohemian style is one thing — it’s not hard
to dress and eat and decorate in some buffed-up approximation of Jack Kerouac
or Jackson Pollock, even if one is a $400-an-hour knowledge management
consultant or a $180,000-a-year vice president of sales. The trickier,
more complicated revisionism was making business itself an endeavor worthy
of the intelligent and with-it. Bobos ”didn’t go out hungry for money.
But money found them,” Brooks says. ”The one realm of American life where
the language of 1960′s radicalism remains strong is the business world.”
Entrepreneurs have been recast as maverick crusaders lighting out into
uncharted territory, risking all to build the future. The business magazine
Fast Company, for instance, published out of an exposed-brick loft in Boston
and as thick with advertising as it is earnest with exhortations to enlightenment,
is a pure expression of Bobo capitalism. ”Business is not about making
money,” Brooks writes, ”it’s about doing something you love. Life should
be an extended hobby.” ”It’s about working for a company as cool as you
are.”

 ”Bobos in Paradise” takes a 90-degree but-seriously-folks
turn in the last 50 pages. Brooks gives his caste credit for most of the
improvements in American life since 1980 or so, and he defends the Bobo
moral temperament: ”This is a morality . . . that doesn’t try to perch
atop the high ground of divine revelation.” Bobos ”like spiritual participation
but are cautious of moral crusades and religious enthusiasms. . . . They
tolerate a little lifestyle experimentation, so long as it is done safely
and moderately. They are offended by concrete wrongs, like cruelty and
racial injustice, but are relatively unmoved by lies or transgressions
that don’t seem to do anyone obvious harm. . . . This is a good morality
for building a decent society.”

 When large majorities share such a pragmatic,
live-and-let-live sensibility, politics inevitably withers in importance.
Today, national politics matters seriously only to people in Washington
and to ideologues — the latter, in this Bobo age, holding on for dear
life to their historical demonologies, the hard-core right still harping
on the 60′s as the source of America’s supposed decline, the hard-core
left still bemoaning the Reaganite 80′s as the beginning of the end of
hope. Bobos pursue a third way: they find plenty to like about the 60′s
and the 80′s. As Brooks notes, paraphrasing the scholar Mark Lilla: ”The
central disagreement today is not the 60′s versus the 80′s. It is between
those who have fused the 60′s and the 80′s on one side” — the hands-off,
hang-loose majority of Americans under 55 — and those who reject the fusion
on the other.” The electoral result is a style of governance that is ”centrist,
muddled and if anything, anti-ideological.”

 Which for now, Brooks seems to agree, is a
pretty good public policy M.O. Maybe, however, because he lives inside
the Beltway and works for a political journal (The Weekly Standard), Brooks
feels obliged to deliver a commencement-speech plea to Bobos to throw themselves
into politics. It seems halfhearted and unconvincing. Living in Washington
appears to have rendered Brooks oblivious of the entrepreneurial fevers
and digital utopianism now raging across Bobo America. ”We are not living
in an age of transition,” he writes, and, ”We Bobos don’t look to the
future for transcendence.” Huh? David Brooks needs to catch up on his
back issues of Fast Company and Wired. And doesn’t having children make
Bobos look strictly to the future for transcendence?

 The writing is sometimes too cute (”it’s genius
and geniality that enable you to join the elect”; ”we’re by now all familiar
with modern-day executives who have moved from S.D.S. to C.E.O., from LSD
to I.P.O.”), and the archness can get one-note and unrelenting. For comedy’s
sake, Brooks goes over the top in portraying Bobos as Mother Jones lefties.
But those are quibbles. The book is a pleasure, simultaneously bracing
and comforting, like a sauna. Bracing because it should make hypocritical,
self-satisfied Bobos cop to their complicated hypocrisies and self-satisfactions.
And comforting (to Bobos) because it says their cultural imperium will
endure. ”In truth it is hard to see how the rule of the meritocrats could
ever come to an end,” Brooks says. ”The meritocratic Bobo class is rich
with the spirit of self-criticism. It is flexible and amorphous enough
to co-opt that which it does not already command.” As flexible and self-critical
— and, at best, as funny and smart — as ”Bobos in Paradise.”