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December 2, 2002

Book In Brief: Bobos In Paradise

Posted by Mike on December 2, 2002 1:11 AM

One of this week's books on the nightstand is Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There.

Early in Class, Paul Fussell discusses the taboo nature of class when Americans consider themselves in society, and the way in which people of every class except, perhaps, the most destitute or most wealthy, believe themselves to be "middle class" when pressed on the issue. He cites an interview in which a woman describes the very idea of class division existing in the U.S. as "filthy."

In Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks bucks the tradition of caste self-effacement Fussell identified by proudly calling himself a member of an "elite." As compelling a world as Brooks tries to paint, though, there's an underlying smugness that his occasional jibes at middle class silliness (and, yes, he's discussing the middle class) do little to dilute.

A "bobo," according to Brooks, is a "bourgeois bohemian." Members of the bobo caste seem to include everyone from dual-income families that make over $100,000 per year to Bill Gates, with Lou Reed and Ben & Jerry somewhere in between the world's wealthiest man and the upper middle class.

Brooks' taxonomy is dubious from a perspective on class that breaks things down along the lines of "those who own vs. those who work for the owners," or perhaps the slightly less charged three-tier class structure that considers the lower classes in terms of occupation, income, and educational distinctions before cutting to the "old money" and "capitalist" chase. We have to live with his divisions in the context of his book, though, and it's soon apparent that Brooks' discussion is, indeed, of the upper-middles, whom he calls bobos and assumes are unstinting in their admiration of people he holds up as his caste peers (like Bill Gates, who has, I suppose, written a book as well).

So what makes a bobo?

According to Brooks, a bobo is usually an information economy worker who makes a lot of money, doesn't think much of work that isn't "fulfilling," and is comfortable with being hard-charging, business-minded and "socially conscious." According to Brooks, bobos swim in a sea of contradiction, reconciling bohemianism with "business sense" to recreate the world in a way that makes it safe for Ben & Jerry to practice their brand of "capitalism with a human face" unimpeded by the dehumanizing demands of an older elite's conception of labor and business. Some bobos own businesses, others work for other people.

There are a few entertaining moments in the book, specifically when Brooks talks about "keeping down with the Joneses" by practicing smug "simpler than thou" consumerism, and when he considers the sort of warm moral glow a grocery store's "96 Organic Items in Our Produce Section" sign is meant to evoke. On the other hand, he never spots the crashing irony of the bobo predilection for SUVs, which are all about eco-stewardship the way people in a pie-eating contest are all about the Epicurean mean.

But the book is less an "entertaining romp" as it is an attempt to paint the professional middle class as substantially different from its past incarnations as Yuppies, rabbits, and sheep by simply destroying older conceptions of what makes one "middle class" in order to front the idea that "things are different now," and that, somehow, squareness and hipness have become one. In the world Brooks tells us exists, a class we would have identified a decade ago as largely materialistic, selfish, and vacuous has reformed into "concerned environmentalists who also like to make a lot of money" that isn't even occupying the same socioeconomic bracket.

To my mind, Fussell handled this better in Class, when he identified what he referred to as "the X class," which bears a lot of similarities to bobos but differs on one key point, which is its resistance to consumerism. Brooks' bobos are, ultimately, consumerists who have created a matrix of rationalizations for their lifestyles that is reflective of their relative wealth and privilege. That they prefer to spend money on "organic," "native-crafted," "eco-friendly," or "all terrain" doesn't dilute their fundamental acquisitiveness or undermine the basic fact that their purchases are meant to signify their status to others. In other words, more of the same, only armed with some laudable criteria for their purchasing decisions, which perhaps makes them more ethically pleasing than they were 30 years ago.

Once we decide bobos are more of the same as far as the middle class goes, the suspicion creeps forward that Brooks is also confusing the immense volumes of venture capital shifting around the economy through the '90s with "success," and that he's embraced the idea of the "information economy" more earnestly than its relative youth warrants.

There are two reviews that nail Bobos down better than I can:

Hermenaut's review is more stinging than anything I can muster on short notice:

The argument of Bobos in Paradise is simple, and the author restates it every two pages (perhaps as a courtesy to the people he is discussing, who must do their reading between cell phone messages). Half a century ago, ancient issues of the Times reveal, the American ruling class was WASP in its deepest cells. Those whose ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower sedulously mimicked the people who did?conducting their lives with a certain quiet and unpleasant dignity. Meanwhile, downtown, artists and writers and other denizens of bohemia whooped it up, enjoying a liberated existence of self-expression, which often included freedom from hot water or electricity.

Jumping ahead in time?to the roaring whatever-we-call-this-decade?we find that all is changed, changed utterly. Today, the elite is a meritocracy with no use for WASP reserve or vital debutante statistics. Its money and power come from brains, not ancestry. To acquire this status?and to manifest it?members of the new ruling class reject all the boring old virtues of stability, regularity and conformity. They are wild and crazy guys. And gals, too, of course. This cohort is post-feminist, post-modernist, post-everything.

while the LA Weekly's review is even harsher:

There are some good things in this book, but it?s so smug in places you want to kick it down the street until some bozo ? pardon me, Bobo ? comes along in a Range Rover and grinds it into the asphalt. ?Bobo businesspeople have created a corporate style attuned to the information age, with its emphasis on creativity, flat hierarchies, flexibility and open expression,? Brooks chirps robotically in the final chapter. ?It?s simply impossible to argue with the unparalleled success of America?s information age industries over the past decade.?

It?s impossible, you see. So don?t even try. A good book, when you close it, opens something inside you. When you close Bobos in Paradise, all doors slam shut. David Brooks is a clever journalist, but his book is an unpleasant combination of cynicism and flattery.

My own take?

I'm willing to buy Brooks' assertion that there's more to "boboism" than hypocritical label-flashing, which means I've walked away from the book with a more gentle perspective than I had going in.

If the educated and professional middle class came out of liberal arts colleges in the '90s infected with a desire to at least pretend to care about sustainable development, neighborhood-building, and acting like humans while they conduct business, I'd call that a net gain over the Bonfire of the Vanities and Gordon Gecko excesses of the '80s. As an examination of that shift in the way the middle class goes about doing its business, Bobos does ok.

But at a deeper level, where Brooks tries to convince me that perhaps there isn't even really a middle class anymore, it fails. At the end of the day, it's not possible to imagine these people are any more socially secure than they were a decade ago, or any less likely to fret about where they are in the pecking order. Fussell identified that essential fear as part and parcel of the middle class experience twenty years ago, pointed out that this has been the story for a century or more, and proceeded to provide a welcome remedy to worrying about it in the form of sometimes brutal demolition of the American concept of "gentility." Brooks paws at that gentility, but never once seems to consider there's something deeply troubling about the bobo conception of morality and authenticity as things they can buy.