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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1945

David Brooks is a senior editor of the Weekly Standard. He also writes on various facets of culture and politics for publications such as The New Yorker, and has worked as a correspondent and editor of The Wall Street Journal. This is his first book.

Bobos in...

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David Brooks is a senior editor of the Weekly Standard. He also writes on various facets of culture and politics for publications such as The New Yorker, and has worked as a correspondent and editor of The Wall Street Journal. This is his first book.

Bobos in Paradise is a pop treatise on the United States’ upper class of the new millennium. The book draws together and expands on several shorter essays that Brooks wrote for the Weekly Standard. Those essays took an irreverent, occasionally bemused look at certain developments from the new wealth created in the 1990’s. They attempted to define (and to a lesser extent, explain) how this new wealth was changing the people that earned it and the society that catered to them. Bobos in Paradise attempts to integrate these observations into a central thesis about the United States’ new upper class. Unfortunately, that central thesis is not as clear as it could be.

In general, Brooks describes this new upper class as “bourgeois bohemians,” emphasizing the paradoxical and conflictive nature of its constituent elements. As Brooks writes:

The values of the bourgeois mainstream culture and the values of the 1960’s counterculture have merged. That culture war has ended, at least within the educated class. . . . In the resolution between the culture and the counterculture, it is impossible to tell who co-opted whom, because in reality the bohemians and the bourgeois co-opted each other. They emerge from this process as bourgeois bohemians, or bobos.

It is an amusing assertion. One is struck by the irony of a rich, privileged class adopting the external trappings of the counterculture. The bourgeoisie were known as excruciatingly conformist, proper, materialist, and self-focused. At least that is how the Marxists viewed them, and many bourgeois themselves would probably not have challenged that description very vigorously. The bohemians, on the other hand, were supposed to be nonconformist intellectuals whose thoughts veered to the philosophical and transcendent. That dot-com millionaires wear worn chinos to stockholder meetings and quote Friedrich Nietzsche in interoffice memos seems surreal.

Bobos in Paradise operates on two levels. For the casual reader, and primarily in its earlier chapters, the book offers a breezy and irony-tinged gentle lampoon of the cell-phone-and-sports-utility-vehicle (SUV) set. Brooks unselfconsciously counts himself among the bobos, and reckons that many of his readers probably fit in that category as well. As a result, his humor-larded mockery of bobos takes on an almost smarmy flavor, akin to the sweet-toothed twenty-something calling herself a “chocoholic.” Still, the bourgeois-bohemian paradox presents numerous opportunities for ridicule. One of the primary themes is how bobos spend extraordinary amounts of money to exhibit their supposedly bohemian values. He writes of bobos’ purchase of sun-dried tomato cheese sticks, furniture “that takes its cues from the European peasantry,” kitchen appliances that cost more than a Lexus, and $100,000 rattan baskets. He notes the irony of vacationing bobos who fancy themselves true participants in an exotic, authentic culture, but who in fact are viewed by the locals as tourists with lots of money. Chapter by chapter he examines how bobos spend their money, pursue their careers, educate themselves, seek out pleasure, and grasp for spiritual meaning. The general theme is that bobos’ discomfort with the ostentatious displays of wealth has driven them to inventive, and frequently silly, contortions to rationalize extravagant consumption as somehow salubrious for themselves and society.

Beneath this gentle mockery that brings to mind humorist Dave Barry’s weekly columns, Brooks is spinning out a thesis—or several theses. Centrally, Brooks argues that bobos, unlike previous elite classes, are reconcilers who have managed to unite the productivity and material success of the establishment with the idealism and vigor of the counterculture. They have seemingly created for themselves comfortable, privileged lifestyles surrounded by myriad material belongings while simultaneously holding enlightened values. They make enormous amounts of money, but they seemingly do not exploit others. They consume scads of goods and services, but they are “saving the earth.” There may be less to this “reconciliation” than the bobos—and perhaps Brooks—would like to admit. In theory, however, it is a defining aspect of the bobo class.

The secret to this reconciliation is something Brooks calls “the higher selfishness” of bobos. Most of the defining elements of the 1980’s “me generation” have, for the bobos, been somehow cleansed of any hint of greed or crassness or materialism. Instead, argues Brooks, bobo capitalism has redefined work and production and consumption. Bobos work not for money but for personal fulfillment. They produce not for mass culture but for social enrichment. They consume not to satisfy base wants but to fulfill more transcendental needs. The idea of rich folks putting their good fortune at the service of society is not new; the concept of noblesse oblige long ago imposed on the upper classes certain responsibilities, and business tycoons throughout the twentieth century were setting up Ford Foundations and Carnegie endowments. The difference with the bobos, however, seems to be that they have a stronger sense that they deserve their riches. Unlike the old-money elite of the past, bobos are wealthy not because they happened to be born into the right family, but because—in their own eyes at least—they are more capable and ambitious and educated.

Indeed, a continuing thread of Brooks’s thesis is that bobos are meritocratic. Rather than defining their status by family lineage or background, they denominate themselves in scholastic aptitude test (SAT) scores and college degrees. In the so-called information age, education is rewarded with high salaries. There might still be class divisions between the rich and poor, Brooks seems to argue, but class barriers are permeable with education, and that is a big improvement over the old days when old-money white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) controlled the commanding heights of industry and society. This education-focused measure of worth may be considered more democratic, more in keeping with the American ideal of individual responsibility, though it may also have a somewhat Darwinian element.

Some of the book’s most compelling passages compare the bobo Weltanschauung with the establishment thinking of the WASP-elite era of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Two chapters are especially illuminating: In a chapter on intellectual thinkers, Brooks reviews the old giants such as Lionel Trilling, Reihnold Niebuhr, Hannah Arendt, and Charles Wright Mills. In some ways these “highbrow intellectuals” foreshadowed the bobos, Brooks seems to say. One is at a loss, however, to identify contemporary bobo intellectuals who would have the staying power of the earlier group. In a chapter on business, Brooks recounts the 1950’s establishment ideals that reached their apotheosis in William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956). Here Brooks’s evidence presents a better argument that the bobo establishment has done a better job of defining work and business.

By the end of the book it becomes clear that Brooks sees bobos as the vanguard of a new golden age. Notwithstanding some of their silly conceits (such as the politics of coffee and the moral superiority of organic food), Brooks’s bobos are intelligent, thoughtful, capable, ambitious, tolerant, community-minded, and responsible. They are an elite without elitism, reconciling old class divisions and welcoming into their ranks any who are willing to gain the education and adopt the bobo code of ethics. Perhaps the bobos’ respect for knowledge and intellectual growth will equip them to fix the United States’ wretched public school system. Perhaps their eschewing of bad habits such as smoking and their embracing of good ones such as exercise will firm up some of the country’s flabbiness. Perhaps their tolerance and spirit of fair play will attenuate some of the partisanship in Washington, D.C.

How good it would be to have such an enlightened and egalitarian elite. One wonders, however, whether Brooks’s thesis is overpositioned. It would be unfair to subject this book to the standards of social science. Brooks insists he has not attempted to define the bobo class with “meticulous exactitude”; rather, he professes to have employed a method he describes as “comic sociology.” Yet even allowing for anecdotalism and broad-brush generalities, one can question whether Brooks’s bobos will turn out to be such a remarkably beneficent elite—or indeed whether they are even the new elite—or if they even exist as Brooks has defined them.

It seems as though Brooks, in his effort to create a pleasingly alliterative semi-acronym, has done some serious damage to the definitions of “bourgeois” and “bohemian.” Bourgeois has typically referred to the middle class, or the establishment. The truly “upper classes” (the blue-bloods living on the family estate in Bryn Mawr) turned up their noses at the mediocrity and banality of bourgeois life. Similarly, the bohemians, with their self-conscious rejection of mainstream morality and values, also scoffed at the bourgeoisie. One might argue that the upper-class elites and the bohemians actually shared a disdain for the bourgeois establishment. Similarly, if a remarkable reconciliation between social classes were to be conjured, one might wish for a reconciliation between those two Marxian antagonists—the proletarian “workers” and the bourgeoisie. In any event, one is left to wonder whether the bobos are truly the upper class (as suggested by their income), or the new establishment middle class (as suggested by the ubiquitous SUVs parked outside the ubiquitous Starbucks in the ubiquitous suburbs).

Similarly, the elements that putatively make the bobos “bohemian” fail to ring true. Brooks alternately casts his bohemians as coffeehouse intellectuals who disdain social convention; the lower classes and peasants who have little if any interaction with middle-class society; and fiery radicals who work actively to subvert the social order. What he holds up as evidence of bohemianism in his bobos, however, is little more than the appropriation of certain symbols and poses: urban chic attire (but still within prescribed limits), organic espresso drinks, edgy films, nose rings. In fact, what makes the appropriation of these bohemian accouterments so un-bohemian is that they are manufactured and marketed by the same crass companies and manipulative advertising firms that a true bohemian finds revolting. To wear combat boots bartered from a former East German border guard is ironic and hip. To purchase Doc Martens from a Santa Monica boutique for two hundred dollars is something else again.

The central difficulty with this book, then, stems from the incongruity between the lighthearted ridicule of bobos and the quasi-serious thesis about the meaning and importance of this new class. In jovially mocking the inconsistency, excess, and rationalized selfishness of the bobos, Brooks unintentionally reveals that this group has neither fully reconciled the establishment and counterculture nor transcended the flaws of the prior elites, including the putatively bigoted nonintellectual WASPs. If one reflects on the group Brooks describes, one sees a somewhat pathetic group of well-educated but deluded rich folks who, in a naïve belief that they can purchase virtue, fall for the marketing schemes of coffee merchants, kitchen designers, eco-tour companies, outdoor gear boutiques, and Vermont ice cream magnates. One senses the irony that Brooks’s super-elite is being taken to the cleaners by the same bourgeois merchant class that they have supposedly transcended, or at least co-opted.

Still, Bobos in Paradise is an enjoyable book. One enjoys holding smug elites up to ridicule, even when one suspects that one is, or wants to be, somewhat like them. That, perhaps, is justification enough.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic Monthly, 285 (June, 2000): 112.

Booklist 96 (April 15, 2000): 1504.

Commentary 109 (May, 2000): 59.

The Independent (London), July 21, 2000.

The Los Angeles Times, July 9, 2000.

The National Post, July 26, 2000.

The New Republic 222 (June 12, 2000): 39.

Newsweek, June 5, 2000.

The New York Times, October 15, 2000.

Publishers Weekly 247 (March 13, 2000): 67.

The Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2000.

The Washington Post, May 7, 2000.

Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2000.

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