Bobos in Paradise

Graying hippies with ponytails hold forth on the minutiae of capitalism. Sixties psychedelic music is used on commercials for retirement planning. Your broker has a tattoo. Is not this strange?

All around us, the square and the hip have morphed into an odd new thing. Bohemians and bourgeoisie, once combatants, are now convivial, enjoying venti cappuccinos in each other's company in coffee houses all across upscale American neighborhoods. At least that is the contention of David Brooks, senior editor of the Weekly Standard, in Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. In short, the past decade has seen a cease-re in the culture wars that raged in the previous three. Brooks's shorthand for this resolution is that bohemians and bourgeoisie have melded into a new elite of bourgeois bohemiansor Bobos, for short.

Back in the day - say, the 1950s - it was much easier to tell these folks apart. As Brooks describes them, “the bourgeois prized materialism, order, regularity, custom, rational thinking, self-discipline, and productivity.” By contrast, “the bohemians celebrated creativity, rebellion, novelty, self-expression, anti-materialism, and vivid experience.” And never would the twain meet, each group and its values anathema to the other - the Cornelius Vanderbilts against the Henry David Thoreaus, if you will. Until, that is, the 1990s, when the educated elite accomplished the “grand achievement” of inventing a “way of living that lets you be an affluent success and at the same time a free-spirit rebel.”

So consider the 1990s business executive. Once corporate America was dominated by conservative burghers in stolid gray flannel suits. “Today,” Brooks riffs, “being a ceo means that you have such lofty and daring theories and ideas that you need a team of minions chasing you around with ropes just to tie you down.” The Organization Man is out; the Hipster Capitalist, in. Or consider Bobos at home: They cannot just press a pair of pants; they have to practice the Feng Shui of Ironing, where “a wrinkle is actually 'tension' in the fabric,” and “releasing the tension by removing the wrinkle improves the ow of ch'i.” Or Bobos at play: They cannot just go outside and enjoy themselves; they have to be “serious” recreationalists - so much so that “the most accomplished are so serious they never have any fun at all.” (Brooks's wickedly funny set pieces, such as his descriptions of “The Code of Financial Correctness” and “How to Be an Intellectual Giant,” are alone worth the price of the book.)

Bobos in Paradise, then, is Brooks's report of the manners and mores of this new elite as well as a lively journalistic account of the social changes of the past half century. He calls his method “comic sociology,” where “the idea is to get at the essence of cultural patterns, getting the flavor of the times without trying to pin it down with meticulous exactitude.” Further, he is up front about the lack of theory in his book: “Max Weber has nothing to worry about from me,” he confesses. But I suspect Brooks is jesting at least a little, for alongside his witty descriptions he has placed some fairly subtle intellectual work. Indeed, his suggestion that the bohemian and the bourgeois have been reconciled is a serious argument, one that Brooks has woven into a nearly seamless cloth.

Nearly seamless, but not quite. In the end, it is unclear whether the bohemian and the bourgeois are truly reconciled in this new Bobo age. It seems, rather, that the bohemian has really co-opted the bourgeois. A case in point is Brooks's fine description of Bobo religion, which he calls “flexidoxy.” (Incidentally, another delight of the book is the names that Brooks gives to his observations.) Not merely an anything-goes relativism, flexidoxy is a “hybrid mixture of freedom and flexibility on the one hand and the longing for rigor and orthodoxy on the other.”

Put another way, religious Bobos immerse themselves in the communities and traditions of their religion but pick and choose what they will believe and how they will practice it. Brooks observes of such spirituality that “somehow it is rigor without submission” and “orthodoxy without obedience.” Such thorough refusal to submit and to obey is perhaps the best example of an unreconciled tension between the bohemian and the bourgeois in the Bobo world. It is also evidence that perhaps Brooks's declaration of reconciliation is too hastily made. This irreducible kernel of radical self-concern has more to do with bohemian self-expression than it does with bourgeois self-discipline; hence Bobo - sat least in their religious life - appear to be really bohemians with a simulacrum of the bourgeois rather than a genuine reconciliation of the two.

Brooks does recognize the problem this Bobo self-centeredness poses. “What worries me most,” Brooks quotes from Tocqueville's Democracy in America, “is the danger that amid all the constant trivial preoccupations of private life, ambition may lose both its force and its greatness, that human passions may grow gentler and at the same time baser, with the result that the body social may become daily quieter and less aspiring.” Though Brooks ultimately does conclude that “it's good to live in a Bobo world,” he also warns that Tocqueville's fear has come to pass, and so calls Bobos to take up an attitude of public spiritedness. The question begged, however, is whether such a self-contented and self-consumed class is constitutionally able to submit to the rigors of public service. And even if it is, do we really want to live in a Bobo world?