Bobos In Paradise
by David Brooks
“Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” it suddenly occurred to him. “But how could that be, when I did everything so properly?” he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.” The Death of Ivan Ilych —Leo Tolstoy
I cannot think of anyone who went broke telling the wealthy what they want to hear. Nor can I think of anyone who has gone broke underestimating the lower rungs of academic culture. David Brooks satisfies both groups. History supposedly ended and hunky-dory ultra-conservatism won. Brooks argues the bohemian impulse merged with the bourgeois impulse, producing characters easy to ridicule, representative of a new elite and capable of producing a new golden age. This golden age, apparently, will be inaugurated by will power and simplifying the tax code (read: tax shifts from the rich to future generations). Brooks envisions little else. As for other impulses, come on, let’s not get carried away with complexities. This work is best at a few mild pricks at Bobos, for example, Bobos believing they are wonderful for holding some socially correct belief--esteeming tokenistic recycling activities, sending $20 to the Sierra Club, or sending $20 to the Sahara Club.
Jackson Lears notes “the current conventional wisdom [read: Brook’s entertainment sociology] reduces bohemianism to a set of aesthetic gestures: living poor with style becomes merely living with style (retro, techno, pomo, whatever).” He adds: “However silly or self-righteous the countercultural stance could become, it at least recognized that pleasure must not be confused with high-level consumption.”
Brooks, however, claims that Bobos have become too “utilitarian”—meaning practical and safety conscious, not followers of J.S. Mill’s ideas. Brook’s vision is aesthetic. We need more death, mayhem and celebrity crimes for entertainment, as long as someone else is the victim. Bored aesthetes need protection from “evil” safety utilitarians. (Help is on the way from the ideological merchants of murder and mayhem.)
Some nasty passions, Brooks argues, died, yet along with them went some noble passions. Brooks worries that humans may grow gentler, yet more base—”base” as in failing to be devoutly religious. He does not mean morally base. What ultra-conservative thinks doing the right thing is more edifying than religion?
The new ultra-conservatives pretend the duties they have are the spectacularly easy ones; that tax shifts from the rich are the most important issue; that being hip, nice, busy, and uninformed are pinnacles of virtue; that the only major threats and harms come from misguided liberal activists. Yep, that's Boboism.
Mostly anecdotal, Bobos In Paradise opines that Bobos are shallow, yet this argument is more superficial than almost anyone I have met. There are Bobos, but how many? One hundred thousand? One million? Five million? And how much power does this “elite” have? Many of the real elites—the super rich—do not appear to be Bobos.
Brook’s sociology may represent an availability bias. Bobos stand out—like someone saying in the 1980s, "There sure are a lot of new wave rocker types around." You may see a sign that says 150 varieties of organic produce and think it part of a Bobo trend, but only after driving past thousands of signs that say the more ordinary—Whopper Combo, instant bail, employee of the month, 99 dollars down, spring clearance, public auction, free brake check, yard sale. But then, I have not been to Burlington, Vermont in ages.
Brooks claims this new elite is more meritocratic. I think not. Forty percent of today’s Fortune 400 were born there. Most of the rest had enormous financial and other help from family members. Many elites worked hard in the past, albeit sometimes at dubious pursuits.
Paul Krugman notes in the past many huge companies would pay their lowest paid workers far more than the minimum wage, even though they could have paid them as little as legal. Paying as little as possible would have hurt morale, perhaps hurt the company, and maybe even caused a little guilt. Can anyone imagine Bobo incarnate Phil Knight paying far more than he has to? It is, of course, easier to pay the lowest paid less when eliminated from the company social picture while they work at “subcontractors.” I think a great idea for a book would evaluate who is worse: Surly old plutocrats or nice guy plutocrats like Phil Knight.
Some ultra-conservative commentators announced that the evil committed on September 11 spells the end of too much “irony.” Of course, they did not say that it spells the end of too much glib, smug ultra-conservatism, including the ironic varieties like this book. These are individuals whose idea of commitment to a war is buying themselves tax cuts and corporate welfare. The author’s descriptions of Bobo ironies are not humorous or incisive, about as fascinating as Don DeLillo’s ironies. I’ll take Seinfeld and The Onion over these books. Heck, I’d rather read a fat book of statistics from the Department of Energy. I’m tempted to think Bobos stands for boring bohemians, not much about these bohemians qualifies as bohemian. The people described by Brooks would be better described as Cobos, the cool bourgeois. The thing they loathe is being uncool. They would hate being some stock character from a show about the 1950s.
Among the pathetic things happening now—albeit on a trivial level—is that the quality of right wing humor is in steep decline, yet right wing ideologues gain ever greater control of the mass media, which means that no matter bad and unfunny the works of David Brooks, James Lileks and their brethren, media moguls eagerly to plaster their works throughout the land. It is possible to mix humor with strong arguments. Unfortunately, Bobos fails at both. If you want right-wing humor, you are better off reading P.J O’Rourke’s humorous books from the 1980s.
Like Bridges of Madison County (the novel), this may garner a place in history. Future generations will look back and wonder how so many people fell in love with such refuse.
Bobos look at things that do not instantly intrigue them with passive, corrosive, all-to-easy cynicism. There are prices for indifference and willful ignorance. I hope that the price does no include Peter Pry’s nightmare. This is slothful ultra-conservatism that looks outside the bedroom window in the Hamptons and says “Everything looks fine to me. There’s that complex tax booklet on my desk, but other than that the rest of the world looks wonderful. Ultra-conservatism must have caused all these wonderful things.” Somehow I have a feeling the great Bobo slumber will be brutally awakened, at which point Bobos and ultra-conservatives will blame all the usual scapegoats and never themselves.
—Book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 26, 2009