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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


History supposedly ended and hunky-dory ultraconservatism won. David 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 their own wonderfulness for having some tokenistic, socially correct beliefs or actions such as trivial recycling activities.


Elsewhere Jackson Lears notes “the current conventional wisdom [read: Brook’s infotainment sociology] reduces bohemianism to a set of aesthetic gestures: living poor with style becomes merely living with style (retro, techno, pomo, whatever).”


Brooks claims that bobos have become too utilitarian—meaning practical and safety conscious, not followers of J.S. Mill’s ideas. Brook’s vision is hedonistic, needing more mayhem and celebrity crimes for entertainment, as long as someone else is the victim.


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, not morally base.


Those who support ultraconservatism pretend their duties easy ones; that tax shifts from the rich are the most important issue; that being hip, busy, and uninformed are virtues; that the only major threats come from misguided liberal activists. That's boboism.


Mostly anecdotal, Brooks opines that Bobos are shallow, yet Brooks' argument is more shallow. There are bobos, but how many? One million? Five million? And how much power does this “elite” have? Those with the most power—the transnational super rich—do not appear to be bobos.


Brooks' 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 major bobo trend, but only after driving past dozens 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).


Brooks claims the new elite is meritocratic. Wrong. Forty percent of today’s Fortune 400 were born there. Most of the rest had enormous financial and other help from family members. Most of the ways they redistribute wealth and power to themselves are unethical and becoming ever more totalitarian.


Paul Krugman notes that in the past many huge companies would pay their lowest paid workers far more than the minimum wage, 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 can get away with? It is, of course, easier to pay the lowest paid less when eliminated from the company social picture while they work at “subcontractors.” (A great idea for a book would evaluate who is worse: the surly old rich or the cool rich like Phil Knight.)


Some conservative commentators announced that the evil committed on September 11, 2001 spells the end of too much irony. Of course, they did not say that it spells the end of too much ultraconservatism, including the ironic varieties in this book. These are individuals whose idea of commitment to national protection is buying themselves tax cuts and corporate welfare. Brooks' descriptions of Bobo ironies are not humorous or incisive, about as fascinating as Don DeLillo’s ironies. Seinfeld and The Onion are more hilarious. Heck, I’d rather read a fat book of statistics from the Department of Energy. I’m tempted to think bobos stands for boring bohemianism, not much about these bohemians qualifies as bohemian. The people described by Brooks would be better described as cobos, the cool bourgeois.


The quality of conservative humor is in steep decline, yet various forms of establishmentism 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 are, the mass media plasters their works throughout the land. Humor can mix with strong arguments. Unfortunately, Brooks fails at both. If you want conservative humor, you are better off reading PJ O’Rourke’s writings from the 1980s.


People with power view ideas and events that do not intuitively intrigue them with passive, corrosive cynicism. There are prices for indifference and willful ignorance. Somehow I have a feeling the great ethical slumber will be brutally awakened, at which point, individuals with power will blame the usual scapegoats and not themselves.


 Book review article by JT Fournier, last updated July 26, 2009


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