Pity the old-timer who thought that opposites were opposites, that you couldn't be, say, bourgeois and bohemian at the same time. When today's new elite started their working lives they found that the rule of either-or cramped their style. They wanted it both ways — to make lots of money and keep their anti-establishment posture. So they decreed that forthwith, opposites could be merged and they created the "bourgeois bohemian." Although this cultural bigamist has come to define today's attitudes toward morality, work and politics, the species had never been examined with anthropological rigor. But now comes David Brooks and his book on the bourgeois bohemian,
Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon & Schuster; 284 pages). The irritating imperative of alliteration is a feature of Bobo-talk.
For those who can't quite picture a Bobo, Brooks pieces together a vivid description: he drinks vente almond Frappuccino, wears collarless organic fiber shirts in earthy tones, drives an upmarket sport utility vehicle, goes ecotrekking with the mountain tribes of Bhutan, reads Aristotle on Management and works at a technology company whose mission statement says it strives to make not only money, but also meaning.
Yesterday's avant-garde of the counterculture, the Bobos, form today's new establishment. "America once again has a dominant class that defines the parameters of respectable opinion and taste — a class that determines conventional wisdom, that promulgates a code of good manners, that establishes a pecking order to give shape to society, that excludes those who violate its codes." Following their rapid conversion from rebels to pillars of society, the Bobos feel the urge to prove to themselves and the world that they haven't abandoned their old values, that their new status hasn't corrupted them. "How to show that even while climbing toward the top of the ladder they have not become all the things they still profess to hold in contempt ... How to reconcile their success with their spirituality, their elite status with their egalitarian ideals ... How do you live at the top of society without becoming an insufferable snob?"
Brooks is good at describing the contradictions that permeate Boboism. For instance, the Bobo makes money by renouncing it. By pretending to despise filthy lucre he becomes a highly marketable commodity. The author comes up with a wonderful way to measure someone's social standing, using what could be called Brooks' Law: "To calculate a person's status, you take his net worth and multiply it by his anti-materialistic attitudes."
Bobos in Paradise is witty, well-written and thoroughly researched; the chapter on the rise of the educated class is nothing short of brilliant. The book's one weakness is that the author outs himself as a Bobo. This makes Brooks all too fulsome in his praise of the new ruling class. Is the Bobo really the repository of all things bright and beautiful, the harbinger of a "golden age"? There exists an entire magazine, the Baffler (www.thebaffler.com), that is dedicated to lampooning Bobos for their rebellion-through-consumption and corporate-sponsored transgressions. And there is much room for mockery because the Bobo is a phony, a bourgeois with only a bohemian veneer whose daring doesn't go beyond pressing a photograph of Che Guevara into service for selling vodka and naming a new minivan the Kerouac. At heart the Bobo is a conformist, though his is a conformity on stilts.
Despite protestations to the contrary, money is the bedrock of Boboism and consumption is Bobos' main activity and purpose in life. It is not so much behavior that separates them from the bourgeois as their justification for being bourgeois. When the old elite got rich, their wealth corrupted their souls; when Bobos do it, money is a mere by-product of self-expression. When the yuppie works a 12-hour day, he worships at the feet of Mammon; when a Bobo does it, he is pursuing a vision. When others go to the mall, it is shallow consumerism; when Bobos shop, it is testimony to their elevated tastes. The Bobo is George Bernard Shaw's Pickering, sneering at the lower orders, "Have you no morals, man?" The Dolittles reply, "Can't afford them, Guv'nor."
An ardent believer in the virtue of the bourgeois bohemian, Brooks regards the age of the bourgeois-bohemian as the end of history. But having assumed the mantle of the new upper class, the Bobos will sooner or later have to face up to the anti-Bobos. It is an occupational hazard of the establishment to be rebelled against.
In a couple of years there will be space for another book to offer a first glimpse of the post-Bobo era. This book might take a more jaundiced view of Brooks' Bobos and might even give them a different name altogether: Cocos — condescending connoisseurs — comes to mind, or maybe Sosos — sophisticated sophists.