Bobos in Paradise : The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000)
CSPAN Booknotes (2000)
Throughout the twentieth century it's been pretty
easy to distinguish between the bourgeois world of
But I returned to an America in which the bohemian
and the bourgeois were all mixed up. It was
Such was the American situation as David Brooks found it when he returned after four and a half years abroad. In Bobos in America, he does an excellent job of demonstrating that this weird convergence of bohemian and bourgeois has occurred among America's elites, and he offers any number of really witty, acerbic observations about the culture that the Bobos have created for themselves. He does less well in assessing what the potential effects of this culture on the nation might be. In fact, as a Bobo himself, he seems relatively unconcerned about, if not oblivious to, the very real societal dangers of the Bobo ethos :
These Bobos define our age. They are the new establishment.
Their hybrid culture is the atmosphere
There is simply no more significant human undertaking than the replacement of a moral code. Western morality is the product of thousands of years of thought and experimentation. The idea that the Bobo elite has replaced this traditional morality and that this revolution can be blithely characterized as "not so bad" is sort of irresponsible. It badly weakens an otherwise interesting book.
To begin with, Brooks assesses the WASP establishment of the 1950's. Despite some characteristics which are now unacceptable--exclusivity, anti-intellectualism, male dominance, alcoholism, to name a few--this elite was also frugal, self-disciplined, humble, and, most importantly, endowed with a sense of obligation, both personal and public. The personal sense manifested itself in terms of a code of honor; the public, in an ideal of service to the nation. Brooks cites Edmund Burke's description of the code of the natural aristocracy :
To be bred in a place of estimation; to see nothing
low and sordid from one's infancy; to be taught
This is obviously idealized, but the point is that it was aspirational and represented the standard towards which members of the class were expected to strive. But this elite undermined it's own hegemony when, true to it's own political ideology, it became more meritocratic. As educational opportunity and access to the best schools were made more generally available to qualified students from every walk of life, a new meritocratic elite was born.
Perhaps inevitably, this rising new elite set itself up in opposition to the ethos of the Old Guard. Brooks cites a typically perceptive notion of Tocqueville's :
[his] principle of revolutions proved true : as social
success seems more possible for a rising group,
They were, thus, primed to revolt against the prevailing standards of the WASP elite. Coincidentally, or no, their rise came at a time when the ethos of the bohemians was also ascendant.
Since at least the time of Jean Jacques Rousseau, when the Industrial Age was still in it's infancy, bohemians, or more broadly, intellectuals, had set themselves up in opposition to bourgeois capitalist society :
The bourgeois prized materialism, order, regularity,
custom, rational thinking, self-discipline, and
These two opposing worldviews tend to break down along business vs. artistic lines, but the divide also occurs between age groups. There just aren't many older bohemians; after all, there's a reason they're called starving artists. Rebellion, antimaterialism and "vivid experience" are the pursuits of youth. Of course, it just so happened that the post-War period saw the creation of one of the largest youth cohorts that any mature society has ever had to deal with. When these two trends, meritocracy and bohemianism combined in one generation they formed a volatile mixture and here is where David Brooks's analysis begins to break down.
Brooks recognizes that the resulting situation is unusual because :
This is an elite that has been raised to oppose elites.
They are affluent yet opposed to materialism.
But, because he's missed a key element of bohemianism, he's drastically underestimated how unhealthy this dichotomy is ; that element is egalitarianism. Where bourgeois ideals lead to belief that people rise or fall based on their own intrinsic merit, bohemian ideals lead to a belief that all people, all ideas, all experiences are inherently equal and that differences in achievement among people are based not on inner merit, but on sinister outer forces.. With a little further thought, he'd find that the idea of a meritocracy is irreconcilable with bohemian egalitarianism and that the attempt to reconcile them has created a schizoid elite. Bobos accepted the idea that everyone is equal and then rose above most of the population; imagine the internal pressures at work in someone who's made millions of dollars but believes a homeless person could do his job, if only the breaks had gone differently. The nation today has an economic elite whose economic success disproves their most dearly held ideological beliefs.
The book is at it's hilarious best when he is describing the absurd philosophical constructs that these folks have had to create to try to reconcile their conflicted natures, for instance, "that spending $15,000 on a media center is vulgar, but that spending $15,000 on a slate shower stall is a sign that you are at one with the Zenlike rhythms of nature." Likewise, the Code of Financial Correctness he propounds is a hoot :
Rule 1. Only vulgarians spend lavish amounts
of money on luxuries. Cultivated people restrict their
Rule 2. It is perfectly acceptable to spend
lots of money on anything that is of 'professional quality,'
Rule 3. You must practice the perfectionism of small things.
Rule 4. You can never have too much texture.
Rule 5. The educated elites are expected to practice one-downmanship.
Rule 6. Educated elites are expected to spend
huge amounts of money on things that used to be
Rule 7. Members of the educated elite prefer
stores that give them more product choices than they
He concludes :
Marx once wrote that the bourgeois takes all that
is sacred and makes it profane. The Bobos take
Now I have no doubt that this is what the new Bobo ethos tries to achieve, but it is just so transparently phony and hypocritical that it seems almost to be symptomatic of a mass mental delusion. Turn on This Old House or the Home and Garden Network for a few minutes; does anyone outside of Bobo culture really fail to find these people laughably pretentious? There is something psychologically unhealthy about a class of people who have to fabricate such patently ridiculous justifications to feel comfortable spending their own hard earned money, but that is where their guilt leads them.
Less amusing, but more troublesome, are the sections on Bobo politics, morality and spirituality. In the realm of politics :
Their political project is to correct the excesses
of the two social revolutions that brought them to
The bohemian sixties and the bourgeois eighties were
polar opposites in many ways. But they did
If the sixties and the eighties were about expanding
freedom and individualism, the Bobos are now
That's why the two crucial words in the Bobo political
project these days...are community and
First of all, it's important to note that this is no different than the exclusionary behavior of any of history's prior elites. Freedom got the Bobos where they are; now they want controls put on. Second, the long history of mankind is one of a trend towards greater freedom; do we really want the Bobos stifling it? And should they be viewed as benignly as Brooks views them if their project is to stifle freedom?
In the field of morality the Bobos are really conflicted. Brooks writes of them :
They have an ability to not react; to accept what
doesn't directly concern them. They tolerate a little
This attitude of easy approval on Brooks's part is simply outrageous. Peel back some of the pretty words and you find a Bobo morality which accepts adultery, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, and a host of other vices which they enjoy indulging in, but which have torn the fabric of society asunder, with particularly damaging effects on the less privileged, the very young, the very old, in short, everyone but the Bobos. It is also a morality which hypocritically excuses real harms as long as intent is good. This is the mindset that gave us the New Deal and the Great Society, sets of programs which assuaged liberal guilt but utterly disserved the very constituencies they were supposed to help. Disguised as toleration and altruism, Bobo morality serves only the Bobos; it is supremely selfish. And, though I'm charitable enough to assume it's an incidental effect and not the purpose of their "morality," it has served to lock the underclasses into an endless cycle of poverty, ignorance and social pathologies, removing them from the economic competition with the Bobos and their children.
In describing the burgeoning content-free religion of the Bobos, Brooks cites Francis Fukuyama's book The Great Disruption :
Instead of community arising as a byproduct of rigid
belief, people will return to religious belief
This, of course, is the great insight of the Nazis and the Communists : that by providing social forms and rituals and activities which make the citizenry feel that they are a part of something, you can co-opt them into even evil pursuits. Modern religions are increasingly willing to adapt their doctrines to suit their least serious adherents. They are left with the structure of religion, but it has been drained of any substance. The great term that Brooks borrows from a rabbi in Montana is "flexidoxy." Religion is so flexible that it no longer requires anything of practitioners beyond participation, good will, voluntarism and charity. An organization which takes no cognizance of the soul, merely asking that parishioners engage in certain activities, is a religion in name only.
Nor is Brooks content simply to justify the Bobo destruction of millennia worth of morality, religion and social structure, he slips into the classic error of hubris when he asserts :
In truth it is hard to see how the rule of the meritocrats
could ever come to an end. The meritocratic
Are we really so dense as a species that we will never learn from past errors? Every ruling class believes itself to be inevitable and eternal; I call your attention to the Thousand Year Reich. The Bobos are perched on a three part pendulum swing : a triumph of moral permissiveness over responsibility; of merit over entitlement; and of the economically powerful over the lower classes. None of these is unique, though it may be unusual to have them all occur simultaneously. How reasonable is it to assume that none of the three currently vanquished but historically resilient forces will swing back the other way? Mightn't all three even swing back?
Take just one trend that must be troubling to anyone who envisions an Age of the Bobo : they don't reproduce themselves. The ugly truth at the core of Bobo schizophrenia is that Bobos are still overwhelmingly drawn from the same severely limited socio-economic and racial groups that have historically dominated Western society. They are still predominantly white children of the middle and upper classes. However egalitarian their rhetoric, the product of Bobo "meritocracy" is as unequal as any elite has ever been. But a quick look at demographic trends reveals that they are also a rapidly declining segment of the population. When whites are no longer even a plurality in this country will meritocracy survive the competing demands of groups which, for whatever reason, do not succeed in open competition? or will the affirmative action programs that Bobos now support, largely out of guilt, be used to keep their children, few as they may be, out of the educational opportunities and institutions which guarantee entree to the elite?
David Brooks is so bent on self-congratulation and celebration of his own cohort that he fails to consider any of these rather serious issues. The result is a book that wittily describes a fascinating and important social phenomenon, but is willfully oblivious to the negative consequences of the social revolution it's author posits. It's a funny book, but inadequate to it's purposes.
See also:General Literature
The United States is in the grip of a certainty crisis: Bush's waffle-free directness alarms the fashionably doubtful commentariat (David Brooks, March 07, 2003, Times of London)
-ESSAY: Revenge on the Nerds: What's nerdy commentator David Brooks got against nerds? A peek into his grown-up, high-school world. (Julia Lipman, 02.03.03, Flak)
Book-related and General Links:
-BIO : David Brooks (Weekly Standard)
-The Weekly Standard
-BOOKNOTES : Sunday, July 30th, 2000 Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (CSPAN)
-EXCERPT : Introduction to Bobos in Paradise
-EXCERPT : The Great Bobo Spiritual Revival : The new upper class has returned to religion on its own terms. An excerpt from 'Bobos in Paradise' By David Brooks (Belief Net)
-EXCERPT : from Bobos in Paradise
-ESSAY : The New Upper Class (David Brooks, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY : New-Class Nuptials (David Brooks, City Journal)
-ESSAY : Grandees and Bobos on the Mainline (David Brooks, Washington Post)
-ESSAY : What Ails the Right : Missing from today's American conservatism: America.
(WILLIAM KRISTOL AND DAVID BROOKS , Wall Street Journal)
-RESPONSE : "National Greatness" or Conservative Malaise? (Virginia I. Postrel and James K. Glassman, Dynamist)
-ESSAY : Brian Lamb's America (David Brooks, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY : George W. Bush should be president : Forget his image as a callous, empty-headed frat boy. People like him, and that means he'll attract and retain the best minds (David Brooks, Salon)
-ESSAY : Buchanan feeds information age class war (David Brooks, Detroit News)
-ESSAY : The Token Man (David Brooks, Independent Women's Forum)
-ESSAY : Living-Room Crusaders (David Brooks, Newsweek, December 15, 1997)
-ESSAY : Mayor Guiliani : The in-your-face moderate (David Brooks, US News)
-ESSAY : Ralph Nader, Conservative Wannabe : America's most famous corporation hater has a surprising idea of who should support his presidential campaign. (David Brooks, Weekly standard)
-REVIEW : of The First American by H. W. Brands Our Founding Yuppie Ben Franklin's America (David Brooks, Weekly Standard)
-REVIEW : of Journals of Ayn Rand Edited by David Harriman (David Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of First Son George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty. By Bill Minutaglio (David Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of PARTY CRASHER A Gay Republican Challenges Politics as Usual. By Richard Tafel (David Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of THE AMERICAN LEADERSHIP TRADITION Moral Vision From Washington to Clinton. By Marvin Olasky (David Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Two Lucky People Memoirs. By Milton Friedman and Rose D. Friedman (David Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Crazy Rhythm My Journey From Brooklyn, Jazz, and Wall Street to Nixon's White House, Watergate, and Beyond. . . . By Leonard Garment (David Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Democracy Derailed Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money. By David S. Broder (David Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Feeding the Beast The White House Versus the Press. By Kenneth T. Walsh (David Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson (David Brooks, Commentary Magazine)
-REVIEW : of Jew vs. Jew by Samuel Freedman (David Brooks, Washington Post Book World)
-REVIEW : of Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money by James Buchan (David Brooks, Commentary)
-REVIEW : of FRANCIS FUKUYAMA. The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order (David Brooks, Policy Review)
-REVIEW : of John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity by Garry Wills (David Brooks, Commentary)
-DISCUSSION : of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, by Nicholas Lemann (David Brooks, Slate Book Club)
-DISCUSSION : Does Clinton Matter ? What effect has Bill Clinton's presidency had on American politics? How long a shadow will Clinton cast over the 2000 presidential election? Atlantic Unbound has invited The Atlantic Monthly's Jack Beatty, David Brooks of The Weekly Standard, David Corn of The Nation, and the historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton University to take up the question of the Clinton legacy (Atlantic Monthly)
-DISCUSSION : How Would Al Gore Govern in Foreign Policy? : Moderators : E.J. Dionne, Washington Post & David Brooks, Weekly Standard (American Enterprise Institute)
-DISCUSSION : The Coming Trial : Tom Oliphant, a columnist for The Boston Globe, and David Brooks, senior editor at The Weekly Standard, analyze today's developments on Capitol Hill and the beginning of the impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. (Online Newshour, PBS)
-DISCUSSION : "The Heart and Soul of Conservatism" GUESTS: Christopher DeMuth John Judis David Brooks Bill Kauffman (Airdate: March 22, 1996, Think Tank, PBS)
-INTERVIEW : with David Brooks A Kinder Gentler Overclass (Atlantic Monthly)
-INTERVIEW : with David Brooks (Gwen Ifill, The Online Newshour, PBS)
-INTERVIEW : The Media at the Millennium: Interview with David Brooks (Ilyse Veron, NewsWatch)
-SLATE DIALOGUE : Is Washington Washed Up? by David Brooks and Michael Elliott (Slate)
-CHAT : with David Brooks (Newsweek)
-ARCHIVES : "david brooks" (Slate)
-ESSAY : The McCain Insurrection (William Kristol & David Brooks, Weekly Standard)
-REVIEW : The Conservative Conundrum : The clash of the old Republican movement against McCain's rebels may point the way to yet another noble conservative defeat (David Brooks, Newsweek)
-ESSAY : Zeus Bless America (Marvin Olasky)
-ESSAY : Bush's "compassionate" advisor singles out Jews : Professor says he didn't know the three writers "with holes in their souls" were Jewish. (JAKE TAPPER, Salon)
-ESSAY : The neocons wake up : Arguing the GOP (FRANKLIN FOER, New Republic)
-ESSAY : The trouble with TR.(Theodore Roosevelt) (Matthew Spalding, National Review)
-ESSAY : "National greatness" : Looking for purpose in all the wrong places (Marvin Olasky, World)
-ESSAY : Conservative Confusions (James Nuechterlein, First Things)
-ESSAY : "National Greatness" or Conservative Malaise? (Virginia I. Postrel and James K. Glassman, Reason)
-ESSAY : Liberals Are Dressing Up In Conservative Clothes (Doug Bandow, Cato Institute)
-ESSAY : Not-So-Radical Republicans : Why the GOP budget revolution failed--and how it might succeed (Stephen Moore, Reason)
-ESSAY : The Weekly That's Anything But Standard (Steven Harras, Pop Politics)
-ESSAY : In the Culture War, He Accentuates the Positive : David Brooksís new book shatters some stereotypes. (Mike Potemra, National Review)
-ESSAY : Todayís Media Elite: Bourgeois and Bohemian (Catherine Seipp, MediaWeek)
-ESSAY : Wealthy and hip - the Bobos storm America (Daily Telegraph UK)
-ESSAY : What the Bobos are Buying (George Will)
-ESSAY : A Turning Point for Moral Decay? (Suzanne Fields, Insight)
-ESSAY : Rethinking Republicanism : Mixing a new message for the GOP. (Daniel Casse, Nashville Scene)
-ESSAY : Betwixt Left and Right : A recent debate on Slate between gay left and straight right did more than just spotlight the Independent Gay Forum; it showed the difficulty the contending sides have had in finding a common language to discuss gays and society. (By Stephen H. Miller, Independent Gay Forum)
-REVIEW : of BOBOS IN PARADISE The New Upper Class and How They Got There By David Brooks (JANET MASLIN, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of Bobos In Paradise The New Upper Class and How They Got There. By David Brooks (Kurt Andersen, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Bobos (Alan Wolfe, New Republic)
-REVIEW : of BOBOS in Paradise (J. Bradford DeLong, ECON 161)
-REVIEW : of Bobos in Paradise (Clay Risen, Flak Magazine)
-REVIEW : of Bobos in Paradise (Brendan Bernhard, LA Weekly)
-REVIEW : of Bobos in Paradise (Bill Boisvert, In These Times)
-REVIEW : of Bobos (Mark Satin, Radical Middle Newsletter)
-REVIEW : of Bobos Bourgeois-Bohemian Rhapsody (Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Intellectual Capital)
-REVIEW : of Bobos (E. J. Graff, The American Prospect)
-REVIEW : of Bobos (Allen Smalling, NewCity Chicago)
-REVIEW : of Bobos Frappacino Generation By Scott Shuger (Washington Monthly)
-REVIEW : of Bobos (Diane White, Charlotte Observer)
-REVIEW : of Bobos (Kennedy Maize, Washington Pest)
-REVIEW : of Bobos (Lawrence Henry, Spintech)
-REVIEW : of Bobos The Bobo Future : "Bourgeois bohemians" wield inordinate power over how we think about consumerism, morality--and faith itself (Roberto Rivera, Christianity Today)
-REVIEW : of Bobos (JAMES LANGTON, The Age AUS)
-REVIEW : of Bobos in Paradise (Gary Rosen, Commentary)
-REVIEW : of Bobos (Thomas Mallon, Atlantic Monthly)
-REVIEW : of Bobos (Jim Hanas, Memphis Flyer)
-REVIEW : of Bobos (Ennui Magazine)
-REVIEW : of Bobos (Annalee Newitz, sfbg)
-REVIEW : of Bobos (Melinda Wittstock, Observer UK)
-REVIEW : of Bobos Bobos "R" Us : David Brooks has seen the new American establishment -- and it is us! But has he discovered the power of latte-drinking, laptop-toting "bourgeois bohemians" just as the sun is setting on their glorious reign? (Daniel H. Pink, Fast Company)
-REVIEW : of Bobos Bobos in Purgatory (Diana Schaub, The Public Interest)
-REVIEW : of Bobos (GEOFF SCHUMACHER, Las Vegas MERCURY)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd