Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. By David Brooks. (Touchstone, 2000, 284 pages) $14.00
They river-raft in West Virginia, beach-bum in Jamaica, and hike in the high deserts of Arizona. You'll see them with their $3000 Pentium-charged laptops at Starbucks, ordering latte with orange valencia, and choking on dried, little, day-old scones. And they rally around the egalitarian views of Ben & Jerry at the same time they exchange day-trading secrets on RagingBull.com. They are the Bourgeois Bohemians (Bobos), the newest American elite.
In this fun little scuttlebutt of a book, the Weekly Standard's David Brooks describes a class of folks who "seemed to have combined the countercultural sixties and the achieving eighties into one social ethos." Hence, Bob Dylan meets Reaganomics.
Bourgeois, after all, means practical middle class living, working the corporate way of life, and paying down the mortgage. Bohemian signifies carefree and artsy-fartsy, more Jack Kerouac than Martha Stewart. Combine the two, and what you have is a mildly conservative hippie who owns enough shares in Ford Motor Company to pay the kid's tuition to Dartmouth, yet celebrates Kyoto's anti-carbon monoxide stance and Gore's push for Yugo-like CAFÉ standards for 8,000 lb. SUVs.
They are an educated lot, these Bobos, and education is their stepping-stone to the upper echelon of society. In Bobo-land, the aristocratic class doesn't come by way of the umbilical cord, as the genteel are no longer determined by genetic breeding, but by their Yale law degrees and Rhodes Scholar titles. The arts-and-croissant rank and filers are the nurturers, as Brookes calls them. The business-type folks are the predators. The two cultures intermingle; that is, the nurturers and the predators meet at an Ivy League college, they marry, then they appear on the wedding page of the New York Times, the ultimate sign of success.
The Bobo consumption habits are a bit peculiar. Their Decade of Greed-provided disposable income steers them to places like Crate & Barrel and FAO Schwartz. Three hundred-dollar goose-down pillows are a near-requirement, as are the home cappuccino machines that resemble a Frankenstein contraption and churn away at Costa Rican organic beans. The simple has been replaced by the sophisticated. And no longer do name-brand reputations determine their consumption habits; Bobos are more concerned with the company's social and environmental responsibility record.
The Bobo business life is often set in small, upscale communities, or as the author calls them, Latte Towns. "The ideal Latte Town", quips Brooks, "has a Swedish-style government, German-style pedestrian malls, Victorian houses, Native American crafts, Italian coffee, Berkeley human rights groups, and Beverly Hills income levels." Though business is about making money, Brookes points out that the Bobo businessperson may practice a sort of "enlightened capitalism", where making money is connected to some progressive cause, somewhere, whether it's John Mellencamp's farmer friends, Sting's rainforest, or third-world workers working without air-conditioning. This gives the countercultural entrepreneur a sense of honesty and feel-goodism, both of which are prerequisites for the success of the capitalist-radical fusion.
Bobo intellectuals are somewhat a variant of the entrepreneurs. Their bohemian nature and thoughts of grandiose accomplishments spur them onward. Though less cash-conscious than their business brothers, they still tend to see that the grass is usually greener on the other side.
A Brookes jocularity is the Bobo intellectual crisis known as SIDS — Status-Income Disequilibrium. That is, "they spend their days in glory and their nights in mediocrity. At work they go off and give lectures — all eyes upon them — appear on TV and on NPR, chair meetings. All day long phone messages pile up on their desk — calls from rich or famous people seeking favors or attention — but at night they realize the bathroom needs cleaning so they have to pull out the Ajax. At work they are aristocrats, kings of the meritocracy, schmoozing with George Plimpton. At home they wonder if they can really afford a new car."
This is the essence of the Bobo intellectual — no matter how much green the two-income Bobo family seems to earn, it is never enough to compete with their cream of the crop companions. It means vacations at Disney World or Virginia Beach instead of the Swiss Alps.
The Bobo culture is busy raising 2.4 children apiece, and cultivates them differently. They have given up McGuffey Reader for Heather Has Two Mommies, and they have made sex a household word and dinnertime discussion. "It's not all chaos and amoralism," says Brookes. "What they are doing is weird and may be disgusting, but it has its own set of disciplines." Disciplined or not, this new Bohemian tolerance is questionable. They have become more tolerant of things deemed sordid in the past, but at the same time, they are also an intolerant, politically correct sort of bunch. So they're practicing sort of an intolerant tolerance, I suppose.
The Bobos are a people on the move. They move to wherever it is fashionable, and they live in whatever seems spiritual. An environmentally smart log cabin with the organic garden will do. Montana has become the champion state of free spirited Bobos, whereas the old bohemian wouldn't be caught dead in a state where right-wing mountain people collect gun racks and freeze-dried food.
A final, great shot taken by Brookes is the fad of intermeshing spiritual beliefs. Religion is no longer so strictly defined, as Boboism has reached out to all classes of spirituality, leaving one woman to "describe herself as a "Methodist Taoist Native Amnerican Quaker Russian Orthodox Buddhist Jew." Phew. Therefore, the Bobo religionist is no longer bound to the rigid confines of discerning religion. Like everything else, it's a hodge-podge.
Bobos in Paradise is engaging, crazy, and a phraseology jewel. Brookes has spelled out the suburban middle-class in appropriate terms. As you read, you'll recognize neighbors, family members, and maybe even a little bit of yourself.
August 22, 2001
Karen De Coster [send her mail] is a politically incorrect CPA, and an MA student in economics at Walsh College in Michigan.
Copyright © 2001 Karen De Coster