With Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks has introduced a new word—"Bobo"—into the lexicon, where it seems destined to take its place alongside such classic monikers as "yuppie," "hippie," and "WASP." The book argues that the bohemian spirit of the sixties has merged with the acquisitive impulses of the eighties to yield, in the nineties, a hybrid bourgeois-bohemian (or "Bobo") spirit of the age.
In the fifties and sixties, Brooks explains, the Protestant establishment fell victim to a new meritocratic ethos which, thanks to the educational-testing movement, began conferring status according to educational achievement rather than inherited wealth and breeding. Although many of the bright Baby Boomers who gained access to top schools initially scorned wealth, these well-educated idealists often became rich in spite of themselves, as the information economy began lavishly rewarding their knowledge and education. In the nineties, these newly well-off antimaterialists found ways to reconcile their unexpected wealth with their high-minded ideals. The result, Brooks writes, is a new upper class whose "grand achievement" has been the creation of "a way of living that lets you be an affluent success and at the same time a free-spirit rebel."
Bobos lavish their money not on luxuries, but on necessities like kitchens and bathrooms, splurging on Corian countertops, slate shower stalls, and stainless steel refrigerators. The most popular Bobo leisure-time pursuits are strenuous or edifying (like hiking or ecotourism) rather than hedonistic. And Bobo job offers (even in the business world) claim to hold out potential for personal growth and self-discovery. Brooks dissects this new Bobo lifestyle with perceptive humor:
To calculate a person's status, you take his net worth and multiply it by his antimaterialistic attitudes. A zero in either column means no prestige, but high numbers in both rocket you to the top of the heap. Thus, to be treated well in this world, not only do you have to show some income results; you have to perform a series of feints to show how little your worldly success means to you.... You will devote your conversational time to mocking your own success in a manner that simultaneously displays your accomplishments and your ironic distance from them. You will ceaselessly bash yuppies in order to show that you yourself have not become one. You will talk about your nanny as if she were your close personal friend, as if it were just a weird triviality that you happen to live in a $900,000 Santa Monica house and she takes the bus two hours each day to the barrio.
While it is doubtful that many readers will see themselves in every aspect of Boboism as described by Brooks, few will make their way through the book without flashes of self-recognition.
Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek, and a commentator on NPR and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He recently spoke with me by telephone.
Bobos in Paradise shrewdly describes the peculiarities of American elites of the 1990s, just as Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class addressed the elites of the 1890s. And your playfully descriptive approach to your subject (which you call "comic sociology") is reminiscent of Paul Fussell's insightful and humorous depiction of American class distinctions in his book Class (1983). Did these, or any other works, inform choices you made in writing Bobos in Paradise?
I read both books, and I actually mentioned both of them in my proposal. But neither of them were quite like my book. Fussell's is too nasty for my taste. He's sort of acerbic about every class except for his own—the university class—which he called the "X Class."
As for Veblen's book, critics have taken it as satirical, but he said he meant it as a serious work of sociology. I think it's a great book and something I learned a lot from. But I didn't aspire to go quite as deep as he did.
No books are exactly like mine—most sociologists don't try to tell jokes, and most comedy writers don't have pretensions the way I do. But there are a bunch of books from the late fifties and early sixties, like The Establishment, by Digby Baltzell, and The Status Seekers, by Vance Packard, that are more in the vein of what I was trying.
What I admire about writers from that time is that they weren't overly specialized: you felt free to theorize and put out your ideas about everything. Now the careerism of academia has taken over, and the etiquette is that one has to stick to one's own little furrow.
If you had to pick a male and a female Bobo posterchild for 2000, who would they be?
On the male side, I think you'd have to choose Bill Gates, who dresses like a grad student but turns out to be this ruthless businessman.
And for a woman, I think you can't do better than Hillary Clinton, because she marched in the sixties and traded currencies in the eighties, and she has a full stock of countercultural, progressive attitudes mixed with down-home ambition.
You mention that you first took notice of Bobo ascendance upon returning from a four-year stint in Europe. Is there something distinctly American about Boboism, or are European elites showing signs of Boboism as well?
I thought it was American when I wrote the book, but since then I've had calls and seen newspaper stories from all around the world saying, "It's just the same way here!" I've heard that from Japan and Sweden, and there have been about ten stories in the British press, and big stories in Brazil and Argentina. In the Parisian context they say there's a merging of the Left Bank and the Right Bank.
I always thought our business class was much more anti-intellectual than the others, so I thought the merger of commerce and art would be more striking here. But people abroad tell me they see the same sorts of patterns everywhere.
You point out that "Norman Podhoretz was practically burned alive for admitting in his 1967 memoir, Making It, that he, like other writers, was driven by ambition." Have you been criticized for writing so frankly about the jockeying for status that goes on in Bobo culture?
It's funny. I haven't received too many bitter attacks from anybody. Maybe from a few people who hate the Bobos and think I'm not tough enough, but from the Bobos themselves I've received two basic responses. One was typified by a woman who's got one of these massive kitchens and a beautiful McMansion. She called me and said, "This is so great that you're writing about these people. It's too bad we can't live that way!" And I felt like saying, "You are! You are, like, the epitome!" So there's the self-denial. But the more prevalent response is people who say they read it with some measure of pained embarrassment.
So do people invite you over and then not know whether to give you fava beans or Kool-Aid?
I get a lot people saying "My house is off the record" when I go over there. But my own house is so pathetic that I have no grounds on which to judge others.