BOBOS IN PARADISE
By David Brooks
a Book Review by John Ed Robertson, July 11, 2000
The unusual word "Bobo" in the title of this book is the authorís term for a new socio-economic phenomenon. It is a contraction of "bourgeois bohemians", and it refers to a significant development in American culture at the end of the 20th century. According to Brooks, the educated class has embraced both bourgeois and bohemian values and reconciled these two sets of values, which have historically been at odds with one another.
First, it might be helpful to define these two terms. Bourgeois was originally a French word, and bohemian was originally applied to gypsies thought to be from Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic. Websterís defines the two as follows:
Bourgeois noun: In France, a person of the middle rank in society, as of the shop keeping class, hence any person of the middle class. Among radical socialists this refers to any person with private property interests. adjective: engrossed in material interests, conservative, hidebound, capitalistic
Bohemian: One of a class of artists and intellectuals, etc. who adopt a mode of life in protest against, or indifferent to, the common conventions of society, esp. in social relations.
Brooks traces these two concepts back to the early 18th century, when the merchant class replaced the aristocracy after the French Revolution. He takes Benjamin Franklin as an archetypical spokesman for practical and democratic bourgeois values. They wanted to appear more refined than the working masses, but not as flamboyant as the spendthrift and amoral European aristocrats.
The bohemians arose in the 1830ís in France in reaction to the bourgeoisie. Pained abhorrence of bourgeois values became the official emotion of most writers and intellectuals in early 19th century France, because they considered that the bourgeoisie had no hint of the transcendent. They were prosaic and mediocre, with nothing to spark the imagination. The bohemians embraced novelty and sometimes applauded experimentation to demonstrate their contempt for the conservative middle class.
In America, the transcendentalists, such as Thoreau and Emerson embodied the anti-materialism of the bohemians, but in a less provocative way. Brooks writes: "Their goal was to transcend materialism and rationalism and so penetrate the inner spirituality that was at the core of every person. Thanks to them, bohemian America has been more naturalist, more devoted to the simple life and less nihilistic than its European counterpart."
More recently, of course, we have seen a serious bohemian attack on bourgeois values in the 60ís and 70ís, first in the Beat generation and then especially in the anti- Vietnam War movement. The baby boomers embraced bohemian values with a vengeance, in part because they were a more idealistic generation, and in part in reaction to the Vietnam War. This was followed by a bourgeois counter-attack in the 80ís during the Reagan administration when, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, the Michael Douglas character in the film Wall Street: "Greed became good."
The authorís basic thesis is that bourgeois and bohemian values, long at odds with one another, have been reconciled. After spending four and a half years abroad, he returned to the U.S. and was shocked by the blending together of bourgeois and bohemian values that he saw everywhere. He writes:
"I returned to an America in which the bohemian and the bourgeois were all mixed up. It was now impossible to tell an espresso-sipping artist from a cappuccino-gulping banker. And this wasnít just a matter of fashion accessories. I found that if you investigated peopleís attitudes toward sex, morality, leisure time, and work, it was getting harder and harder to separate the anti-establishment renegade form the pro-establishment company man. Most people, at least among the college-educated set, seemed to have rebel attitudes and social-climbing attitudes all scrambled together. Defying expectations and maybe logic, people seemed to have combined the counter-cultural sixties and the achieving eighties into one social ethos."
To illustrate his thesis, he looks at places in America where bohemian values have invaded strongholds of the bourgeoisie, such as the Main Line of Philadelphia, or where bourgeois values have implanted themselves in formerly bohemian locales, such as Greenwich Village or Burlington, Vermont. For example, he takes Wayne, Pennsylvania, which happens to be the town in which I live, as a classic example of the marriage of bohemian and bourgeois values:
"Wayne, Pennsylvania, used to be such a square town. Itís 13 miles west of Philadelphia, and while other Main Line communities, like Bryn Mawr and Haverford, have always had a little cosmopolitan flair to go with their dense concentrations of country club grandees, Wayne was strictly a white bread kind of place. Mary Poppins played in the town cinema for an entire summerÖDusty apothecaries lingered on the main shopping street, delivering remedies to the old Main Line widows who lived at the southern end of the town ship. The Philadelphia Story was set here; The Preppy Handbook might as well have been."
Brooks goes on to explain how, over the past six years or so "A new culture has swept into town and overlaid itself onto the Paisley Shop, the Neighborhood League Shop, and the other traditional Main Line establishments." There are now six gourmet coffeehouses, and although "There probably still arenít a lot of artists and intellectuals in Wayne, suddenly there are a lot of people who want to drink coffee like one." There is a Great Harvest Bread Company, and a trendy furnishings store called Anthropologie (complete with French spelling) where "the feel of the store says a year in Provence, while the prices say Six Years Out of Medical School"
Brooks suggests that there is a new code of financial correctness, which "organizes the consumption patterns of the educated class, encouraging some kinds of spending that are deemed virtuous, and discouraging others that seem vulgar or elitist. They redefine what it means to be a cultured person". The seven rules of "The Code of Financial Correctness" are"
There are also chapters devoted to the reconciliation of bourgeois and bohemian values in business, in academia, in our leisure pursuits, in politics and in our spiritual lives. In business, for example, it is very important to be seen as "socially responsible", and much of the language of the 60ís radicals remains strong in the business world. "Once businessmen spoke with gravitas to project an image of calm and caution. Now they speak like sociological visionaries."
He cites two landmark books from the 60ís and 70í to demonstrate how the old categories of bourgeois and bohemian have merged together. In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), Daniel Bell saw a culture that emphasized antirational hedonism and an economic structure that depended on technocratic reason, but instead of clashing, they have blurred. "Bell thought that he was witnessing the end of the bourgeoisie, but at the moment, it looks as if the bourgeoisie has, in fact, revived itself by absorbing (and being absorbed by) the energy of bohemianism."
The other landmark book that he cites is The Death and Life of American Cities (1961), by Jane Jacobs. Brooks feels that Jacobs was well ahead of her time and may well be the "proto-bobo". In bohemian literature up to that point, the small businessman had been taken as the epitome of petty-minded bourgeois values. Bourgeois epistemology appealed to reason, the bohemian to imagination. Jacobs was living in Greenwich Village at the time, and she was struck by the fact that the people who made life so special there were the shopkeepers, traditionally the epitome of the bourgeois culture that bohemians like Jacobs despised. In short, real life helped her see the good side of both bourgeois and bohemian values. "Jacobs asks us to appreciate a mode of perception that requires both sense and sensibility. It requires the practical knowledge of the shopkeeper as well as the sensitive awareness to surroundings that we expect from a painter or a novelist." She combined the bourgeois love of order with the bohemian love of emancipation.
In the chapter on intellectual life, one gets the impression that Brooksí frustrations are boiling over. He goes into great detail to illustrate the humiliation that one has to endure to make a name for oneself in academia, only to be afflicted with "Status-Income Disequilibrium". This is the condition of intellectuals whose income does not match their status. Business people, on the other hand, often suffer from "Income-Status Disequilibrium", because they do not have status commensurate with their income. Whereas Brooks obviously has his tongue planted in his cheek when he says this, there is a lot of truth in it. He gives illustrations of intellectuals and business leaders mixing at dinners sponsored by foundations, and both suffering from feelings of inferiority because of their respective disequilibria.
Perhaps the most helpful chapters for someone in Christian ministry are the ones on "Pleasure" and "Spiritual Life". Although the Bobos have been profoundly affected by the sexual revolution of the 60ís and 70ís, Brooks feels that they have replaced the old morality with a new utilitarian morality. He writes: "Bobos have constructed new social codes that characteristically synthesize bourgeois self-control and bohemian emancipation. Now we have a new set of standards to distinguish permissible pleasures from impermissible ones. We have new social codes to regulate the senses." He continues: "Bobos take a utilitarian view of pleasure. Any sensual pleasure that can be edifying or life enhancing is celebrated. On the other hand, any pleasure that is counterproductive or dangerous is judged harshly. So exercise is celebrated, but smoking is now considered a worse sin than at least 5 of the 10 commandments." In other words, we regulate our carnal desires with health codes instead of moral codes.
This has profound implications for the Gospel. The bohemian value that reigns supreme is the idea that nobody has the right to tell me what to do. Although the author does not clearly state his religious convictions, he concludes the chapter on "Pleasure" with some penetrating insights on the implications of bourgeois-bohemian morality for the Gospel:
"You canít really know God if you ignore His laws, especially the ones that regulate the most intimate spheres of life. You may be responsible and healthy, but you will also be shallow and inconsequential."
"As usual, Bobos are not blind to this criticism. They have trouble submitting to any set of formal commandments because they value autonomy too much. But they burst with spiritual aspirations and long for transcendence. They donít want to forsake pleasures that seems harmless just because some religious authority says so, but they do want to bring out the spiritual implications of everyday life. And this set of struggles Ė between autonomy and submission, materialism and spirituality Ė is the subject of the next chapter (on spiritual life).
Does that hit the nail on the head or what? The quest for autonomy was what made the forbidden fruit so attractive to Adam and Eve, and some things never change. As might be expected, the Bobos seek spirituality without renouncing autonomy. They seek spirituality in the purity of nature in places like Montana, which has become a Bobo Mecca. "Their spiritualized Montana feeds off the idea of Montana and the beauty of Montana while rarely touching the lower-middle-class grind of the actual state."
They practice what Brooks terms "flexidoxy": a hybrid mixture of freedom and flexibility on the one hand and the longing for rigor and orthodoxy on the other. As Brooks puts it, they are "trying to build a house of obligation on a foundation of choice".
But the ultimate problem with spiritual freedom is that it never ends. Brooks concludes: "But maybe what the soul hungers for is ultimately not a variety of interesting and moving insights, but a single universal truth."
Wow! I couldnít have said it better myself! The author has put his finger on the fundamental problem: the search for ultimate meaning and truth. Clinging to autonomy at all costs condemns the seeker of truth to search without finding. As Jesus explained in John 7:17, the prerequisite to finding truth is to be willing to let truth govern my life. So long as I am unwilling to let truth govern my life, I cannot find it. Or to put it more accurately, I donít want to find it, because then I would be obligated to let it govern my life.
Although I have to confess that what initially interested me in this book was the fact that it describes the town in which we are now living, I found it to be a serious study of a significant social phenomenon. The educated class has, by and large, embraced both bourgeois and bohemian values, which were formerly contradictory, and this has profound implications for the Gospel. Anyone seeking to communicate with this kind of person needs to understand these implications. Specifically, the Bobosí a prioroi commitment to personal autonomy needs to be understood. Perhaps the best way to address this is to "let God do the talking" by engaging them in reading and discussing the Scriptures. It is unlikely that we will convince them to renounce autonomy by debate. Only when they see the universal truth they are seeking embodied in the person of Jesus Christ will they be willing to surrender their autonomy.