Created: 2000-06-25
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Review of David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There

J. Bradford DeLong

June 2000

David Brooks (2000), Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Simon and Schuster: 0684853779).

I read the cover flap of Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, David Brooks's work of "comic sociology"--a (much funnier and wittier) updating of C. Wright Mills's The Power Elite. I chuckled at the cover flap's pointing out that the "Bobos"--bourgeois bohemians, Brooks's semi-acronym for America's new dominant class--regard extravagant spending on luxuries as vulgar, but extravagant spending on high-quality versions of "utilitarian" necessities as praiseworthy.

I began chapter 1. Brooks was describing his reactions to reading the New York Times wedding announcements page:

When America had a pedigreed elite, the [New York Times wedding announcements page] emphasized noble birth and breeding. But in America today it's genius and geniality that enables you to join the elite.... [On] the Times weddings page, you can almost feel the force of the mingling SAT scores. It's Dartmouth marries Berkeley, MBA weds Ph.D.... and summa cum laude embraces summa cum laude (you rarely see a summa settling for a magna--the tension in such a marriage would be too great).

I (B.A. summa cum laude in Social Studies from Harvard, M.A. and Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard) looked across the bedroom at my wife (B.A. summa cum laude in American Studies from Amherst, M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School, J.D. from Harvard Law School).

I looked up at the $750 ceiling fan in our bedroom. (It is a true necessity in our un-airconditioned house for about two months a year--vastly more effective at cooling our top-floor bedroom than the old $200 ceiling fan it replaced).

I thought: "Bingo. This guy David Brooks has just reduced me to a sociological category." I thought "this is a book to pay attention to."

And it did turn out to be quite a good book.

On one level, the book is about upper-class taste and style in America at the beginning of the twentieth century. It used to be that upper-class style was based on the display of wealth: the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island; the lines of Cadillacs; the power to import large chunks of Italian palazzi and install them on a hilltop. Now upper-class style has changed: it is based on the display of sufficient taste to know what the best is and to choose it--whether the best coffee, the best parka, the best food, the best building materials, or whatever. One knows enough to know that the best cup of iced coffee is a "a vente almond frappuccino made from the Angolan shade-grown blend with raw sugar." It is not OK to spend extravagantly on something for display along; it is OK to spend extravagantly on something that is useful in enhancing one's authentic personality.

Brooks believes that this new sense of taste and style is the result of the collision of the "Bohemian" culture of authenticity with the "bourgeois" culture of sober achievement, and that the "Bobos" are the first group that have found a way to be both authentic, spontaneous, and creative on the one hand and disciplined, industrious, and prosperous on the other.

The problem with this, of course, is that for most upper-class buyers a Range Rover is not a tool to use in off-road wilderness exploration (although it is for my uncle W. Bradford DeLong) but something to drive the kids to kindergarten. A Wolf range is used not to run a restaurant in your home but stand idle while people who work too late bring home Chinese food, or just go out to dinner. Brooks is well aware of this. His dissection of how necessary a well-stocked ice-axe section is to an outdoor-supply store that sells to Bobos who have only seen a glacier from the deck of a cruise ship is hilarious. The best parts of the book are those in which Brooks mocks the tendency of Bobos to buy state-of-the-industrial-art heavy-duty tools--of any kind--that will rarely or never see their designed-for use. The best parts expose the hollowness of the claim that upper-class style and taste combine Bohemian and bourgeois cultures: the bourgeois is there, but it is coupled not with Bo- but with Fauxhemianism.

Yet in spite of this--in spite of the social waste and onanistic narcissism of $15,000 slate shower stalls to get in touch with "nature"--in the last analysis Brooks approves of his Bobos. The book is not, at bottom, a critique but a celebration of Bobohood.

Why? Because Brooks is a conservative. And he faces the standard problem faced by conservatives in America. Conservatives like the past. They celebrate the wisdom in hierarchy and tradition. They celebrate order, and fight change. But in America the tradition is one of democracy and mobility. Our tradition is to be untraditional. Our stability is to always be turning society head-over-heels. Thus conservatism in America inevitably falls into incoherence, soon followed by a nervous breakdown--conservatives find themselves either calling for radical change in America to reduce democratic influences or celebrating our tradition of overturning traditions. Neither position is comfortable.

Brooks wants to celebrate America's aristocracy: those who, in a long passage he quotes from Edmund Burke's Appeal from the Old to the New Whigs, are:

...bred in a place of estimation... see nothing low and sordid from one's infancy... taught to respect oneself... stand on such elevated ground as to be enabled to take a large view of the widespread and infinitely diversified combinations of men and affairs in a large society; to have leisure to read, to reflect, to converse; to be enabled to draw the court and attention of the wise and learned, wherever they are to be found... to be taught to despise danger in the pursuit of honor and duty... to possess the virtues of diligence, order, constancy, and regularity, and to have cultivated an habitual regard to commutative justice: these are the circumstances of men that form what I should call a natural aristocracy, without which there is no nation...

For Brooks, because his Bobos are powerful, rich, and influential--and because he is a conservative--they must have the virtues that Burke ascribes to an aristocracy. Therefore Brooks must praise them.

But what is the connection between Burke's "natural aristocracy" (which existed mostly in Burke's own fantasies) and the SUV-driving, $500 hiking boot-wearing, satisfied lawyer who will drink only shade-grown coffee who is the ideal type of Brooks's Bobo? The resemblance between Burke's fantasy and Brooks's Bobo exists only in Brooks's mind. And it is the fact that Brooks cannot quite make the leap--cannot quite feel toward what he sees as America's new aristocracy the way a conservative should--that makes the book feel, in the end, a little bit unbalanced. Brooks cannot quite accept the fact that the idol he worships has such feet of clay, and that the feet of clay are so large...

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