"Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There" by David Brooks

William Inboden
Thursday, June 7th 2007
Jan/Feb 2002

"Throw an egg from a Pullman," newspaper columnist and social critic H. L. Mencken famously noted in the 1920s, "and you're bound to hit a fundamentalist." Were David Brooks to update Mencken's observation for today, it might go something like "Toss a double mocha latte from an SUV, and you're bound to hit a Bobo." But just who are these curious new creatures that Brooks describes in his best-selling Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Brooks coined the neologism "bobos" as shorthand for "bourgeois bohemians." And these Bobos have emerged, he informs us, as the dominant social class in America.

The subtitle for Bobos in Paradise might be just as appropriately The New Upper Class and How We Got Here. For Brooks readily confesses that he is a Bobo. And many readers of Modern Reformation might be Bobos as well-at least those among us who graduated from "elite" colleges, buy our gourmet coffee at Starbucks, drive SUVs, shop at Restoration Hardware or Pottery Barn, and strive for the proper balance between individual expression and deference to tradition. While confessing Christians of certain social strata may bear a striking resemblance to Bobos, however, on a deeper level we are-or should be, at least-significantly different.

Brooks, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and National Public Radio, has recently emerged as one of America's more insightful-and often quite funny-social commentators. He describes his method in Bobos in Paradise as "comic sociology." Yet while Brooks uses his wit to great effect, very often the laughs he evokes simultaneously reveal a trenchant insight or compelling critique. He proffers a relatively straightforward thesis. The "culture wars" of the previous decades, marshaling as they did the 1980s' forces of bourgeois order, prosperity, and virtue against the 1960s' values of bohemian creativity, liberation, and indulgence, are over "at least in the realm of the affluent" (84). Neither side can claim complete victory or defeat, because the conflict ended not with a bang or even a whimper, but with a marriage. The 1980s' bourgeoisie and the 1960s' bohemians, lubricated by the stunning abundance of the 1990s' boom economy, embraced the most appealing aspects of each other's worlds to merge together as "bourgeois bohemians." As Brooks puts it, "Marx told us that classes inevitably conflict, but sometimes they just blur" (43).

The common denominator from which the Bobos derive their identity and status is education. Brooks's first chapter, "The Rise of the Educated Class," takes as its evidence the weddings page of the New York Times (also known, he notes, as the "mergers and acquisitions page"). What seems at first glance a breezy gossip section amidst the otherwise stately and sober pages of the Times becomes instead for Brooks a fascinating illustration of the new standards for elite status in America. The weddings section invariably describes four details about each marriage partner: college degrees, graduate degrees, career path, and parents' profession. These credentials, Brooks claims, mark the new "meritocracy" that now governs American culture, business, and politics. Gone forever is the old WASP establishment, based as it was on family lineage, inherited money, shared culture, and ethnicity. Bobos instead value diplomas from prestigious universities-the more degrees the better-accompanied by professional accomplishment that contributes to societal welfare or personal wealth, preferably both. Religious affiliation, membership in exclusive country clubs, and ancestors dating back to the days of early America matter little to none in the eyes of these new educated elites. (Though as a sometime reader of the Times weddings page myself, it does seem that Episcopalians, Unitarians, Jews, and Catholics predominate among those couples featured). Bobos instead comprise a definite ruling class at the top of the American social hierarchy that, purportedly, remains open to anyone bearing the requisite educational and professional credentials.

Once attaining this social status, how do Bobos define themselves? Brooks believes that Bobos root their identity in a set of contradictions. As he puts it, "This is an elite that has been raised to oppose elites. They are affluent yet opposed to materialism. They may spend their lives selling yet worry about selling out. They are by instinct antiestablishmentarian yet somehow sense they have become a new establishment" (41). Bobos, in other words, try to straddle the apparent contradictions of their new value system. And Brooks believes that they largely succeed. "The grand achievement of the educated elites in the 1990s was to create a way of living that lets you be an affluent success and at the same time a free-spirit rebel" (42). Thus, establishments like Ben and Jerry's ice cream, Eddie Bauer sportswear, and Rainforest Café restaurants cater to eco-sensitivities while raking in the cash. Silicon Valley high-tech firms permit, even encourage, casual dress and a free-wheeling work environment while driving their stock listing to ever-loftier highs. The world of the Bobo, in other words, is a world of reconciling contrary values.

Brooks proceeds to describe how the Bobo ethic looks at, variously, consumption, work, intellectual life, pleasure, religion, and politics. The theologically minded readers of Modern Reformation who pick up this book might be tempted to skip straightaway to the penultimate chapter on "Spirituality." But to do so would be to miss out on the deceptively rigorous progression of Brooks's argument. After reading the chapters on materialism (Bobos embrace it, but only with a sense of guilt), work (it defines them, as long as it provides spiritual fulfillment), the life of the mind (a fetish for Bobos, as long as it also turns a profit), pleasure (another Bobo fetish, as long as it seems to serve a higher purpose), one can almost predict what Bobo religious life will look like.

"Flexidoxy" is the term that Brooks adopts to describe Bobo spiritual life, and it fits deliciously well. "Flexidoxy," as you may have guessed, stands for "flexible orthodoxy." Bobos are not mere New Age narcissists, after all, blissfully and ignorantly adrift in a spiritual universe of their own imagining. Such drivel is as pass to the Bobos as other religious relics of the 1980s, like the Moral Majority. Bobos desire a rootedness, a sense of tradition and order in their spiritual lives-hence the appeal of religious orthodoxy. They gravitate toward orthodoxy with a key qualification, however. Bobos may be drawn back to churches and synagogues, "but they are not interested in having some external authority-pope, priest, or rabbi-tell them how to lead their lives" (242). Bobos desire involvement with traditional religion, but they also want to pick and choose which dictates of the faith they will follow-and which they will ignore. Brooks aptly summarizes this attitude as "rigor without submission" or "orthodoxy without obedience" (243). Likewise, Bobos resist any ultimate claims of morality. They are concerned with proper conduct, of course, but only as a matter of prudence, and the greatest heresy would be to "impose" their morality on someone else. Heaven and hell and a transcendent divine Judge seem far removed from the Bobo religious universe. "Maybe instead of a Last Judgment there will just be a Last Discussion," as Brooks puts it so damningly (irony intended) (250).

To consider it another way, this Bobo generation focuses on its "felt need" for an authentic religious experience, and gravitates toward those traditional forms of faith that might provide the most genuine experience. The actual content and truth claims of dogmas, creeds, and confessions matter little. It is almost as if William James meets William (Bill) Hybels. Curiously, Brooks does not address the disturbing boom in suburban evangelical mega-churches. Offering a customized and nonthreatening spiritual experience ostensibly informed both by cutting-edge marketing techniques and centuries-old Christian truths, it seems that today's seeker-sensitive church movement would appeal precisely to Bobo spirituality. Likewise, the recent runaway sales of Bruce Wilkinson's The Prayer of Jabez appears to epitomize the triumph of the "Bobo ethic" within Evangelicalism. The Prayer of Jabezoffers self-fulfillment rooted in tradition, pithy spiritual wisdom that can be read in an hour but promises a lifetime of change, and a crass appeal to self in the guise of concern for the common good. It seems likely that the burgeoning "evangelical Bobos" among us-rarely do we have a new trend in popular culture without Evangelicalism quickly developing its own version-would account for the stunning commercial success of The Prayer of Jabez.

Brooks offers no grand sweeping conclusions or solutions at the end of his book, in large part because he doesn't perceive much of a problem. He regards Bobos as generally a responsible, upstanding, innocuous class of elites. As he concludes, "It's good to live in a Bobo world." Brooks even describes Bobos as "conservative," at least in temperament, insofar as they value good manners, orderliness, and well-kept homes. His only real challenge to Bobos comes when he calls on them to develop a sense of higher purpose, to pursue "larger national and universal ideals" such as political reform at home and promotion of democracy abroad. Fair enough-who could oppose such things?

At the end of the day, it remains unclear how enduring the Bobos will prove. We might consider the Bobo class the product of a particularly abundant bestowal of common grace at this moment in time. When Brooks wrote this book, peace reigned abroad, and prosperity, tranquility, even luxury, pacified us at home. One would be hard-pressed to find another decade in history when Americans, or any other people for that matter, had it so good. This raises the question of just how much Brooks's argument depends on a continuing economic boom. Would he write the same book today, now that we have been reminded of the bull market's fickle timidity-let alone the tragic fragility of peace and life itself? Is "Boboism" really a sustained class and movement, or rather just a frivolous by-product of a nation saturated in wealth and too satisfied with itself?

I suspect there is more to Boboism than a high NASDAQ average, however. If we take Boboism to be a comprehensive value system that sacralizes achievement, order, personal fulfillment, balance, and tolerance, then wealth seems merely to facilitate the expression of these values, rather than actually create them. The heart of this new elite appears to be a desire to reconcile, balance, and moderate different cultures and values, all the while striving to create a more perfect world here on earth. With the clarity that only hindsight offers, Brooks might better have titled his book Bobos in Peacetime. As such, two concerns emerge. For Americans, can the soft smooth edges of the Bobo ethic steel us for national trials, such as confronted us on September 11? Perhaps not; fifty years ago Reinhold Niebuhr prophetically warned that "Our own nation, always a vivid symbol of the most characteristic attitudes of bourgeois culture, is less potent to do what it wants in the hour of its greatest strength than it was in the days of its infancy." And for Christians, can we distinguish between the common grace blessings and the perilous idols of Boboism? Whether in peace or in war we would do well to remember that we "desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one."

Thursday, June 7th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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