Sunday, October 22, 2006

Bobos

What prompts this post in the firstplace? From Touchstone Magazine: Over the Counterculture

The term bobo was coined by David Brooks, who wrote Bobos in Paradise. In so far as the book was published a while ago, the topic of bobo isn't current, but if its observations of American life are accurate (and I'm not saying that they are), then it's a topic worth revisiting, especially for those who like to collect data and frame strategies based on second-hand data... still, regardless of what one thinks of second-hand data, it must be admitted that suburbs, as an embodiment of the American Way of Life, does represent certain kinds of obstacles to evangelization within American society.

From an interview:

GWEN IFILL: So, David, I have to start by asking you the most obvious question of all: What the heck is a bobo?

DAVID BROOKS: A bobo is a bourgeois bohemian. These are the people who are thriving in the information age. They're the people, you go into their homes and they've got these renovated kitchens that are the size of aircraft hangars, with plumbing. You know, you see the big sub- zero refrigerators and you open the door and you think, they could stick an in-law suite in the side. So these are the people who are really making a lot of money, and I spent the last few years going across upscale America looking at the people who are really thriving in the information age. And one of the things, the chief characteristic I noticed, was that they've smashed the old categories.

It used to be easy to tell a bourgeois from a bohemian. And the bourgeois were the straight-laced suburban types, went to church, worked in corporations. And the bohemians were the arty free spirits, the rebels. But if you look at upscale culture, at the upper middle classes, the people in Silicon Valley, you find they've smashed all the categories together. Some people seem half yuppie-bourgeois and half hippie- bohemian. And so if you take bourgeois and bohemian and you smash them together, you get the ugly phrase "bobo."

GWEN IFILL: I would never call you "yuppie-bourgeois," but I have to ask the question: Are you a bobo?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I consider myself a bobo with bad grades. If I had studied harder, I could have got into Harvard, and really made all the money and had the really big kitchen.

David Brook's attitude towards the BoBos?

GWEN IFILL: But bobos are by definition people who are compromisers, they're looking for middle ground. They shop at Pottery Barn so they can get things that look safe, and they shop at REI, where they can act like if they're having an adventure vacation, but in the end, they're people who are trying to find a way to conform. But that doesn't skew with things as fundamental as, say, religious faith does.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, no. I have chapters about consumption and business, where I'm mostly positive. But then I have chapters about the effect on our intellectual life, our religious life and our political life, and there, there are real problems. Religious life, for example. I ran across a rabbi in Montana who describes his faith as "flexidoxy," which is a great phrase for bobo morality, because it starts with the bohemian urge to be flexible, freedom, be autonomous. But then it says, "well, I don't want too much autonomy, I want ritual, I want order in my life, I want roots." And so there's also orthodoxy mixed in. And so he's trying to... many bobos are trying to build a foundation of obligation, build a structure of obligation, on a foundation of choice. And they sort of mush things together. Politically, also-- you get Bill Clinton, who's an ultimate bobo, mixing the left and the right, anti-ideological turning. They're all into such an ideological mush, and it's an unsatisfying style of politics.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any evidence of class resentment springing up to this new class of educated, moneyed elite?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I thought there would be when I wrote the proposal for this book. The final chapter was going to be "The Revolt Against the Bobo- ouisie" or something. Because on the one hand, they're getting richer than most of the country. On the other hand, they've got elevated sensibilities. You walk into a restoration hardware. If you don't have the cultural references to get all the jokes and the puns, you know, it's no sensibility, no service. But when I traveled around the country, I found, actually, relatively little social resentment. Instead, I found every attitude that the bobos were adopting, went down the society and were adopted by other groups.

For example, I was driving through Montana, really in the middle of nowhere, pulled off into a truck stop, and there was a cappuccino stand there. But not only was there a cappuccino stand, it was six feet off the ground so the truckers didn't have to get out of their cabs. They could just reach their arm out, and get their espressos, and I found that again and again and again -- not only in consumption, but in attitudes about religion and about politics, this sort of mushy reconciliation between the two different ethoses the bobos make, lots of people are making.

And towards suburbia?
PEOPLE MOVE TO Sprinkler Cities for the same reasons people came to America or headed out West. They want to leave behind the dirt and toxins of their former existence--the crowding and inconvenience, the precedents, and the oldness of what suddenly seems to them a settled and unpromising world. They want to move to some place that seems fresh and new and filled with possibility.

Sprinkler City immigrants are not leaving cities to head out to suburbia. They are leaving older suburbs--which have come to seem as crowded, expensive, and stratified as cities--and heading for newer suburbs, for the suburbia of suburbia.

One of the problems we have in thinking about the suburbs is that when it comes to suburbia the American imagination is motionless. Many people still have in their heads the stereotype of suburban life that the critics of suburbia established in the 1950s. They see suburbia as a sterile, dull, Ozzie and Harriet retreat from the creative dynamism of city life, and the people who live in the suburbs as either hopelessly shallow or quietly and neurotically desperate. (There is no group in America more conformist than the people who rail against suburbanites for being conformist--they always make the same critiques, decade after decade.)

The truth, of course, is that suburbia is not a retreat from gritty American life, it is American life. Already, suburbanites make up about half of the country's population (while city people make up 28 percent and rural folk make up the rest), and America gets more suburban every year.
See also his book On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense.


Other articles by David Brooks:
Op-eds in the NY Times
On the Playing Fields of Suburbia
Take a Ride to Exurbia
The Triumph of Hope over Self-Interest
The Brawl in the Sprawl

Interview with Joseph S. Lucas; with Dick Staub on the spiritual life of bobos;

wiki

In reaction to David Brooks:
Paradise Glossed
David Potz, Why Liberals are Turning on Their Favorite Conservative
JHK, Clueless in Suburbia
Consider This: The Bobo Future

Reviews of Bobos in Paradise:
Clay Risen
Robert Locke
Janet Maslin
Kurt Andersen

Reviews of On Paradise Drive:
Brian Ladd
Michael Kinsley (another)
Joanne McNeil
Nicholas von Hoffman
Laura Miller

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