David Brooks lays out his observations of American culture in the late nineties and how it has changed since he left the country in the early nineties. In short, he is perplexed and fascinated by a culture dominated by what he calls the ‘Bohemian Bourgeois’, or the Bobo. This is a culture which embraces both the stable puritanism of the old WASPy bourgeois of the 1950’s and the free-spirited, organic, bohemianism of the late 1960’s. In short, he claims that this new lifestyle has seemingly combined those two previously antipodal lifestyles in numerous contradictory ways.
He traces out the origin of this new creature to pushes in the late 1950’s towards a meritocratic elite, where an individual makes it into Harvard and the upper class by their mental and physical acumen rather than their family’s social standing. Prior to changes in admission policies, individuals attending Harvard or Princeton or Yale were rarely far from home, and the universities were largely an extension of the social clubs of their parents. The idea emerged of admitting some individuals strictly by their merit, essentially to bring ‘new blood’ into the upper class and increase the talents of that upper class. This concept worked, but perhaps too well. Individuals who were allowed to attend these institutions by their own merits were then pushed to further push their merits in order to remain a member of the upper class. Individuals in the upper class strictly by their ties did not have these worries. As the merited upper class grew, so did their power and influence of the path of high-culture. As a celebration of their growing victory of the familied elites, they read books which would disgust the familied elites’ modest bourgeois sensibilities. They painted and purchased artwork which challenged that lifestyle’s potential for self-understanding, and pushed our culture through a bohemian period peaking in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
This pushback in turn was followed by a push against those bohemian sensibilities by the next generation of the intelligentsia. These individuals may have grown up poor or middle-class, but they did not experience the same stifling class-divisions as their parents. Instead, they grew up in an age which celebrated merit and accordingly felt that the world belonged to those who could achieve the most and earn the most. The cut-throat capitalism of the 1980’s resulted, and the upper class turned back towards a stable, wealth-driven bourgeois.
However, this resurgent bourgeois was not separated neatly from the bohemian era which preceded it. Instead, the moneyed upper class individuals went to the same schools and grew up in the same neighborhoods as those who followed more bohemian paths. The bourgeois individuals often had lived more bohemian-ly during earlier parts of their life and they more directly understood the lifestyle. Members of the two semi-classes were often friends or neighbors.
As the rampant capitalism of the 1980’s began to show its faults, the members of the two upper classes began to intermix even more intimately. While the bourgeois folks were often in artistic or academic posts, they were recruited into the corporate world to make the ruthless corporatism more humane and gentle to a population which was becoming enraged by its actions. Similarly, the corporate world began to blend into the academic and artistic as corporations wished to show their ‘humanity’.
This resulted in a merger of the two upper classes, and similarly a merger of the many of their ideas and ideologies. The bourgeois individuals may have used clothing as a status symbol. The bohemians may have used knowledge and expression of that knowledge. As they combine, the bobos still use clothing, but now its clothing with a history. The white dress shirt is now un-dyed, organic cotton, farmed from fair-trade fields in Indonesia, but hand-stitched in the US, and sold in a boutique full of similarly storied pieces. The bourgeois individuals may have used travel and tourism as a status symbol. The bohemians opposed mindless tourism. The bobos still travel, but now its to work to volunteer in some far-flung part of the word for a cause which hopefully no-one else has heard of.
Much of the last half of Brooks’ book follows this argument and works to understand how features of our current culture arose from this merger. He examines spirituality, travel, dinner parties, apartments, and so on, describing things as he sees them and describing how he thinks they came to be. At points the text drags on as he describes particular situations in excruciating detail, though with a bit of exaggeration, and a substantial amount of bitterness. It is apparent that Brooks is critical of the frivolities of this new intelligentsia and their demands for success, and that he is somewhat uncomfortable with conforming to the expectations that are now pushed upon him. These personal gripes are apparent but uncommented which reduces some of the credibility of those sections as it feels that he’s just writing his frustration.
In any case, the argument of the book is quite interesting, and particularly interesting preceded by The Sum of Small Things, which expands on the idea over another decade and provides quantitative sociology to back these grumpily-constructed notions.