Review of “Bobos in Paradise” by David Brooks

I’ve had this book sitting in my book pile for a long time. Charles Murray referenced it so often is Coming Apart that I decided it was time to read Brooks’ book. It is indeed a very nice compliment to Murray’s work. Murray fills his pages with statistics, while Brooks offers none. Nevertheless, the books are statistical and anthropological descriptions of the same phenomenon.

Brooks sets out to describe the new elite. The new elite are weird. Their governing ideology is a fusion of ’60s-style bohemianism and ’80s-style bourgeoisie-ism. Brooks is at his best highlighting some of the absurdities, but I’ll pick one to get the ball rolling:

I imagine that if there were a room full of people rubbing each other’s excrement over each other and somebody confessed he didn’t recycle, he’d be immediately expelled from the group and told never to come back. It’s a weird version of propriety, but it’s propriety nonetheless.

The is taken from his chapter on sexual relationships. The point here is that elite ideology is a fusion of bohemian sexual openness (hence the excrement-filled orgy) with bourgeois notions of propriety. Brooks’ goal is to explain why this makes sense. He doesn’t necessarily want to defend it, but he does a good job of explaining it.

Post-’60s, the elite was in a tough position. The areas that Murray specifically cites in his book are industriousness, marriage, community and faith. These pillars of bourgeois society were, er, coming apart. The elite reacted, and in the ’80s they were more industrious than ever, but it was a soulless industriousness. Following the ’80s, these positions fused into Boboism.

Brooks’ best example of this fusion is his chapter on work. The bobos work very hard, but their hard work is justified by bohemian values. "Indeed, one of the ironies of the age is that the one realm of American life where the language of 1960s radicalism remains strong is the business world." Work became a form of self-expression and a source of meaning. It was therefore acceptable to the bohemian – perhaps even necessary – for a person to devote tons of time to work. Going to work for 80 or 120 hours was not a sell-out to The Man, but the ultimate form of liberation – the answer to a higher calling.

A couple chapters are devoted to insights into the thinking of the elite. Brooks notes that, "to calculate a person’s status, you take his net worth and multiply it by his antimaterialistic attitudes." He discusses the status-income disequilibrium and it’s reverse, the income-status disequilibrium. There’s a chapter on the way bobos spend money, which is pretty funny.

The result is that it’s possible to understand why the elite would think it’s cool to cover yourself in excrement, but be horrified that you don’t recycle. Making that belief seem understandable is a remarkable feat.

Bobos deserve their place in the elite – due to their achievements. The downside of this is that, "members of the educated class can never be secure about their children’s future." This of course creates many of the interesting phenomenon that Murray describes in Coming Apart. Brooks notes that, iIf you do not share the ethos of the Bobo class, you will probably not get hired by establishment institutions. You will probably not get promoted." We get a self-perpetuating elite that feels unstable, that is unrooted in society, and that preaches a doctrine that depends heavily on large amounts of self-control of its practitioners (which, in Murray’s telling, has meant disaster for the lower class).

Brooks hints at this dark side of boboism. Murray does a much better of discussing the dark side, which is probably why Murray’s book is more controversial – though Brooks studiously (almost painfully) avoids discussing race, whereas Murray has the balls to do so, which undoubtedly contributes to controversy. Brooks’ refusal to mention race is the big flaw in his book, since it’s relevant to point out that the the bobo movement is a white movement and, as Murray notes, is largely about separating the bobo white from the non-bobo white and those of any other race (Asians and Jews excluded, of course). Ultimately, boboism is an ideology, or a religion, that may not work. It’s an attempt by the elite to adapt to a much more rootless, unstable, and free society. It’s an attempt to "build a hose of obligation on a foundation of choice." It’s not clear, in Brooks’ telling, that this project can succeed.

Finally, I should note that Brooks can’t help but criticize the punditry business in his book. He notes that, "a columnist can read an article on brain surgery for 20 minutes and then go off and give a lecture to a conference of brain surgeons on what is wrong with their profession." He spends some time covering the rules for intellectuals, including "you cannot be a mellow radical or an angry moderate." (That’s too bad, since mellow radical sounds about right to me). One gets the feeling that Brooks could have said a lot that he knew he shouldn’t say. It’d be fun to get Brooks’ drunk and find out what he really thinks about the punditry business and boboism more generally.

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13 Responses to Review of “Bobos in Paradise” by David Brooks

  1. Remnant says:

    “One gets the feeling that Brooks could have said a lot that he knew he shouldn’t say.”

    Granted, Bobos goes back a while so it isn’t certain how long Brooks has been a reader of taboo ideas, but Sailer has long pointed out that Brooks is almost certainly a reader (and stealth idea plagerizer) of Sailer, and probably other alt-right ideas. He sanitizes the ideas, deracinates them, and then presents them as interesting thought experiments.

  2. asdf says:

    Brook’s needs to stop writing about politics entirely and focus on culture. I think he only writes about politics when he has a column due and no good ideas, and it shows.

  3. Handle says:

    Ultimately, boboism is an ideology, or a religion, that may not work. It’s an attempt by the elite to adapt to a much more rootless, unstable, and free society. It’s an attempt to “build a hose of obligation on a foundation of choice.” It’s not clear, in Brooks’ telling, that this project can succeed.

    Oh, it can succeed all right. Anything, no matter how defectively crazy, can succeed among elite people. In fact, like with art, the crazier the better, because only elites can “get it” or be adaptable and clever enough to enjoy success despite the inherent burdens and challenges of the loopy doctrines they promulgate. A great way to achieve high status is to brainwash an entire population with a dogma that brings 80% of them down. A great way to prove you’re cool is the pretense that you understand the secret appeal of some ugly monstrosity that most plebes will never grasp. The whole point is to make something most people won’t grasp, which usually means “ugly and bizarre” – that’s “getting the joke”.

    The essence of the “classical bourgeois values” (thrift, hard work, impulse-restraint, the stable nuclear family, etc.) was that it was a decent default cultural / behavioral formula less related to “justice” and more as a set of practical heuristic rules (clothing itself as an ideology or social contract) that, if followed, would “work” for 90% of the population. Classical art and architecture is also accessibly beautiful and moving for about 90% of the population. We can’t have that, now, can we?

    Here’s the funny thing about all this. When the Bobo’s own the Cathedral megaphone and spread their elite-friendly, plebe-calamity religion – then it’s Marx all over again. The Class War is on, and there’s a pervasive False Consciousness brainwashing of the proletariat to support a system and an ideology (“opium of the masses”) that is against their best interests. Instead of “The Wealth” and “Capitalism”, it’s “Bobo’s” and “Boboism” (or whatever you want to call it – “Cognitive Elite” and “Progressivism”?).

    A strange Marxist caste conflict indeed. And if I’m right, then what Socialist-Lexicon name applies to the resigned-dissident role we play?

  4. Bill says:

    Bobos deserve their place in the elite – due to their achievements.

    As a description of bobo self-understanding, this is right. As a description of reality, it is ludicrous. Bobos have accomplished nothing at all. They are utterly worthless, upstart, poseurs, pathetically trying to imitate their dead betters. Furthermore, Brooks gets this, and dog-whistles the fact that he gets it throughout the book. Brooks gets it because he is smart: smart enough to understand that he, himself is a waste of protoplasm aping our dead elite. It has been said before by others, but look at his picture . Why, exactly, does this grandson of the shtetl try (hard) to dress like a WASP?

    On my reading, the book is about this tension. The tension between bobo self-image as courageous, accomplished, revolutionaries and the reality of them as affected, worthless, members of a corrupt nomenklatura. Brooks’s neurotic self-doubt just oozes off the pages. He (and the bobos generally) are like the fishwife’s son in his first suit, uncomfortable both because the suit does not quite fit and because he is worried someone will notice he does not belong in it. And, not coincidentally, they overcompensate. But of course, I must have Travertine tile in my shower!

    The downside of this is that, “members of the educated class can never be secure about their children’s future.” . . . If you do not share the ethos of the Bobo class, you will probably not get hired by establishment institutions. You will probably not get promoted.” We get a self-perpetuating elite that feels unstable, that is unrooted in society, and that preaches a doctrine that depends heavily on large amounts of self-control of its practitioners (which, in Murray’s telling, has meant disaster for the lower class). Exactly. The current elite is trying like Hell to pull the ladder up behind themselves. Thus the ongoing campaign to de-emphasize things like IQ and to emphasize things like college application essays. If you have the right mom and dad, they can put the right buzz words in your essay, but they can’t really boost your IQ. They can teach you the right verbal code. They can teach you self-control. They can teach you how to dress. If absolute worst comes to absolute worst, they can buy your way into the Ivy League. Our elite is grappling with this instability by getting rid of its sources: paths into the elite which they don’t have immediate control over.

    • Bill says:

      The blog could use a preview feature.

      The second block quote should end right before the word “Exactly.”

    • spandrell says:

      I thought we had agreed that meritocracy is not necessarily good though.

      • Handle says:

        Under what conditions is it good or bad? I think meritocracy is fine when contained within certain class-reciprocity social arrangements, especially those with hierarchy-related institutions such as rank and promotion.

        When the self-perpetuating, hereditary, and meritocratic upper class abandons “noblesse oblige” and becomes contemptuous, and essentially tyrannical and parasitical, over the lower classes, then meritocracy serves only them.

      • Bill says:

        I’m not endorsing meritocracy. As for myself, I think a largely hereditary elite with meritocratic components is the way to go. That is, you have to be from the right family to get into Harvard, but you should be the smart son not the dumb son . . .

        I understand why you are seeing an endorsement, though. Usually, when people point out that our current meritocratically selected (and meritocracy-endorsing) elite is trying to destroy meritocracy, they are complaining about it because they like meritocracy. I’m complaining that our current elite are 1) lying sacks of dung and 2) totally worthless. Their twisted relationship to merit is a manifestation of 1 and 2.

        The WASP elite was only partially meritocratic, and I like it a great deal more than our current elite.

        I also like what Handle says.

  5. Toddy Cat says:

    “Our elite is grappling with this instability by getting rid of its sources: paths into the elite which they don’t have immediate control over.”

    Well stated, and self-evedently true. It’s the same reason they are trying so hard to stifle free speech – they remember very well how THEY came to power.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Speech_Movement

  6. spandrell says:

    China and India have a long tradition of not giving a damn about noblesse oblige. I fail to see how we are supposed to enforce it here.
    Better get used to big fish eats small fish techno-tyranny.

  7. dearieme says:

    “Phenomenon” is singular.

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