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.