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BOBOs

Are you a Bobo? A friend of a friend reportedly followed up her enthusiastic recommendation of David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon & Schuster, 2001) by exulting, “This book describes me to a ‘T’! I love being a Bobo!” Mr. Brooks admits to being one in his introduction, and he suspects that most of his readers will be Bobos, too. It’s a reasonable hunch. Most of his readers will share the Bobo background of good schools and successful careers. (Graduates of good schools who haven’t managed the successful-career part may be tempted to burn the book unread – as long as someone else provides the copy.) Most readers will combine a Bourgeois interest in personal health, stock portfolios, and loving children with the Bohemian dislike of rigid discomfort. But since there’s more to Bohemia than a dislike of business suits and front parlors, and more to Burgertüm than a mortgage and a 401(k), I’m still not sure that most of Mr. Brooks’ readers will have arrived in Boboland, and I harbor the suspicion that a disproportionate number of genuine Bobos are either ‘in the media’ or fully prepared to be interviewed by it.

The question is irritating because ‘Bobo’ has got to go. Who cares what it means? It’s not a name anybody would want to be called. After several encounters with the title in the taglines of Mr. Brooks’ frequent Op-Ed pieces in the Times, I still couldn’t remember whether the word was ‘Bozos’ or ‘Booboos.’ The only thing that ‘Bobo’ has going for it – and it isn’t much – is that it sounds like a nickname for Bill Clinton. ‘WASP,’ at least, sounds more adult. Members of the Greatest Generation will cluck ruefully: there seems to be no taking the Baby out of the Boomer. It’s a pity, because we could really use a grown-up word for Mr. Brooks’ new concept. You go on reading, while I try to think of one.

Mr. Brooks derives his coinage from Bourgeois Bohemians. I would turn that around, myself, since there’s no doubt in my mind which of these terms modifies the other – which is the tail and which is the dog. The discovery that underlies Mr. Brooks’ collection of largely whimsical but occasionally impassioned essays can be reduced to one sentence: Well-educated Baby Boomers, now on the verge of middle age and having reconciled many formerly antagonistic viewpoints, most notably the outlook of the stuffy and largely WASP middle class on the one hand, and that of free-spirited artists, beatniks and hippies on the other, have taken over. They occupy, in the military sense of the word, the tops of most professions – the military not being one of these, I imagine – and play a leading role in entrepreneurial new business.

Mr. Brooks’ claims for Bobos are not so modest. “These Bobos define our age. They are the new establishment. Their hybrid culture is the atmosphere we all breathe. Their status codes now govern social life. Their moral codes give structure to our personal lives.” The reader will be forgiven for puzzling over the personal pronouns. If the ‘we’ who is reading this book consists mostly of Bobos, why talk of them in the third person? I can assure you that most of the people walking up and down the Yorkville High Street outside the building I live in are not Bobos. Many of them have taken the Lexington Avenue subway down from less affluent neighborhoods to the north, where the shopping is dreary. But that’s another story. My principle objection to Mr. Brooks’ assertion that Bobos ‘are the new establishment’ is that, even according to Mr. Brooks, Bobos Rule – Not. For all their wealth and education, comfort and ‘personal realization,’ Bobos are too uncertain, too shy for leadership.

Perhaps leadership is the last thing that we want these days. For a few years now, I’ve been trying to figure out just what, in today’s society, the élite means. Nobody admits to wearing the label. Commentators and pub philosophers may mutter darkly about ‘the élite,’ but their conspiracy theories are never refuted. No one ever stands up and says, ‘No, you’re mistaken; we in the élite have the public’s best interest at heart.’ (Although it’s just possible to imagine Philippe de Montebello of the Metropolitan Museum of Art doing so.) The invisibility of the élite, of course, proves that the conspiracy theories are correct, for anyone whose logic is cynical. And then there’s elitist, a term that still carries such a countercultural sting that it’s a genuine souvenir of the Sixties, and remains as unanswerable as a Red Guard’s charge of ‘feudal landlord.’ You can’t say, it seems, ‘No, I’m not an elitist.’ You can only duck and run. But of course someone’s got to be in charge somewhere. Where?

Élite is a word that can be taken in either of two ways, elected or chosen, and in practice elected and appointed officials lead our government, our cultural organizations, and even our professions. (The head of cardiology at a major teaching center doesn’t - let’s hope! - buy his chairmanship.) Why not round up the leaders of every institution that has a significant impact upon public life – don’t forget the advertisers! – and brand them? Then we’d know who the élite were.

Or would we? What if the heads of all those institutions, from the highest public office on down, took a narrow view of their responsibilities, and argued that they lead their respective institutions only, and not society at large? This is roughly what Mr. Brooks quite rightly faults Bobos for doing. “These days most of us don’t want to get too involved in national politics because it seems to partisan and ugly,” he writes toward the end of his book. “And as a result, most American citizens have become detached from public life and have come to look on everything that does not immediately touch them with an indifference that is laced with contempt.” I think Mr. Brooks has this backwards. National politics is partisan and ugly because the Bobos have by and large stayed out of it, leaving it to special-interest spokesmen whose constituents lack the perspective and the desire for reconciliation that Bobos acquired along with their fine diplomas. Bobos have stayed out of politics because they’re preoccupied with cultivating their own gardens. They’re uncomfortable with the notion that something rather like noblesse oblige requires them to dismiss Voltaire’s advice (as Voltaire himself was only too happy to do when he was invited to cultivate Prussia’s). And they have yet to reconcile the bourgeois passion for privacy with the scrutiny that scourges today’s public figures. This is a knot that only an avowed and cooperative élite can untie.

(There lingers in the air the idea of another élite, one that is neither elected nor chosen, but imposed by fate or privilege. The members of this faux-élite travel by limousine to restaurants where there’s always a table ready for them, and, ever since Plato’s day, rational schemes of government have presumed that their advantages were unfair and disruptive. Current wisdom holds that since a healthy economy will inevitably produce a crop of extremely well-endowed individuals, we ought to welcome their existence. But it’s folly to regard plutocrats and celebrities as leaders when almost every step in their advancement is individualistic, if not positively anti-social, and they have little in the way of example or insight to offer us.)

It can be argued the Bobos’ reluctance to lead may be useful right now, that perhaps this is not a time to be in gear. At the end of Bobos in Paradise, Mr. Brooks makes an astonishing assertion: “We are not living in an age of transition. We are living just after an age of transition.” But when every institution imaginable seems to be undergoing some kind of renovation, when every organization seems poised for reorganization, and when in a frenzy of wagon-circling anxiety business after business yields to the consolidating impulse, I beg to suggest that we might be living just before an age of transition. Mindful of the prediction fatigue that has forced me to shun prognostications both peppy and peppery, I will not argue the point further. The road ahead seems pitted with unforeseen outcomes. There is something almost fatuous about long-range vision.

Yet it is precisely the uncertainty of the immediate future that requires thoughtful courage now. During the century just past, conviction tended to be either unfashionable or lethal, and discrimination sank from denoting an important intellectual ability to signifying mindless bigotry. We will not fare much better in the century just begun without regaining the power of considered and assured judgment. That human judgment has often erred is not an argument for withholding it altogether but a reason for trying harder. Beneficiaries of the best educations of the day and gatekeepers of so many professions, Bobos had better stop dwelling on their achievements and start framing the questions that confront the world of people whose lives they shape.

After all, most people (overwhelmingly) are not Bobos.

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