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Children of postwar prosperity and privilege
The Washington Post
May 2000

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David Brooks
Simon & Schuster

This perceptive and amusing book describes the emergence of what David Brooks calls "the new information age elite," the Bobos as he identifies them, "highly educated folk who have one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success."

Brooks confesses without embarrassment that he himself is "a member of this class, as, I suspect, are most readers of this book," to whom he offers these words of comfort: "We're not so bad. All societies have elites, and our educated elite is a lot more enlightened than some of the older elites, which were based on blood or wealth or military valor. Wherever we educated elites settle, we make life more interesting, diverse and edifying." More about that presently.

To begin with, though, Brooks really should call these people Bobobos, since not merely are they bohemian and bourgeois, they are also Boomers. The generation to which they belong is at least as important in describing them as is their strange combination of the conventional and the countercultural.

They are, that is to say, the children of postwar prosperity, privilege and indulgence. That statement is neither loaded nor pejorative but simple fact. Their parents came to the end of a decade and a half of depression and war determined to give their children the opportunities, safeguards and (if possible) luxuries that they themselves had been denied, and in Benjamin Spock they found a persuasive, seemingly common-sensical father figure to guide them along the way. In turn, the oldest of their children, as parents of the youngest Bobos, served as apostles of Spock's legacy. If, as Brooks claims, "self-actualization is what educated existence is all about," then Spock, more than any guru of the 1960s or '70s, gets both the credit and the blame.

Which is to say that in locating the origins of the Bobos in the 1950s, Brooks starts his chronicle one decade too late. Certainly it is true that books of the '50s such as "The Lonely Crowd", "The Organization Man" and "The Power Elite" established a critique of corporate America upon which much was built in the years to follow, but it is in 1946, with the publication of "The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care," that this story really begins. Though it is often said, with reason, that books count for too little in these United States, the power of Dr. Spock's pen was truly astonishing.

Brooks's analysis would be stronger had he taken this into account, but in most other respects he is both authoritative and mordant. He has identified the salient characteristics of this new elite, and he describes them with accuracy and wit: It is "an elite based on merit, at least as measured by aptitude tests"; it is "an elite that has been raised to oppose elites," being "affluent yet opposed to materialism"; it is "egalitarian and pretentious at the same time"; it "mingles 1960s rebellion with 1980s achievement," Bob Dylan with Ronald Reagan.

As Brooks writes: "People gain entry into the (new) establishment by performing a series of delicate cultural tasks: they are prosperous without seeming greedy; they have pleased their elders without seeming conformist; they have risen toward the top without too obviously looking down on those below; they have achieved success without committing certain socially sanctioned affronts to the ideal of social equality; they have constructed a prosperous lifestyle while avoiding the old clichés of conspicuous consumption (it's OK to hew to the new clichés)." Until the Bobos came along, the educated classes - the illuminati, as Mencken called them - usually were at war with the middle class: "The bourgeois prized materialism, order, regularity, custom, rational thinking, self-discipline, and productivity. The bohemians celebrated creativity, rebellion, novelty, self-expression, antimaterialism and vivid experience." The twain, it was assumed, would never meet. Yet now, "in the information age, the world of ideas and the world of business have merged, and the much-longed-for reconciliation between the bourgeois and the bohemian has come to pass."

The spirit of this new age, Brooks writes, is "authentic, natural, warm, rustic, simple, honest, organic, comfortable, craftsmanlike, unique, sensible, sincere," which is to say it is the spirit of the New Age. It is also self-congratulatory, self-indulgent and self-centered. Brooks, honest man that he appears to be, acknowledges as much. Reared on Fisher-Price "educational" toys and lulled into complacent self-esteem by the bromides of Mister Rogers, the Bobos fuse work and play into a seamless search for self-gratification: "We Bobos have taken the bourgeois imperative to strive and succeed, and we have married it to the bohemian impulse to experience new sensations. The result is a set of social regulations constructed to encourage pleasures that are physically, spiritually and intellectually useful while stigmatizing ones that are useless or harmful. In this way the Protestant Work Ethic has been replaced by the Bobo Play Ethic, which is equally demanding. Everything we do must serve the Life Mission, which is cultivation, progress and self-improvement."

If it is true, as Brooks says, that "everything in the Bobo life is purposeful," that "the Bobos take a utilitarian view of pleasure," he somehow fails to recognize that this is a deeply American characteristic that the Bobos have not invented, merely elaborated upon. The chief difference between the Bobos and their predecessors is that the Bobos not merely see play as work, they see work as play; in the words of an ad-agency chairman quoted by Brooks, his office is a "big sandbox. ... a stimulating place, a fun place, an interactive place, a social place." There is no getting around it: As Brooks himself says, "Whatever its flaws, the Bobo ethos has been fantastically good for the bottom line. American businesses have thrived over the past decade and established American dominance in sector after sector. American companies are creative and efficient at the same time."

You can't argue with success. But when success becomes indistinguishable from smugness, you get "the Upscale Suburban Hippiedom" that finds its apotheosis in Fresh Fields supermarkets: "Like so much else in this new cultural wave, Fresh Fields has taken the ethos of California in the 1960s and selectively updated it. Gone are the Sixties era things that were fun and of interest to teenagers, like Free Love, and retained are all the things that might be of interest to middle-aged hypochondriacs, like whole grains. So in the information age, suburban customers stroll amidst the radish sprouts, the bins of brown and basmati rice, the jars of powdered fo-ti root, the Mayan Fungus Soap, the Light Mountain All Natural hair coloring, the tree-oil mouthwashes, and the vegetarian dog biscuits, basking in their reflected wholesomeness."

That deliciously vicious paragraph gets to the heart of the Bobos: their obsessive consumerism and their bottomless self-regard. In many respects Fresh Fields is an excellent supermarket chain, but a case can be made that what it is really selling is not food but self-congratulation. Brooks mocks this on the one hand yet glorifies it on the other, celebrating what he sees as the Bobo qualities of "gentle authority," "moderation rather than zeal," "good manners," "little customs and traditions." For the sake of the Republic one can only hope he is right, but touchy-feely narcissism seems a shaky foundation upon which to rest the American future.

Jonathan Yardley reviews books for the Washington Post.

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