Twilight of the Bobos
By Lawrence Henry
Early in David Brooks's book, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon & Schuster, 2000), Brooks tosses off the remark that "The meritocratic Bobo class is flexible and amorphous enough to co-opt that which it does not already command. The Bobo meritocracy will not easily be toppled, even if some group of people were to rise up and conclude that it should be."
From an author who so thoroughly, admirably, and hilariously describes this new social elite -- which blends bohemian feelgoodism and free thinking with bourgeois consumption and materialist striving -- this is an astonishing statement. The "Bobos," as Brooks dubs this class, will most certainly disappear. To see how, it is only necessary to examine how they came to be in the first place -- and to look at this class of folks with an eye even more jaundiced that Brooks's own.
First, for what the Bobo culture is, let's take Brooks's own skewer-sharp description:
"WASPy upscape suburbs," he writes of the 1990s, "were suddenly dotted with arty coffeehouses where people drank little European coffees and listened to alternative music. Meanwhile, the bohemian downtown neighborhoods were packed with multi-million-dollar lofts and those upscale gardening stores where you can buy a faux-authentic trowel for $35.99. Suddenly, massive corporations like Microsoft and the Gap were on the scene, citing Gandhi and Jack Kerouac in their advertisements."
Got the picture? There is a good deal less charitable and charming way to describe the Bobo synthesis: Preening artist values infuse newly widespread prosperity. "Enough about you, let's talk about me."
As for how we got here, two factors are at work: The elite colleges moved, quite deliberately, from an admissions system based on hereditary connections to standard tests, notably the SAT, creating an aristocracy of brains rather than blood. And the country as a whole entered a near 20-year era of unprecedented economic growth. There's lots and lots of money around.
During the emerging Bobo era, the 1990s, my wife and I lived in an archetypal Bobo neighborhood: Boston's Charlestown, a one-square-mile peninsula across Boston Harbor from downtown. And it's a great place. We were fortunate. We realized a 75 percent increase in value of the house we bought in 1992. We knew everybody; it's hard not to in a tiny community with fewer than 15,000 people. Take my word for it, the people who saw themselves as the best of the best (the prerequisite for an aristocracy) had already begun to regard the Bobos (the million dollar gut-rehabbers whose projects showed up in "This Old House") as vulgarians.
Indeed, if the Bobos were not vulgar, they would not be funny, and, as Brooks's book makes clear (it's great fun), the Bobos are very funny indeed. That's point number one.
The second is that the Bobos, with their embrace of "diversity" and non-judgmentalism, have already begun to try -- whether they'll succeed is another question -- to overturn the very system that put them in power in the first place: standardized tests. Brooks should know. Magazines and newspapers for the past year have been full of stories about colleges wanting to dump standardized testing in favor of subjective standards for admission, with special favor granted to privileged victim classes -- women, minorities, etc.
Indeed, last year, the Clinton Office of Civil Rights threatened to sue any college that could not show that its SAT-based admission procedures were non-discriminatory. (One presumes that the new administration will let that particular threat drop.) And there's the second point: If merit-based admission to elite colleges disappears, so will the Bobos. A world where "Princeton and Podunk U. stand on an equal footing may please the true believers at the OCR, but it would be an unmitigated disaster for the rest of America," wrote Stephen Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, in a New York Post editorial at the time.
Third point: Children. If the Bobos are already funny, already seen as vulgarians, what do their children think of them? Bobos, after all, are control freaks. Brooks points out that "Today's children spend their days awash in moral instruction to an extent unprecedented even at the height of the Victorian Era: children's television shows preach incessantly on subjects from recycling to racism; teachers are asked to give homilies as well as instruction on everything from drugs to civility."
No matter how accommodating the flexible Bobos may be, if their own children prove to be that "some group of people" that rises up, determined to destroy them, they will not survive.
Finally, there being no more mainstream Bobo than the tort lawyer (picture David Boies appearing before the Supreme Court in his rumpled suit and tennis shoes), I predict a most ignominious end to this most prosperous and self-satisfied class in American history. They will sue themselves to death.
They will sue standard testing out of existence at colleges and at the workplace, and the meritocracy will collapse through ideological devotion to diversity. Tobacco companies won't go away, nor will firearms manufacturers. And an economy can't survive on New Age ice cream and info-tech cleverness. Somebody's got to make paint, drill for oil, market cooking fats, discover new drugs, cut down trees, manufacture nails -- all the basics of prosperity have to be supplied, in all their tort-vulnerable glory.
The Wall Street Journal recently described runaway lawsuits as "torching the economy." The comic Bobos could well come to an end little more meaningful than a joke. They'll burn down their own house.
Lawrence Henry returns to Enter Stage Right after a long absence.
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