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BOBOS IN PARADISE: The New Upper Class and How They Got There.

BOBOS IN PARADISE: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks Simon & Schuster, $25.00

HERE'S A TRUSTWORTHY sociological generalization: You can't trust sociological generalizations. So you can rest assured that you are not living the resume-building networky faux-life David Brooks so brilliantly limns in this book. Like hell you can. If you're a boomer or younger, if you went to an Ivy League school (or you wish you did), if your nuptials made The New York Times' wedding page (or you wish they did), if you've never been in a Winchell's but can't get your day started without a vente almond frappaccino--boy, has Brooks got your number.

The thesis of this book, no less compelling for its simplicity, is that American culture today--from the low, low end of what kinds of gardening tools we prize to the high, high end of what sorts of books get written at think tanks--is driven by, explained by, and limited by the new elite's synthesis of bohemian and bourgeois values (hence the term, bobo). To hear Brooks tell it, in just the past few years, America's best and brightest have stopped trying to fight the centuries-long wars between ideas and money, art and commerce, fairness and merit, freedom and order, and instead have enthusiastically joined both sides.

Brooks is particularly adept at articulating boboism's peculiar incommensurabilities. And in the spirit of Twain, Bierce, and Veblen, his chief tool is mercifully not the statistic nor the chart, but the joke. For instance, he explains the new pecking order thus: "To calculate a person's status, you take his net worth and multiply it by his antimaterialistic attitudes.... Thus, to be treated well in this world, not only do you have to show some income results; you have to perform a series of feints to show how little your worldly success means to you" Hence the value, Brooks explains, of dressing a notch lower than those around you or speaking of your nanny as if she were your close personal friend. Then there is the new mode of conspicuous consumption: "Only vulgarians spend lavish amounts of money on luxuries. Cultivated people restrict their lavish spending to necessities" Such Brooks aphorisms are buttressed by his open-eyed reporting on the places and things that attract bobos. He's done his time in Burlington, Vermont and Wayne, Pennsylvania, at REI and Restoration Hardware.

And indeed he's interested in these places and things, because he is ... well, a bobo. It's Brooks' appreciation of the bobo project that makes this book more than just facile pop slosh. After all, he reminds us, America's new behavioral model is in important ways an improvement: more practically sophisticated than the '60s, more spiritual and responsible than the '80s. But as he's keenly aware, both from a personal and national perspective, there is still plenty that's troubling underneath. As an example, take that political variant of boboism, the Third Way: Yes, Clintonism is marked by a political suppleness that gets things done (hidebound conservatives didn't balance the budget, starry-eyed liberals didn't pass meaningful gun control) but in addressing problems by downsizing them, it also promotes complacency about what doesn't get done. And boboism's impact on personal life mirrors this. Once professional life becomes the primary vehicle for self-expression, then non-work is heavily discounted. (Hence, notes Brooks, the peculiar rigor and suffering involved in bobo recreations and vacations.) So for instance, you can never trouble yourself to put any real energy into public, common problems. At one point Brooks acidly wonders why what he calls the "North Face Folks" with their REI ice-axes and crampons don't just go to Minnesota and spend their winter vacation working on a road crew. This is funny because in the hands of the bobos, such useful public work has become unthinkable.

All this points, says Brooks, to the fundamental bobo angst: Intellectual horsepower may have given the new elites unprecedented levels of freedom but it has not given them peace. In liberating themselves from the traditional constraints of blood, class, corporation, government, and church, bobos also find themselves without those traditional supports. As a result, bobos are engaged in a project that's one part honest striving, one part bad faith: We want ties that don't bind.

Brooks concludes his book by saying the answer is for bobos to mimic the WASP elites of the '40s and take a leadership role in government institutions. But he's short on how they can be induced to do this. And this is the usual way with cultural criticism: Irony is one muscle, social engineering quite another. I have one suggestion--in the spirit of FDR's dollar-a-year men, set up a special service corps open only to top professionals that allows them to work on any government project that interests them. There would only be two requirements: (1) they would have to agree to work on the project full-time for at least one year, and (2) they would have to have a certified net worth of say, $50 million. The point of (1) is to ensure that the resultant government service isn't just resume puffery, while the point of (2) is to appeal to boboism's cardinal sin/virtue: the desire for objective credentials of accomplishment. The small designer bumper sticker you'd get for joining the Bobo Battalion (the only compensation you'd receive) might just be the missing link between private ambition and public good.

SCOTT SHUGER, a Slate ( senior writer, is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Shuger, Scott
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2000
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