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Sunday, February 02, 2003 - 06:04 PM Permanent link for BoBo's in Paradise
BoBo's in Paradise

I've been reading many of David Brooks' columns recently and I've found it quite compelling, his writing humorous and his insights profound.   After that, it became a matter of time before I simply had to pick up a copy of Bobo's in Paradise - and I wasn't let down.  I both enjoyed the book in a light hearted sort of way and simultaneously fed my brain with new, deep social understanding.

The basic premise of Bobo's in Paradise is a curious social trend that mixes the previously antithetical Bourgeois capitalist ambition with Bohemian sensibilities.   If you're a fan of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which I am in a big way), Bobo's represent a sort of integration of Pirsig's Romantic and Classical worlds into day to day life.  [p 69]

The bourgeois prized materialism, order, regularity, custom, rational thinking, self-discipline, and productivity.   The bohemians celebrated creativity, rebellion, novelty, self-expression, anti-materialism, and vivid experience.  The bourgeois believed there was a natural order of things.   They embraced rules and traditions.   The bohemians believed there was no structured coherence to the universe.   Reality could only be grasped in fragments, illusions, and intimations.   So they adored rebellion and innovation.

Bobo's, Brooks argues, are what Generation X will grow up to become.  Or, it's what you already are if earn enough to be a certified 80s yuppy but find the associated lifestyle too plastic.

Brooks' historical narrative starts with the "Organization Man" culture of the 1940's/50's.   While responsible for staggering post-war wealth creation, Brooks notes the stifling collectivism and conformity which dominated the era.  For both better and worse, social strata were rigid -- the idealists saw a sense of "community" because few moved away while the flip side of the coin was immobility.

The revolt against the Organization man was the 60's Bohemian man.   Seeking a life more authentic and individualistic, the 60's counter culture over-reached and threw the baby out with the bathwater.  All that was old was bad.  All that deprived a man of individual expression and imposed routine was thrown out.  The problem was that many of these social structures - nuclear families, a healthy respect for productivity, and the occasion submission of the individual to the team - were precisely the things rebellious teenagers discover they actually needed once they hit adulthood.

That's not to say that Bohemia is simply degenerate or primitive.   In fact, Brooks correctly notes, the firm intellectual bedrock for Bohemia can be found in rather well articulated fashion in the French Bohemian revolution of the 1800s & 1900s.   Parisien social arrangements would be quite familiar to the nouveau riche denizens of San Francisco -- artist lofts in the cities.   Whimsical / fanciful decorative touches of little utilitarian value.   Long hair for men & short hair for women.   And collections of "urban tribes" as a proxy for a nuclear family.

In time, 60's exuberance gave way to 70's funk.  For Brooks, this late adolescence / early adulthood was precisely the petri dish for a sort of cultural soul searching.   If we really did everything the 60s told us to do so well, then how come the 70s suck?  It was within this environment that saw the launch of the strong, intellectual, 80's counterattack by the new Bourgeois -- the NeoConservative right.

Keep in mind that Brooks was writing in 2000 -- well before NeoCon became a loaded (or dare I say loathed) label.  Ignoring differences of opinion about international affairs for a moment, Brooks captures the origins of the NeoCon movement well.  Put simply, Neocon's grew up and lived within the Bohemian left but coopted the individualist meme with a strong moral defense of capitalism.   [p 79]

The neoconservatives, mostly lower-middle class kids, were appalled by the antibourgeois attitudes of the countercultural intellectuals and student radicals.   And they produced something rare in the history of this dispute, an articulate defense of the bourgeoisie and a telling critique of bohemia.

Whereas 50's capitalism was the sanctuary of the boring and the routine (IBM's uniform blue suits), 80's American capitalism brought a swashbuckling flavor, unabashed materialism and pseudo-heroic individuals (Gordon Gekko and power ties).   Bohemians who enjoyed portraying the individualism of the 60's as "real" didn't return the favor to the individuals of the 80's and instead christened them the "me generation". [p 118]

the business man [such as Gekko, is portrayed as] anti-intellectual, antispiritual, conformist, and phillisitine.  His is a strangled individual who as killed whatever tender or creative capacities he may once have had in order ot climb the greasy pole and accumulate money

What a perfect description of Alex P. Keaton.  Of course, Alex P Keaton is actually the Bohemian caricature of the NeoCon rather than a NeoCon outright.

All this sets the stage for the 90s.   Brooks convincingly argues that the Pendulum has swung back into a potentially stable cultural arrangement -- the rise of the Bobo.  In the business world, for example, we see the dramatic transformation and new, bohemian-like respect for the individual and the central role of creativity [p132]

Today's CEOs boast about trying to inspire the creativity in others.   With their hair-trigger sensitivity to authoritarianism or repressive authority structures, they talk about fostering collaborative relationships.  

...Workers in this spiritualized world of Bobo capitalism are not heroes of toil.  They are creators,.  They noodle around and experiment and dream.  They seek to explore and then surpass the full limits of thier capacities... work is a form of self-expression or a social mission, then you never want to stop.  You are driven by a relentless urge to grow, to learn, to feel more alive. 

Whereas the organization man of the '50s would have shuddered at the thought of being in an office infested with tattoo's, piercings, long hair, hiking boots, flannel, and ....   for the BoBo this is merely par for the course.  And it isn't simply accepted but sought out for it's pre-intellectual, aesthetic and Rousseau-esque symbolism.

While I tend to focus on workstyle and political views, Brooks' is actually mostly focused on lifestyle and aesthetics.   While the Bourgeois of old built palatial mansions, Bobo's work hard and spend a lot of money on the little things that provide an aura of a middle class lifestyle but somehow taken deadly seriously:

The educated class has conquered all and hegemonized its Bobo culture.... Now the Babbitt lion can mingle with the beatnik lamb at a Pottery Barn, a Smith & Hawken, a Museum Shop, a Restoration Hardware, a Nature Company, a Starbucks, or any of the other zeitgeist-heavy institutions that cater to educated affluents. Today the culture war is over, at least in the realm of the affluent. The centuries-old conflict has been reconciled.

Starbucks is the modern, American heir of the bohemian Paris cafe.  From Paris, it gets the intensity of experience around a single, normally ordinary, cup of morning coffee.  From America, a mass replicated experience available to all rather than the cultural elite.  It allows a display of refined taste but in a manner which stretches across class strata.   It's not just a toaster, it's a Michael Graves, top-of-the-line bread processor.   It's not just a $3 coat hanger but rather a $30 Restoration Hardware coat hangar modeled after the wrought iron one Davy Crocket hung his coon-skin hat on.

The BoBo is undoubtedly inspired in part by Francis Fukuyama's famous description of the Last Man.   Brooks, in particular, describes the phenomena of the "man without a chest" at the end of the book as he faults the Bobo's apathy and inward focus.

Part of this apathy is intellectually justified based on a deep distrust of technocracy and overt authority.   Bobo's have seen the excesses of authority on both the Bourgeois and the Bohemian and find a quasi-libertarian philosophy at least on a national level.  At a local/individual level, the Bobo's aesthetic drives a type of activism in things like recycling campaigns, zoning boards, and PTA's.

But Brooks does fault this distrust of national imperative to a degree.  There are times when leadership is called for and Brooks calls upon Bobo's to assert their principals and assume leadership roles rather than axiomatically adopting a cynical attitude.  Events like 9/11 provides precisely the acid test for self assertion that Bobo's needed.   Hopueflly, far from falling into a hodge podge world of moral relativism & self indulgent apathy, BoBo's self-derived moral beliefs will instead push them to rise to the challenge.  We'll see.

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