The New Upper Class and How They Got There

by David Brooks
Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $25

Do you know people who have fantasized about simplifying life by purchasing a 250-acre Montana retreat? Or, if the retreat is a little out of their league, do they buy groceries at a store that announces "Organic Items Today: 130"?Chances are that David Brooks, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, would call such people bourgeois bohemians (or "Bobos").In his new book Bobos in Paradise, Brooks invents a new literary genre, "comic sociology," to describe the rise of a new upper class—one in which membership is determined by educational level, achievement, shared attitudes, and consumption patterns, rather than heredity.As the oxymoronic name suggests, Bobos are the result of the clash between the bourgeois desire for order and decorum and the bohemian desire for personal liberation.In a statement that will surprise many cultural conservatives, Brooks tells readers that while "conservatives won the culture war, they lost the peace." Yesterday's bohemians, people who grew up in the '60s and '70s and once reviled bourgeois attitudes toward order, thrift, and piety, now understand the need for law and order, for kids to listen to their teachers, and for showing up for meetings on time.Conservatives lost the peace because, in the process of embracing bourgeois sensibilities, Bobos transformed them. Bobos, as Brooks writes, march under "reconciling banners" that allow them to live like "organization men" while still fancying themselves hipsters.

Financial Correctness

Take money. Bobos, who grew up rejecting materialism and equating bourgeois prosperity with greed, now find themselves running corporations and making more money than they ever imagined. What are sensitive Boomers to do? The reconciliation lies in the strict observance of "The Code of Financial Correctness." A person who follows the code, Brooks writes, "can dispose up to $4 or $5 million annually in a manner that demonstrates how little he or she cares about material things."The essence of the code is not to flaunt your wealth, at least not in an incorrect fashion. Building on Aristotle's distinction between needs and wants, Bobos reason that a $25,000 kitchen, with a stove that puts out as many BTUs as "the space shuttle rocket booster turned upside-down," and a freezer so cold that it approaches "absolute zero, at which all molecular motion stops," is acceptable because you make food a need. On the other hand, a $15,000 home-theater system on which you watch movies, a want, isn't acceptable; it's little more than showing off. The same reasoning concludes that spending $60,000 on a Range Rover is OK, but spending $40,000 on a Corvette isn't.As you might imagine, the Bobo quest for reconciliation extends to moral issues.Brooks writes that Bobo morality "doesn't try to perch atop the high ground of divine revelation." Instead, its reconciling banner seeks to preserve order while preserving maximum personal freedom—especially on sexual matters. Bobos "tolerate a little lifestyle experimentation, so long as it is done safely and moderately. They are offended by concrete wrongs, like cruelty and racial injustice, but are relatively unmoved by lies or transgressions that don't seem to do anyone obvious harm." One example of "lifestyle experimentation" is the Arizona Power Exchange, a group that engages in sadomasochism—but it's safe S&M.

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Bobos at Prayer

Spirituality is one of the few areas where Brooks directly criticizes the Bobo attempt at reconciling opposites. As he puts it, Bobos "are trying to build a house of obligation on a foundation of choice." Bobo spirituality takes many forms. Whether filling their homes with furnishings that evoke those "patient, rooted, and uncluttered realms" or buying that place in Montana, Bobos seem to believe they can "spend money to build Eden."Or it can be specifically religious. Here we see another "reconciling banner" at work. Brooks calls it "flexidoxy," mixing flexible and orthodoxy. Bobos sample from different religious traditions in a quest to fill the void that their kitchens and Range Rovers cannot fill.This search for meaning will lead some Bobos to attend church and even to embrace many orthodox religious views. But this embrace is conditional. Brooks cites Alan Wolfe's book One Nation, After All to describe the caveat. While Bobos "value religion," they "are unwilling to allow it to take precedence over pluralism."They're unwilling to allow their beliefs to become the "sole or even most important" determinant for how other people live their lives. The result is what Wolfe calls "small-scale morality." Brooks calls it "a good morality for building a decent society, but maybe not one for people interested in the next world."Brooks writes that "Bobos define our age" and that they are "going to be setting the cultural tone for some time." But he never says why this is the case. Certainly it isn't demographics. While households with incomes of more than $100,000 are increasing, they still form a small minority of American households. So why does Brooks write that Bobos are going to set our cultural tone for some time? Because they dominate the institutions that shape opinion in our society: mass media, publishing, and the Internet. In a culture where the church is increasingly marginalized and the family unit carries less influence, whoever controls what we see, read, and hear stands a good chance of determining how we think.Whether you are looking at the staff at The New York Times or the writers on a hit sitcom, Bobos rule, and so does their outlook.Bobo attitudes toward religion and morality are reminders that, to paraphrase car enthusiasts, there's no substitute for revelation. Flexibility and small-scale morality are incompatible with a belief that moral standards are revealed and written into the fabric of the universe.Insisting on "spooning" from the "spiritual buffet table" isn't an option if you're convinced that Jesus is risen from the dead and is "the Christ, the son of the living God."The Bobos may have one salutary spiritual effect: forcing Christians back to the foundations of the faith. Ultimately the best response to the Bobo challenge may be the scandal of the gospel, without even trying to make it attractive to Bobos.

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Roberto Rivera is a fellow at Prison Fellowship's Wilberforce Forum.

Related Elsewhere

Other Christianity Today articles on consumerism include:Trapped in the Cult of the Next Thing | If ever there was a cult that gave us stones when we were looking for bread. (September 6,1999)Keeping Up with the Amish | We evangelicals have made a too-easy peace with the inroads of consumerism. (October 4, 1999)Shopping for the Real Me | Why can't I ever seem to find the right fit? (November 15, 1999)Several excerpts from Bobos in Paradise are available online including, Brooks' personal introduction to the book which ran in the Washington Post and Brooks' anaylses of the S&M group, the Arizona Power Exchange, which ran in the Weekly Standard magazine. Brooks participated in an online chat with "Brooks writes regularly for The Weekly Standard magazine.

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