David Brooks is senior editor of The Weekly Standard and author of Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon & Schuster).
Who are the Bobos?
The Bobos are the people who have these humongous new kitchens with Viking ranges that send up heat like a space shuttle rocket turned upside down. They're the people with the sub-zero refrigerators because zero just wouldn't be cold enough.
They are like half hippies/half yuppies. They've got sort of the spirituality of the hippies but the moneymaking of the yuppies, and they merged these two opposite styles together.
Where does the word Bobo come from?
The hippies, who are Bohemian, and the yuppies, who are Bourgeois. And if you take Bourgeois and Bohemian and jam them together you get Bobo.
When did you realize that we've merged capitalism with being a hippie?
I was in Europe for the first half of the '90s and I came back to the town where my parents live outside of Philadelphia. Suddenly it had six gourmet coffee shops. And they've got one of these Great Harvest Bread Companies, which sell a piece of bread for $4.75. It had one of these organic food markets where you can get your vegetarian dog biscuits and your all-natural hair coloring, because if you're going to artificially color your hair, you want it to be all-natural.
So there was this whole overlay of Berkeley from the 1960s in this republican place. And I thought, America has changed.
What are we learning about Bobos in regard to understanding affluence and consumption?
Well, we're learning a lot. Bobos turn everything into education. So you can't just buy a receiver or toothpaste, you have to get a Ph.D. in toothpasteology. You learn all about it before you go out and buy Tom's of Maine.
But then the second thing is you want to show you're not really a materialistic person. So I have a section in the book called, "The Code of Financial Correctness," which is how to spend millions of dollars and ways to show you to test money and material.
So for example, it's cool to spend lots of money on things that are necessities, like a slate shower stall, because that shows you're one with the zen-like rhythms of nature, but it's not cool to spend something on a luxury like a $25,000 media center. So it's not cool to buy a Corvette, because that's a luxury. But a practical Range Rover for $65,000, that's cool.
What are some of the other rules of financial correctness?
Well, there's the rule of one-downsmanship, that everything we own should look like it was once owned by someone much poorer than ourselves. So like the baby gates on the stairs will be made from wood recycled from a rabbit hutch on a 19th century Appalachian farm.
How did the issue of consumption emerge early on in merging the Bohemian with the capitalist?
Even though Bobos consider themselves arty and creative, they're ultimately about achievement and about building things and making things and getting better and better. So they're very entrepreneurial and very hard working. Some may go to work with blue hair and pieces of metal through their faces, but they've got the sleeping bag under the work station because they work phenomenally hard. And so the rebel is in them but so is the worker.
They're goal-oriented. They're not a very sensuous, sit-around-and-enjoy-the-moment lot. They're a hard-working lot. Everything has to be educational. Everything has to make them better.
I've done research in the past few months at various college campuses and the kids are phenomenal workaholics. They go to sleep at 2:00 in the morning and they wake up at 6:00. I mean, I've ran across kids who have play dates. They schedule half-hour chunks in their day when they can talk with friends because otherwise they have no time for that.
So I take kids to lunch at cafeterias at 12:30. By 1:00 the dining hall in the dorm would be deserted because the kids are all off studying or at their sports teams or at their community service.
What is the spirituality of a Bobo?
Well, that's the essential quandary of Bobo life because it's about achievement and opportunity and rising through the world, but at the same time there's a longing for the roots and for sort of peace and contentment. How do you be content if you're always rushing to the next meeting?
The religion chapter [in his book] is one of the more pessimistic chapters. I really do think it's a problem. You can't have everything in religion. You have to defer. You have to abnegate yourself. You have to deny yourself things.
In Montana I ran across a Rabbi who would [refer to] "flexidoxy." On the one hand they want flexibility and freedom, which is, you know, what the Bohemians wanted, but on the other hand they want traditional orthodoxy and ritual. And I found that in all the different religions I looked at. On the one hand people have a longing for the rituals, the old fashioned traditions of the religion. On the other hand they want to disagree with certain parts of the religion they might not like. They want to pick and choose. They want individual freedom.
I have a sentence in the book that says we're trying to build a house of obligation on a foundation of choice, that we really believe in choice, and my belief is as good as your belief. And anything/everything's equal. On the other hand we want to have bonds that are deeper than choice.
What is the Boboism spin on morality?
Well, it tends to be good natured, good intentioned, but it's situational. Bobos actually really detest cruelty, and that's something noble about them. Anything that causes pain. But they're not real big on abstractions and abstract rules and universal truths.
I found in my reporting that they say, "Don't do anybody any harm, try not to cause pain." But on the other hand, it's not a very heroic morality, it's nothing to die for, nothing to sacrifice for, nothing that really transports your soul. It's sort of comfortable.
And what about heaven?
How could there be a last judgment for Bobos? It's so either/or. Maybe there will just be a last discussion or something like that.
I'm trying to imagine the Bobo angel of death. He's got a tweed jacket instead of a black robe. And instead of a scythe he's got a trowel from Smith & Hawken, a gardening trowel. And he says, "You're dead. But you know, you're not going to go to heaven because that's too lofty. But you're not going to go to hell because you're not a bad person. You're just going to get to stay in your massive, oversized kitchen with your California casual chairs and your latte, and I'm just going to take your Range Rover and go off."
And so that's sort of eternity for Bobos, living in a nice kitchen, which is not as great as heaven, but it's not as bad as the other one.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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"The Bobos may have one salutary spiritual effect: forcing Christians back to the foundations of the faith," wrote Roberto Rivera in a Christianity Todayreview of Bobos in Paradise.
Watch Brooks discuss Bobos in Paradise on C-Span's BookTV.
Earlier Dick Staub Interviews include:
Calvin Miller | The author of Jesus Loves Me: Celebrating the Profound Truths of a Simple Hymn talks about childlike faith (July 23, 2002)
Kathleen Norris | The author of The Virgin of Bennington talks about being found by God in the midst of sex, drugs, and poetry. (July 16, 2002)
Thomas Moore | "To really live a secular life and enjoy it is part of being a religious person," says the author of Care of the Soul and The Soul's Religion (July 9, 2002)
Os Guinness | Whether we're seeking or have already been found, we're all on a journey. (July 2, 2002)
Oliver Sacks | The physician author of Awakenings talks about his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, order in the universe, and testing God. (June 25, 2002)
David Myers | People say they know money can't buy happiness, says the Hope College psychology professor. But they don't truly believe it. (June 18, 2002)
Richard Lewis | The comedian, actor, and author talks about his humor, addiction, and spiritual journey. (June 11, 2002)