Pearsall's Books

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Wednesday, December 15, 2004

After Bobo

David Brooks Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper-Class and How They Got There

Ah, pre-9/11 America. So strange to return to it. This book, by current New York Times columnist David Brooks, was written at the heights of the Clintonian New Economy frenzy. It revolves around what Brooks dubs the Bobo: the bourgeois bohemian or the 1990's affluent professional who melds 1960's counter-cultural values with the agressive money-making ethos of the 1990's. This is a book that gleefully trades in stereotypes (of the funny and truthful, not nasty and vicious kind): the software engineer who arrives at work dressed like he is off to scale Everest on his lunch break (as opposed to going to Subway for a sandwich), the liberal professor checking up on his stock prices, the business consultant shouting at his clients to "embrace chaos!", the wealthy young professionals who spend lots and lots of money on homes and furniture that are expensively disheveled. It's a book that, as much as any rap record of the period, revels in the pornographic hypermaterialism of 1990's capitalism. Brooks endlessly namechecks those brands that offer not just functionality but an ethos, the sort of goods that offer a sense of authenticity, of balance, of correctness.

It is all so very zeitgeisty, and by now, although still quite amusing, it seems shallow in a way that is difficult to recall. The 1990's were, in retrospect, a big fluffy puppy dog of a decade in America for the middle and upper classes. Money seemed to be showering in from all directions and America, attention drawn inward from the end of the Cold War, found that it had plenty of nonsense on which to focus. It is strange to read a book like this that is so much of a time and place that was so recent and yet, looking back, so different. Occassionally I get to thinking that, because I tend to read weightier stuff and also because it's a couple years later, that 9/11 was mostly about being a spectacular summation of trends that had already been on the move for decades. While that is true, it is easy to forget the texture of American history in the period before 9/11 (although by then the internet bubble had burst). Psychologically, 9/11 was the switch between how things are now and a time when the pressing issue for the political and media elites was whether or not President Clinton had been blown by an intern.

So now we find ourselves in a different situation, and so the conclusions that Brooks reached in the final chapter, 'Politics and Beyond', of this generally amusing and well-written book are wildly out of date (as I mentioned below in 'Bad Historical Prophecies'). So, as a guide to the future of America, to the 'new consensus' that Brooks tries to pinpoint, it's basically no use in light of the increasingly frenzied ideological debate following on from September 11th and the Iraq War that culminated in the savage ferocity of the 2004 election campaign. As a look at the particular mania of the 1990's bubble economy it is great, though.

Brooks is at his best and most convincing when talking about how bohemian tastes have been recast through bourgeois sensibilities - the neutered hedonism of suburban BDSM clubs with their newsletters and workshops, corporate chains like Starbucks and Restoration Hardware that provide a shiny ersatz version of the old bohemian coffeshops and antique stores, the mania for casualness in the workplace (especially in the technology industry). He is also superb on how the enormous expansion of the media has brought American intellectuals back from the lofty pinnacle they occupied in the 1950's - because it is now a requirement of being an intellectual (someone who lives off their ideas) to market yourself, to parlay your ideas and intellectual prowess into lucrative think tank positions, guest appearances on television discussion shows, conference panels, op-ed columns, and beyond. He also shows how the confluence between these factors has led, in turn, to an increasingly Puritanical culture among the upper echelons of American society. Smoking is taboo, drinking is not the heroic pursuit it once was, and healthy living and diet are now essentials (this is pretty obvious if you compare poor neighborhoods to rich ones - in a weird inversion of the old patterns, it is now the poor who are fat).

He does overreach, though, especially on the conclusion (as I mentioned before) which posits that America had reached a period of cultural truce - of course he could not have known what was to happen. There is also traces of one of the strangest ideas that I can remember from the 1990's - the idea that somehow the normal laws of economics had been suspended, that this was it, the economy was going to continue growing indefinitely and that there would be no bust to this boom. I remember even my dad (who is quite fiscally conservative) saying at one point that he thought they could be right, that the technology revolution was tearing up the rule books (of course he came to his senses quite quickly and was not shocked when the bottom fell out of the dot coms in early 2001).

|| RPH || 6:01 AM || |