David Brooks Adds Hippies, Yuppies, Gets Bobos

Interview of David Brooks by Dick Staub
Well, our next guest says we are witnessing the morphing of two previously opposed cultures, the results being the emergence of the Bobos. He is David Brooks, Senior Editor of The Weekly Standard, and author of Bobos in Paradise, published by Simon & Schuster.
Q. And if you had to describe the thesis of the book in the elevator in one
sentence, what would you say this is about?
A. 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’re like half hippies/half yuppies.
Q. Yeah.
A. They’ve got sort of the spirituality of the hippies but the moneymaking of the
yuppies, and they merged these two opposite styles together.
Q. We’ve-and the word Bobo comes from…
A. 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.
Q. Now, when we start thinking about this, I mean, what was the “aha” moment
for you, when suddenly the lights went on and you said, wow, we’ve merged capitalism with being a hippie?
A. That’s right. Well, 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—
Q. Which they chose for some intentional reason.
A. Right.
Q. World War II.
A. They liked World War I suburbs. Wayne, Pennsylvania. Did you ever see the
Katharine Hepburn movie, The Philadelphia Story?
Q. Yeah.
A. That’s where it was set. So very old republican-type place. Suddenly it had
six gourmet coffee shops. It had one of these Fresh Fields whole 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.
Q. Right.
A. And they’ve got one of these Great Harvest Bread Company which sells
spinach-feta loaf for $4.75 for a piece of bread. And if you ask them to slice the bread in the ,store they look at you like you haven’t risen to the higher realm of bread consciousness. So there was this whole overlay of Berkeley from the 1960s in this republican place.
Q. Yeah.
A. And I thought, America has changed.
Q. Now, is a Bobo a demographic or a psychographic? Is it a state of mind or is
it a generational issue?
A. It’s a psychographic.
Q. Okay.
A. If you’re Bill Gates, you’re a Bobo because, you know, you’re sort of a rebel
and you’re going to work in khakis, but you’re make quazillions of dollars. But you can be a Bobo if you’re working as a barista at Starbucks or at a record store.
Q. Yeah. Is there a geographic concentration of Bobos? I mean, Seattle certainly
is “Boboland.” I mean, I moved back here from Chicago and the first thing I notice is in-in the suburbs of Chicago you still have-you have all the Bobo phenomena but you still have a high degree of conformity lifestyle-wise. Whereas, in a place like Seattle Jeff Basil’s walking around this town with his-his cargo pants on, and his billions of dollars is not viewed as inconsistent at all. The idea of suits, ties, all that stuff. Seattle is very much a Bobo paradise I would say. Agreed?
A. I do a lot of research in Seattle here at the REI Store.
Q. Yeah.
A. I walked into Microsoft dressed in a suit and they looked at me like I was
Dr. Bizzarro and had come from Mars. So, you know, this is the center. But it’s wherever there are universities.
Q. Okay.
A. University towns are perfect Bobo places.
Q. Because, in fact, the whole emergence of “Boboism,” or whatever we’re going
to– Is that the right phrase? I mean, we’re inventing as—
A. Yeah.
Q. The whole emergence of Boboism, ladies and gentlemen, and that your
“Bobolosity”—it’s beginning to sound like I’m Richard Dreyfuss in the Krippendorf Tribe where he makes up his own anthropology—but anyway, meanwhile I digress. Boboism really grows out of the elite educational class of American society.
A. Right. We used to have an elite based on bloodline. The old Protestant elite,
John J. McCloy, Dean Acheson. But then starting in the ‘60s we got an elite based on brains.
Q. And-and how did that happen? Give us a brief history of the emergence.
A. Well, the elite committed suicide. There was the 1950s. We’re in the Cold
War, and they said, we can’t just have rich sons of Thurston Thornwaffle, III going to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. We’ve got to get people with, you know, the high SAT scores. So they changed the criteria for admissions into those places, and over the next 30 years the whole-all sorts of people who never would have thought of applying to those-those schools got in and changed the culture.
Q. And there are wonderful-we all have personal anecdotal evidence of such
stories. I remember sitting with a friend in the suburbs of-of Chicago who got into Harvard based on the fact that he had great SAT scores and virtually nobody else from Montana applied that year. You know, and he’d milked the cow. And suddenly there he is at Harvard.
A. Right.
Q. You know, and so there was kind of an egalitarianism that came about in the
educational system that it no longer meant that you were raised in Wilton, Connecticut or you were in the right suburb, and had the right economic base, you actually-you actually had to have something else. Well, you could still get in on that basis in many places, but there was something else going on there.
A. Yeah. And so we had these people who were based-who were university-
based. And one of the quintessential characters is the Dustin Hoffman character in The Graduate. He-he detests his sort of Orange County boring life, and he rebels. And at the end of the movie we see him coming out to northern California with Katharine Ross and they didn’t make a sequel, but we know what happened to that guy. He became Vice President of Marketing at the Gap, he goes to work with his little ponytail and his earring, and so this is about the life he leads and the life his kids lead.
Q. We’d make a great team. There’s a whole thing around Boboism that has to
do with our angst, or lack thereof, regarding consumption.
A. Yeah.
Q. Now, this book was so timely because I-I spent some of this weekend trying
to replace my-a receiver that had gone bad and-and was state-of-the-art. And I went into this whole thing with these guys telling me, why, this morning a guy spent $30,000 on a surround-sound system making me feel-and it just seemed obscene. And so there’s a whole thing that-that has to do with our understanding affluence and consumption. What are we learning about Bobos in this regard?
A. Well, we’re learning a lot. Because 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 know, you learn all about it before you go out and buy Tom’s of Maine, or whatever that is.
Q. Exactly.
A. But then the second thing is you want to show you’re not really a materialistic
Q. Exactly.
A. 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.
Q. For instance…
A. So for example, it’s-it’s cool to spend lots of money on things that are necessities, like a slate shower stall, because that shows you’re one, like, 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.
Q. Yeah.
A. I thought of writing a screenplay called Rebel Without a Camry. An English professor buys a Cadillac and loses all his friends because he’s what, too vulgar or something?
Q. Yeah. So what are some of the other rules of financial correctness?
A. 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 babygates on the stairs will be made from wood recycled from a rabbit hutch on a 19th century Appalachian farm.
Q. Yeah. Now, when we-when we-we look at the early stages of emerging the-the Bohemian with the capitalist, how did the-the issue of consumption emerge early on in that process?
A. Well I, you know, one of the funny things about the Bohemians is they lived pretty well. You know, the organization man was living in his boring suburb, but the Bohemians, some anonymous genius decided that you could sell used blue jeans for more than new blue jeans and that something had changed in American life. So that’s how companies like the Gap got started. So they moved out, you know, maybe to northern California or someplace to start their chutney-their home chutney family business—
Q. Yeah.
A. –and then they decided they were going to make the best chutney in the world or the best pesto in the world and then it just took off.
Q. So what’s the relationship between entrepreneurialism and-and the Bobo phenomena?
A. Well, you know, I say the Bobos have this arty, and even though they consider
themselves arty and creative, but they’re ultimately about achivement and about building things and making things and getting better and better. So they’re very entreprenurial and very hard-working. That’s the thing about all the companies that are surrounding us here in Seattle or any of the high-tech companies. The people 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.
Q. Okay.
We’re going to be back with more of David Brooks. The book is Bobos in
Paradise. It is published by Simon & Schuster, available in paperback. We’ll be right back.
We’re visiting with David Brooks, Senior Editor of The Weekly Standard. He’s also done a good tour of duty with The Wall Street Journal and covered a lot of interesting beats internationally as well as film and-and-and has had an opportunity from these various vantage points to observe the emergence of the new upper class which rode essentially on the back of education into a-into a-a morphing of the free-spiritedness of the Bohemian with the capitalistic urges of-of what used to be the WASPish mentality in this-in this culture.
Q. Now, we were talking about consumption and affluence and you started to
touch on the business culture, the fact that there is a whole business culture that is-is growing up around the Bobos. Talk about that.
A. Well, if you want to hear the language of the ‘60s going full bore, people
talking about revolutions, you got to go to corporate America. That’s where you’ve got the companies with the slogans. Like Apple says, they’re for the misfits, the rebels. Lucent Technologies, their slogan is, born to be wild. Burger King, which you don’t think of as a great counter-cultural institution, their slogan is, sometimes you gotta break the rules. So like don’t have ketchup on your hamburger, you know. Be a rebel. And that’s how they’ve organized themselves within their companies. They’ve de-bureaucratized, become much more creative, much more flexible. And so the management gurus like Tom Peters, their slogan is, think revolution not evolution. There’s a book out now by a guy named Gary Hamel. It’s called Leading the Revolution.
Q. Yeah.
A. So everyone’s a revolutionary in corporate America, and it’s sort of been
good. Companies have loosened up a little and there’s a lot less paperwork, a lot more free-spiritedness.
Q. Now, what happens if you try to merge Bobo culture with-with other culture,
with old culture, corporately?
A. Well, you know, one of the things you can’t find anymore is an organization
man. It’s very hard to find an old member of the Protestant establishment—
Q. Yeah.
A. –who says, you know, our days at the country club really were better than
these new days. Everybody’s with it these days.
Q. But there is-I-I’m thinking of Sculley when he went to Apple and he-he
described Apple Computer as being like the Boy Scouts without adult supervision.
A. Right.
Q. And-and he-he didn’t make it in that culture. He tried to bring about—and
now you’ve got Apple Jobs, you know Steven Jobs is back at Apple and it’s back to the rock-and-rolling good days.
A. Yeah.
Q. The jeans, the white starched shirt, the cool new products, and all that stuff.
Was that a generational mismatch? Was that a cultural mismatch? Was it a Bobo with a non-Bobo?
A. I’m sure it was a cultural mismatch. I’m not sure it was generational because
one thing I noticed at a lot of these companies is you’ve got a guy who’s 60 years old, but you ask him to talk and he talks like he’s 22. So you say, “How’d the IPO go?” And he’d go, “Oh, it cratered.” “ How was the sales meeting?” “Oh, it was a serious mind rub.” So everybody wants to be youthful and avant-garde. But, you know, I don’t care who you are, whether-what company you’re in, you have to do the nuts and bolts of the company. So it’s not enough to be a wild, wacky, free-spirit, you’ve got to worry about inventory. I read a piece in The New Yorker awhile ago about Restoration Hardware, which is a perfect Bobo company.
Q. Yeah. Now, tell me why that’s a perfect Bobo company.
A. Well, because they’ve got, you know, if you went into a Restoration
Hardware, they’ve got all these couches named after novelists and stuff like—
Q. Yeah, they have Ernest Hemmingway sofa.
A. And then they—it’s very nostalgic. They’ve got the tray you used as a kid—
Q. Yeah.
A. –in school. They’ve got a dustpan, which is not only your normal dustpan,
but a very artistic dustpan, the best dustpan you’ve ever seen in your life.
Q. Yeah.
A. So I went to Marin County, their headquarters, and they’ve got a liberal dog
policy there so you can bring your dog into work, and the dogs all walk around from office to office.
Q. Only liberal dogs apply.
A. Right. Exactly.
Q. Liberal dog policy.
A. But-but the problem was they didn’t worry about their inventory. So when I
was doing the story their stock was about 15, and I understand now it’s about $1.50.
Q. Wow.
A. So, you know, their-they’ve got great site guys and they’ve got the feel of
the culture beautifully, but there are certain nuts and bolts of business and—
Q. Yeah.
A. I think that where I live in Washington because the Bushes are just-do the nuts
and bolts quite well, better than the Clinton people.
Q. Yeah. Interesting. When we think about the intellectual life of the Bobo, they
were born, after all, in the educational environment, what’s happening to their intellectual life?
A. Well, you know, in the 1950s you had these momentous intellectuals like
Hannah Arendt and they wrote top-top, you know, these books. A guy name Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book called The Nature and Destiny of Man—
Q. Yeah.
A. –which, you know, covers a lot of ground. I bet it must have been a fat book.
But now instead you’ve got—
Q. It’s available in paperback.
A. Really?
Q. By the way, Harper.
A. So now you’ve got branding intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates who, you
know, he’s on PBS, he’s on some corporate boards, he’s got these-all these entreprenurial activities going. So now intellectuals are much more merged. So just as the businessmen became more like artists, the intellectuals became more like businessmen. And that has its plus sides and its minuses.
Q. So-but-but in terms of the life of the mind. When we think about the Bobo,
how would we describe the life of the mind and the life of the Boboist?
A. We’re talking about guys in first class cabins of airplanes, men and women,
going off to conferences to talk about Derrida and the conference becomes like a contest for status so, you know, you want to be the least famous person on your panel because the person who sits on the most panels wins. That’s the essence of the competition of the life. You want to be in a lot of panel discussions.
Q. Bobos define pleasure in some new ways. That has a lot to do with
A. Yeah. That’s the sort of the problem with Bobos, they can’t just, you know,
enjoy an orgasm. They have to achieve it, you know.
Q. Yeah.
A. Everything has to be educational. When they’re going out running, you know,
on the one hand they look kind of naked. You’ll see women in sports bras and short shorts running around the parks. But on the other hand they’re working, they’re working out. Everything has to make themselves better.
Q. Man, are they a cheerless lot?
A. Well, I’d say they’re goal-oriented. They’re not a very sensuous, sit-around-
and-enjoy-the-moment lot. They’re a hard-working lot.
Q. Which is-when you-when you merged and morphed the-the two, Bohemian
and Bourgeois, the-the some of the elements of the Bohemian are lost.
A. Yeah.
Q. For sure. Both. But-but part of the Bohemian loss was that kind of
aimlessness, that no agenda, kind of whatever-happens-today-will-be-very-cool kind of-kind of mentality. And when you morph that with the capitalist who’s got the daytimer or the palm pilot or whatever the-the blackberry, whatever the newest is, there is a-there is that-that sense, but and yet, Bobos want to have it all.
A. Right.
Q. So-so they want to try to figure out how can I, like, have that aimlessness in
life but run it according to my schedule?
A. Yeah, well—
Q. So you have this story about spirituality in Montana where the guy—The
River Runs Through It, and the guy—look, we got to get the spiritual experience because I got dinner reservations at 6:00.
A. Right. Exactly. I’ve been sitting at this river for 15 minutes, when is God
going to talk to me already?
Q. Yeah. Exactly. It’s all in my schedule. So-so when we-when we talk about
the spiritual life of-of the Bobo, you start-I did-I thought that was just a hilarious introduction, the western Montana, nothing is happening and I’ve got dinner reservations at 6:00. This gets to the scheduledness of the Bobo which does create problems when it comes to relationships, whether they’re with humans or the transcendent, because not everything in the world understands the essential nature of my schedule.
A. Right. And not everybody can sit still. And if you can’t sit still, if you’ve
always got to be moving…
Q. But what happened to the educational institution that-that, you know, the
essential education back in the good old days had this heavy-duty notion of the unexamined life is not worth living, and-and ideas have consequences, and the-the peripatetic philosophers and, you know, spending a lot of time thinking about the meaning of stuff. And now we’ve got this very fast-paced goal-oriented—I mean, what happened to all of that?
A. Well, it’s changed. You know, I’ve done research in the past few months at
various college campuses and the kids are phenomenal workaholics. They go to sleep at 6:00, or at 2:00 in the morning, 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. One of the professors about the community service told me, I don’t know where these kids find lepers, but they find them and they read to them. They’re just busy all the time.
Q. Interesting.
We’re going to pick up with more of David Brooks coming up right after
this. Don’t go away. The book is Bobos in Paradise.
This is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with David Brooks. His book is Bobos in Paradise, a New York Times best seller, available now in paperback, published by Simon & Schuster.
Q. Is there something that-that violates basic humanness about the-the Boboism
A. Well, you got to compare it to reality. I mean, I can imagine better people.
And I make fun of them a lot in this book. But you compare them to the old elite that I talked about, the Protestant establishment, and this is a more open elite, a more flexible, more creative, more interesting elite, and they’ve made life better. If you go to a store or anywhere you live, there’s better food, there’s better lettuce, there’s better fruit, there’s better furniture. So on the whole I appreciate them.
Q. Well, you confess to being a Bobo yourself.
A. Yeah. I might say I’m a Bobo with bad grades, that if I studied harder I would
have gotten the big Range Rover or the big kitchen.
Q. Yeah. You don’t have the slate shower?
A. No, I’ve got a lousy little shower.
Q. And you have the embarrassingly expensive sound system.
A. I’ve got it all wrong, but I’m working on it. Not yet. Buy my book.
Q. Now that I’ve got the template.
A. Right.
Q. And so at one level Bobos in Paradise is a-is a kind of anthropologist
excursion through American culture. On another level it’s a-it’s a workbook, a primer. If you want to get better at being a Bobo…
A. Do you remember when the preppie handbook came out and people-everyone
was laughing at the preppies but other people were going through it with their highlighter?
Q. Yeah, exactly. Precisely. You know, I want to be a better Bobo so I’m
picking up Bobos in Paradise. Back to the-the spiritual life. You talk about Montana and the whole notion of soul rush.
A. Yeah.
Q. The rootedness of place. Now, what’s that about?
A. Well, that’s about 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.
Q. Yeah.
A. How do you be content if you’re always rushing to the next meeting?
Q. Oh, but see, I’ve got this image of one of my very, very best friends, a very
high-placed advertising executive in New York, who loves to come out to the northwest to get his rootedness—
A. Right.
Q. –but we do it fast.
A. That’s right.
Q. It’s like—yeah, he’s got his big, giant SUV that he rented and we’re going to
rush about that-the countryside—
A. Right.
Q. –getting rooted and getting connected with nature. There-there’s this-there is
so much yin-yang tension. Yin-yang wouldn’t be a good word for it because there’s a-a harmony there. It’s a-it’s a dissonance really.
A. Well, like Al Gore coming out to Mount Rainier. You get your instant glacier
experience or, you know, your-your ordeal of the moment and then you’re back to—
Q. But-but you see him coming down the mountain with his palm pilot on his
belt. Yeah, exactly. Oh, man. So now, what is flexidoxity?
A. Yeah. This-this is sort of the essence of what we’re talking about. In-in
Montana I ran across a Rabbi who-he would ask what sort of Judaism do you practice? Is it orthodox, conservative, or reform? He said, well, it’s “flexidoxy.” Because on the one hand he wants flexibility and freedom, which is, you know, what the Bohemians wanted, but on the other hand he wanted 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.
Q. But see, this goes to the point of spiritual freedom where you talk about the
Smorgasbord. And you talk about spiritual self absorption, which-which for somebody such as myself raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which had some appreciation of denying yourself, taking up a cross, that-that whole notion, and the whole-you point out one of-one of my favorite earlier books, Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah, with Sheila, whose religion is “Sheilaism.”
A. Yeah. Because she put together a few things and picked, you know, her own
religion that she likes.
Q. Yeah.
A. But, you know, Sheilaism, how satisfying is it? You know, the old question in
religion is, what does God command and obey? Sheilaism is, what do I like?
Q. Yeah.
A. And then at times of crisis, how much-how much does “god Sheila” offer
“Sheila Sheila”?
Q. Yeah.
A. How does she pass that down to her kids?
Q. Yeah.
A. And suppose you go—
Q. The essence of Sheila.
A. –you go up to Mount Rainier and have sort of a blissful moment. Well, then
the next weekend you have another and another, but what does it add up to? And many of the people who are deep into the New Age stuff have joined traditional religions recently—
Q. Yeah.
A. –because they want to be able to pass something down to their kids.
Q. Well, just to go back, though, to the roots of this, kind of how we’ve gotten to
what you talk about as a return to order. You’ve got a-a section in that chapter on-on pluralism and the liberated life. And essentially what you’re seeing in the return is the recognition that the pluralism and the liberated life doesn’t ultimately satisfy.
A. It has a downside.
Q. Yeah. The kind of limitless-it’s like the old country buffet. I mean, all of this
stuff and none of it really tastes very good.
A. Right. You’re leading your sort of remote-control life flicking through
channels, the channels of your soul.
Q. But see, where’s the pluralist? And where do you think the pluralistic urgency
or-or tendency in American culture is going? I mean, it-it certainly–it’s still very much a part of American life. There’s still this-this-this, you know, hesitancy to at any point state an absolute that would, you know, run head-on into somebody else’s pluralism.
A. Yeah. I have a sentence in the book that 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.
Q. Yeah.
A. On the other hand we want to have bonds that are deeper than choice.
Q. Rick Moody sat right here a few weeks ago, fiction writer, and-and announces
That, though he turned atheist at the age of eight, having been raised Episcopalian, and with, you know, certain dynamics in his family, he is now returning, and he says, I’m-I’m into a revival of religion. And I says, “Well, how do you make that distinction between spirituality and religion?” And he says, “Spirituality is too squishy.”
A. Yeah. It’s—
Q. There’s nothing there. There’s no there, there.
A. Right.
Q. And so this kind of phenomena that we’re not seeing of-of Gen X, wanting to
return to the-the late night order of worship, the old tradition with the candles, all of this stuff—
A. But-and it starts with the rituals. The New York Times had a great headline,
“Religion Makes a Comeback,” and then in parentheses, “Belief to Follow?”
Q. Yeah.
A. Because people come back for the rituals, but do they believe in God? And do
they defer to God? That-that’s a different thing.
Q. Well, which is one of the-yeah, one of the-the-the-the-the ironies that I saw
when you talked about people returning to religion because they want to pass something onto their children, but something they don’t actually have themselves. I mean, is there something wrong with this picture?
A. Yeah. Well, the spiritual-the religion chapter is one of the more pessimistic
chapters, I’d say, in the book because—
Q. Really.
A. –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.
Q. You had this line that the irony is that this whole spiritual sojourn started with
a bang of liberation and ended with quietism.
A. Yeah. It started out as sort of the brave, brave new breaking away from the
old traditions, and people saw the old religion as these things that were stifling their creativity. So it’s fun to break away from, say, if you were at a Catholic school in Chicago, and all the rows were in neat order, and you were wearing a uniform, and you could only say certain things, you burst free from that and suddenly you feel liberated. But then 30 years down the road, how much longer can that moment of liberation go? And then you learn to be tolerant of everyone else. And everything becomes equal. And it becomes a little placid and boring.
Q. Hm. Robert Stone wrote the book Damascus Gate and I-I told him I’d read
somewhere that he had left Catholicism 20 years earlier and had this great sense of liberation. His father is Jewish, mother is Catholic. And he says, yeah, I left with this great sense of liberation. But then 20 years later I woke up and felt like half my head was missing. And he said, something central was missing. And-and I think what we’re-I-I had a very interesting interview with a guy just this last week, another novelist, who-who was describing himself at being really good at asking the questions but not doing very well at answering them.
A. Right.
Q. And I think that kind of describes the Bobo dilemma.
A. Yeah.
Q. Where there’s a level of pessimism.
A. Yeah. And one of the problems is the religious people with firm faith believe
it’s possible to do evil sitting alone in your room not doing anyone any harm. And that-that idea, I think, is evaporating from life.
Well, we’ll pick up there when we come back. Our guest is David
Brooks. The book is Bobos in Paradise, a New York Times bestseller, published by Simon & Schuster.
Well, this is Dick Staub back with you with a kind of a-a rove through David Brooks’s new book, Bobos in Paradise, and finding ourselves amused and-and challenged all at the same time through a book that I think does a pretty good job of observing and-and getting it right and describing also some of the tensions and dynamics and dilemmas built into the emerging Boboism, which is the merging of Bohemians with the Bourgeois.
Q. You were just talking about deeply religious people feel you can do-you can
A. You can do wrong when you’re sitting in your room, not doing anyone any
Q. Yeah.
A. You can commit sins against God even though no one sees you.
Q. Yeah.
A. You know, when this came to me I was at Princeton doing some research.
And I talked to a professor there who told me a story. He was telling kids, don’t cheat on your papers, with another member of his department. And he said, first of all, we can, because of the internet. It’s easier to cheat, but it’s a lot easier for us to catch you cheating. But the second thing is God sees you and he’ll punish you for doing wrong. And the other professor leapt in and said, hey, we don’t say that. You know, that’s not the way professors talk today. And it’s sort of true. And I went back to some of the old Princeton history, read some of the old commencement addresses, and the school president in the 1920s. Every commencement address he talked about the devil, temptation of the beast. And the idea was that in each of us there is good and there’s evil and there’s a war between good and evil. And so how we behaved within each of us is of real consequence and it’s sort of a big struggle. And so defeating the evil in ourselves is something that we do-have to do everyday. So if we’re alone in our room and we succumb-do something we shouldn’t do or take a thought that’s nasty, then-then somehow we weakened ourselves in that battle.
Q. So what is the Boboism spin on morality?
A. 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.
Q. You use Alan Wolfe’s research where he talks about small-scale morality.
A. Right. And-and that sort of a-he’s developed this whole theory, which I
endorse, and which I found in my reporting which is, you know, 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.
Q. And what about heaven? You have a little section here on heaven in the
spiritual life of the Bobo.
A. Yeah. Well, I imagine, I’m trying to figure how does a Bobo die? Because
how could there be a last judgment, you know, it’s so either/or. Maybe there will just be a last discussion or something like that. So I imagine a woman who’s a law professor with her home-summer home in Montana, and she’s got her dogs, Dylan and Joplin, walking by her side, and suddenly she goes down to her renovated farmhouse where they’ve quadrupled the size of the thing, and there’s the Bobo angel of death, because I’m trying to imagine this guy. And 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 to her, “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 my-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.
Q. Oh, man. So what-what kind of background were you raised in? I mean, how
does this whole thing fit your-your pattern?
A. Yeah. Well, I’m sort of again atypical. I was raised-I’m Jewish. And I was
Raised, but in an assimilating family that was been assimilating for 100 years. In New York Jewish circles there was a slogan, “think Yiddish, act British.” It was sort of assimilated in manners where you tried to keep the mentality going.
Q. Yeah.
A. And then I married a Unitarian woman from Minnesota. A couple years after
we were married she converts and becomes very serious about Judaism. And so that’s how I know God exists, because only He would go so far out of his way to get me back. So in many ways, I’m sort of struggling with the same—you know, I’ve got a basically secular mentality while knowing, rationally, that it’s not satisfying.
Q. Yeah. In-in the-so-so what’s the next step for the whole Bobo generation in
that? Because, see, it’s interesting to me that you say that this-the chapter on spiritual is the most pessimistic, whereas the others on-on consumption, on business, cultural, intellectual-there’s a lot of, you know, there’s a lot of hopefulness and positive. But there is this-this phenomena in American society of yearning, of-of the belief that we are-that we’ve got all this stuff, we’ve done all this thinking, we’ve got education, we’ve-and there’s still something not there. And-and the old traditional role of religion was to address that question.
A. Right. And I’m not-I-I wish I had the perfect answer. But I think it’s endemic
to America, you know. America was started with the idea that this is a holy land, the promised land, a place where we could really create a new shining city on a hill. At the same time, it’s always been a country of abundance and money and affluence and possibility. So the Puritans and all of us since have sort of believed we have two callings: The calling to serve God and the calling to achieve success, and that the attempt to merge those two callings is the perpetual American problem.
Q. But what do you make of all of the stuff being written about this is a
transitional age, you know, and we’re transitioning into something. And a lot of these people are-are talking about a transition to a whole new spiritual age. And I-I never-I have a really hard time getting any of them to actually define what that is.
A. Right.
Q. Other than the-it’s obvious that-that it’s coming.
A. Yeah. I’m not-I think we just finished the transitional age, the ‘60s and the
‘80s were a time of great cultural turmoil, and I think we’re coming out of that into a new status quo. So something will happen, something always does.
Q. But, I mean, do you-you don’t think we’re at kind of a-a-a pivotal—
A. I don’t think we’re on the verge of a great religious revival. You know,
America has always been a religious country.
Q. Well, but Sorokan, his whole argument was that you start out with this highly
ideational-idealistic view of the world and then you go through these different phases and you reach a crisis. And it is a crisis of faith, ultimately. And you either emerge with new-some new idea or some new spiritual reality or-or you-you collapse. And so-and you see that theme in a lot of the-the, you know, a lot of the books being written about trends. You’re-you’re not seeing it that way?
A. Yeah. No. What I see, when I-frankly, when I look around America is sort of
a fat-and-happy country. That is, it has the perpetual American longing because we are Americans. But I don’t see any coming crackpot. I really don’t. I wish there was. Because it would be more interesting and I’m curious to know about that place. In my business, bad news is good news because there’s more to write about. But-but I just don’t see, you know, a revolution around the corner.
Q. So what do you think is next for Bobos? More of the same?
A. Dying. And hard work. I really think that we have not begun. You know, the
American economy grew phenomenally more productive starting in 1995, and we’re in the midst of, I think, a 30-year—
Q. But what do you make of there-there is this next generation, they’re described
as slackers. They’re described as, you know– And they say they’re uninterested in the stuff that their parents are interested in. What impact– Are they Bobos? Are they some new—
A. Some of the slackers are but nonsense. I think the youngest generation, the
college age kids who–they call them the millenials now–are phenomenally hard-working. Like I was saying, they respect authority a great deal. Almost hunger for authority. And I think that these are regarded as a wholesome generation. If you look at their sexual-their sexual use, drug use, it’s all down. Their lifestyle is incredibly healthy. They defer to authority, respect the organization. They’re almost too wholesome for words.
Q. Well, ladies and gentlemen, David Brooks’s energetic mind, a lot of-lot of
observations, a lot of research and then a great book, Bobos in Paradise, which you can spend more time with David Brooks by picking up your own copy, in paperback, published by Simon & Schuster. Thanks for being with us.
A. It’s been a pleasure.

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