Comic Sociology: A Critique of the New Establishment From Within

David Brooks' book Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, outlines the social patterns of today's new elite hybrid culture: the Bourgeois Bohemians.

Some may call it arrogant cynicism and some may praise it for its self-deprecating truths. But the author himself of Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There refers to his guide of the new upper class establishment as “comic sociology” which only scratches the surface of the depths to which David Brooks details the lives of today’s new hybrid culture.

Brooks argues that Bobos, short for bourgeois bohemians, are the by-products of the anti-conformist, down with the system, creativity seeking sentiment of the 1960s and the success seeking, company man type outlook of the 1950s.  They are the anti-materialistic and liberal leaning folks who have been fortunate enough to become “intellectual entrepreneurs.” Half the reason that David Brooks refers to his detailed treatise as “comic sociology” is because when describing different Bobo attributes, he includes himself in the mix.

While he points out the silly contradictions that surround this educated ruling class’ business culture and leisure patterns, Brooks also praises the Bobo culture for doing such a good job of balancing virtues: discipline and indulgence, moderation and consumerism, communitarianism and yet profit margins. "This is an elite that has been raised to oppose elites. They are affluent yet opposed to materialism. They may spend their lives selling yet worry about selling out…They find a way to be an artist and still qualify for stock options."

David Brooks also brilliantly goes on to point out another phenomena inherent in the Bobo culture: SID, which is short for “Status-Income Disequilibrium.” This occurs when one becomes severely disillusioned when they realize that their job that requires them to think deeply about profound universal topics pays much less than that of someone who plays with money all day long in foreign financial markets. Although a very negative aspect of modern day intellectual life, Brooks humorously describes it by using a pseudo character whom he refers to as “she”. This chapter especially intrigued me because the troubles experienced by “she” really resembled a lot of the feelings that I’ve had after publishing a piece of writing. “She”, the intellectual, publishes an op-ed with expectations of high praise from colleagues and fundamental change in society but in reality people may read half of it and then move on with their lives. Making it big in the business of ideas isn’t all that easy, according to Brooks, but it is possible.

Even funnier but disturbingly accurate, is Brooks’ description of Bobo consumer and leisure culture. This often consists of buying over priced clothing from REI that is made for trekking the world’s coldest and most uninhabitable places from companies like Lands End, North Face, and Patagonia, and wearing it to work and to the organic supermarket. It also entails spending thousands on home furnishings that are purposely made to look rugged and worn down from stores like Pottery Barn or Crate and Barrel. However, some of the fusion-based aristocracy do put this type of attire to good use on what David Brooks would use both hands to say their quote on quote vacations. He points out that instead of going luxurious, relaxing getaways, many Bobos often look for trips that will offer lots of self-discipline and humbling experiences. This may include camping in some remote rainforest known for its dangerous climate and disease-causing habitat while collecting samples of endangered plant species for two weeks. But then it’s right back to the office.

Brooks ends with a chapter on Bobo spiritual life and then one titled “Politics and Beyond.” He describes them as being spiritual pluralists who pride themselves on not being tied down to one faith. “What’s more, no one ever really arrives at a complete answer to the deepest questions or to faith. It is a voyage. We are forever incomplete, making choices, exploring, creating.” This also does not directly imply that Bobos are staunch atheists who love science, hate the Pope, and have the bumper sticker that say “Never stop asking why.” But spiritual pluralism simply means being open-minded about all faiths, not paying attention to their minute differences but rather their similarities even though Brooks says that many of these people end up returning to organized religion for sake of a sane way to raise their children. Oh yeah, and Bobo heaven is in Montana.

Brooks ends the book not as a satirist or a social commentator, but as a sort of preacher summing up the Bobo “project.” This means reforming important institutions and ridding the American upper-class of their cynical outlook on public service. The amount of detail and research that Brooks put in to writing this book to come to this conclusion after partially criticizing and partially exalting his own social class is astonishing. He is a unique and original writer, a true observer, and a very truthful story-teller. Although written in 2000, Bobos In Paradise is a great reference of the upper-class’ social mores and their place in society for at least the next couple decades to come.

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