Highlights from Bobos in Paradise


Though I track his social/cultural commentary somewhat regularly in the NYT, this is the first book I’ve read by David Brooks. Bobos in Paradise is a witty and sometimes mean-spirited description of the U.S. upper class, circa 2000. For a social commentary, the book is a bit outdated. However, I still found it useful & relevant. It provides a solid foundation from which to observe the cultural and moral trends of today, which aren’t too far away from the late-90s atmosphere of the “Bobos”.
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“Bobos” is a term Brooks coined to describe the new elite, a mix of 60s bohemian ideals and 80s bourgeois drive for success. He does a fine job of tracing the origins of our country’s educated class, bringing the reader up to speed with a very abridged (albeit colorful) history from 1770- 2000. From there, he generalizes the Bobos’ consumption habits, political ideology and morals with biting wit. These generalizations range from laughable caricature to surprisingly resonate sketches of our lives.
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The real value in this book comes not from Brooks’ description, but rather his analysis and projection of how Bobo morals & ideology will influence our culture. Two chapters in particular make this book worth the read- “Politics & Beyond” and “Spiritual Life”. In the politics chapter, Brooks asserts that it is possible to be “tranquil to a fault”. He quotes Tocqueville, who had these same fears 170 years before: “What worries me most is the danger that, amid all the constant trivial preoccupations of private life, ambition may lose both its force and its greatness, that human passions may grow gentler and at the same time baser, with the result that the progress of the body social may become daily quieter and less aspiring.” 
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 According to Brooks, this atrophy of ambition has come to pass. In broad, but arguably accurate strokes, he observes the Bobo generation detaching from public life with a corrosive cynicism for government as well as for public & private institutions. This apathy breeds complacency, paralyzing political progress or social change.
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Reading this chapter got my wheels turning and I’d like to take the *briefest* aside to toss in my two cents. There really is no greater contrast between our youth counterculture and the counterculture of the 60s. Hippies found their common identity in fighting injustice, protesting the war and taking political action (or exiting the political arena, which is still a political action). Today’s hipsters couldn’t be further from hippies. Their identity is founded on not what they believe in, but what they buy (or, more accurately, pirate). Be it vintage or designer clothes, obscure music, or whimsical ways of decorating, the hipster finds fulfillment in the discovery and ownership of something he or she usually didn’t even create. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not railing on consumerism in itself. I do believe well-made things deserve to be recognized, bought, collected. However, there seems to be something missing if those items form a generation’s central identity and meaning.
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Reading this chapter got my wheels turning and I’d like to take the *briefest* aside to toss in my two cents. There really is no greater contrast between our youth counterculture and the counterculture of the 60s. Hippies found their common identity in fighting injustice, protesting the war and taking political action (or exiting the political arena, which is still a political action). Today’s hipsters couldn’t be further from hippies. Their identity is founded on not what they believe in, but what they buy (or, more accurately, pirate). Be it vintage or designer clothes, obscure music, or whimsical ways of decorating, the hipster finds fulfillment in the discovery and ownership of something he or she usually didn’t even create. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not railing on consumerism in itself. I do believe well-made things deserve to be recognized, bought, collected. However, there seems to be something missing if those items form a generation’s central identity and meaning.
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The chapter on spirituality also makes Bobos worth the read. In an effort to be conscientious and resist making this blog post into an essay, I really can’t dissect that chapter now. But if you’re interested, read this and check Bobos out yourself. This is probably the richest chapter in the book.
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“The thing we are in danger of losing with our broad, diverse lives is a sense of belonging. A person who limits himself or herself to one community or one spouse is going to have deeper bonds to that community or spouse than the person who experiments throughout life. A person who surrenders to a single faith is going to have deeper commitment to that one faith than the person who zigzags through a state of curious agnosticism. The monk at the monastery does not ead an experimental life, but perhaps he is able to lead a profound one… maybe in the end the problem with this attempt to reconcile freedom with commitment, virtue with affluence, autonomy with community is not that it leads to some catastrophic crack-up or some picturesque slide into immortality and decadence, but rather that it leads to too many compromises… leading a life that is moderate but flat… finding nothing heroic, nothing inspiring, nothing that brings life to a point.” 
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