|A CONVERSATION WITH...|
May 9, 2000
GWEN IFILL: So, David, I have to start by asking you the most obvious question of all: What the heck is a bobo?
DAVID BROOKS: A bobo is a bourgeois bohemian. These are the people who are thriving in the information age. They're the people, you go into their homes and they've got these renovated kitchens that are the size of aircraft hangars, with plumbing. You know, you see the big sub- zero refrigerators and you open the door and you think, they could stick an in-law suite in the side. So these are the people who are really making a lot of money, and I spent the last few years going across upscale America looking at the people who are really thriving in the information age. And one of the things, the chief characteristic I noticed, was that they've smashed the old categories.
It used to be easy to tell a bourgeois from a bohemian. And the bourgeois were the straight-laced suburban types, went to church, worked in corporations. And the bohemians were the arty free spirits, the rebels. But if you look at upscale culture, at the upper middle classes, the people in Silicon Valley, you find they've smashed all the categories together. Some people seem half yuppie-bourgeois and half hippie- bohemian. And so if you take bourgeois and bohemian and you smash them together, you get the ugly phrase "bobo."
GWEN IFILL: I would never call you "yuppie-bourgeois," but I have to ask the question: Are you a bobo?
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I consider myself a bobo with bad grades. If I had studied harder, I could have got into Harvard, and really made all the money and had the really big kitchen.
GWEN IFILL: Am I a bobo?
DAVID BROOKS: You may be.
GWEN IFILL: By virtue of being on the "NewsHour"? There may be a sub-zero there. I won't tell you the truth.
DAVID BROOKS: One of the places I went to look at these was the New York "Times" wedding page, which is a great indicator of the American elite. In the 1950's, it was the WASP aristocracy. It was, you know, when your ancestor came over was listed on the page-- not your job, but your connections, what cotillion ball you came out. Now if you look at the New York "Times" wedding page, it's this great clash of resumes. It's, like, they call it the mergers and acquisitions page. Harvard marries Yale. Princeton marries Stanford. Magna cum laude marries magna cum laude. You never get a magna cum laude marrying a summa cum laude because the tensions would be too great in that wedding.
GWEN IFILL: So, what does that tell us about society in general, about where we've become? Do we have people who've grown up trying to rebel, but now they discover they want to find a way to rebel without risking too much?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, they started rebelling, but we're in an age where money rains down on people with education. And so the people who went to universities with rebel attitudes suddenly found themselves with stock options. They hated consumerism, but they found themselves consuming. I mean, really, it's a product of the information age, because the essence of this age is that ideas and creativity are as important as finance capital and natural resources. So the people who thrive, can take emotions and ideas, and turn them into products, and so they have one foot in the world of emotions and creativity and one foot in the world of the marketplace. One foot is in bohemia and one in the bourgeois world of selling.
GWEN IFILL: And when you talk about marketplace, I mean, it's so much about consumerism. You grew up in Wayne, Pennsylvania, which, when you returned, you discovered it was an entirely different place than what you remembered growing up in. You wrote a passage in your book that I'd like to ask you to read about it.
DAVID BROOKS: Sure.
GWEN IFILL: And just give me a sense about... Just read it for us.
DAVID BROOKS: Okay, this is about Wayne, Pennsylvania, which is on the mainline ,outside of Philadelphia-- eighth in the country in the number of social register families. And I got back, and suddenly there were fancy bread stores. There was a Fresh Fields organic grocery store that had, you know, basmati rice, and all that kind of stuff. And so this is what I wrote about that. "And so suddenly the streets of Wayne are dominated by the PBS- NPR cohorts, vineyard-touring doctors, novel-writing lawyers, tenured gardening buffs, unusually literary realtors, dangly earringed psychologists and the rest of us information- age burghers.
These people have different aspirations than the old 'country club and martini' suburban crowd, and naturally enough, want their ideals reflected in the sort of things they buy, and the images they project. Shopping may not be the most intellectual exercise on earth, but it is one of the more culturally revealing. Indeed, one of the upshots of this new era is that Karl Marx may have had it exactly backwards. He argued that classes are defined by their means of production, but it could be true that in the information age at least, classes are defined by their means of consumption."
GWEN IFILL: The people doing all this consumption are the new educated elite. Are these educated elite a force for good or a force for evil?
DAVID BROOKS: I think in general they're a force for good. Places like Wayne were pretty boring when I went to high school there. Now they've got all these interesting stores, great bookstores, you know. You can get your all-natural hair coloring, and your, you know, vegetarian dog biscuits, so that's interesting. The other thing, the bohemian mindset has gone into corporations, which was the center of the bourgeoisie, and transformed them. So now, you know, in their advertising slogans, you know, Burger King uses the phrase, "you've got to break the rules." Lucent Technology says, "born to be wild."
And the whole management structure is not formal and boring, but it's sort of counter-cultural. Everybody's dressing in ripped T-shirts and glacier glasses, you know, as if a wall of ice is going to come down through the parking lot in the middle of the day. And it's had this great influence on American productivity. Daniel Bell wrote a book in the early 1970's, where he said "we had this productive economy, but then we have this hippie culture, which is all about pleasure for the moment, and hippie culture is going to undermine the productive economy." But he had it exactly backwards. When you had these counter- cultural ideas infusing corporations, suddenly they're much more creative, and much more productive.
GWEN IFILL: But bobos are by definition people who are compromisers, they're looking for middle ground. They shop at Pottery Barn so they can get things that look safe, and they shop at REI, where they can act like if they're having an adventure vacation, but in the end, they're people who are trying to find a way to conform. But that doesn't skew with things as fundamental as, say, religious faith does.
DAVID BROOKS: Right, no. I have chapters about consumption and business, where I'm mostly positive. But then I have chapters about the effect on our intellectual life, our religious life and our political life, and there, there are real problems. Religious life, for example. I ran across a rabbi in Montana who describes his faith as "flexidoxy," which is a great phrase for bobo morality, because it starts with the bohemian urge to be flexible, freedom, be autonomous. But then it says, "well, I don't want too much autonomy, I want ritual, I want order in my life, I want roots." And so there's also orthodoxy mixed in. And so he's trying to... many bobos are trying to build a foundation of obligation, build a structure of obligation, on a foundation of choice. And they sort of mush things together. Politically, also-- you get Bill Clinton, who's an ultimate bobo, mixing the left and the right, anti-ideological turning. They're all into such an ideological mush, and it's an unsatisfying style of politics.
GWEN IFILL: Is there any evidence of class resentment springing up to this new class of educated, moneyed elite?
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I thought there would be when I wrote the proposal for this book. The final chapter was going to be "The Revolt Against the Bobo- ouisie" or something. Because on the one hand, they're getting richer than most of the country. On the other hand, they've got elevated sensibilities. You walk into a restoration hardware. If you don't have the cultural references to get all the jokes and the puns, you know, it's no sensibility, no service. But when I traveled around the country, I found, actually, relatively little social resentment. Instead, I found every attitude that the bobos were adopting, went down the society and were adopted by other groups.
For example, I was driving through Montana, really in the middle of nowhere, pulled off into a truck stop, and there was a cappuccino stand there. But not only was there a cappuccino stand, it was six feet off the ground so the truckers didn't have to get out of their cabs. They could just reach their arm out, and get their espressos, and I found that again and again and again -- not only in consumption, but in attitudes about religion and about politics, this sort of mushy reconciliation between the two different ethoses the bobos make, lots of people are making.
GWEN IFILL: Final, briefly, will the children of the bobos rebel against this, or will they embrace it?
DAVID BROOKS: I haven't found them rebelling. I've found them going to the max for it. I found them going to software firms-- you know, they've got the pierced noses and the red hair and the ripped T-shirts that are ripped just exactly right-- and they're just adopting the manners of their parents and doing it to the max.
GWEN IFILL: David Brooks, thank you very much.
DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.