I just finished Bobos In Pardise by David Brooks. It is a very amusing read, and occassionally thought provoking.
The book concerns the recent evolution in the U.S. of bobos - a portmanteau word coined by Brooks to denote people who are both bourgeois and bohemian. Bourgeois because they like to make money and spend it, and bohemian because their current cultural preferences tend towards what was countercultural in the recent past. They are people who are: "...grounded but berserk, daring yet traditional, high-flying yet down to earth, disheveled yet elegant, sensible yet spontaneous." Personally, I have bobo tendencies, tempered by the mellow people I surround myself with.
Here are three selections that I liked. They are rather long to accurately capture the tone of the book.
From the opening pages of Chapter 1:
I’m not sure I’d like to be one of the people featured on the New York Times weddings page, but I know I’d like to be the father on one of them. Imagine how happy Stanley J. Kogan must have been, for example, when his daughter Jamie was admitted to Yale. Then imagine his pride when Jamie made Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude. Stanley himself is no slouch in the brains department: he’s a pediatric urologist in Croton-on-Hudson, with teaching positions at the Cornell Medical Center and the New York Medical College. Still, he must have enjoyed a gloat or two when his daughter put on that cap and gown.
And things only got better. Jamie breezed through Stanford Law School. And then she met a man—Thomas Arena—who appeared to be exactly the sort of son-in-law that pediatric urologists dream about. He did his undergraduate work at Princeton, where he, too, made Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude. And he, too, went to law school, at Yale. After school they both went to work as assistant U.S. attorneys for the mighty Southern District of New York.
These two awesome résumés collided at a wedding ceremony in Manhattan, and given all the school chums who must have attended, the combined tuition bills in that room must have been staggering. The rest of us got to read about it on the New York Times weddings page. The page is a weekly obsession for hundred of thousands of Times readers and aspiring Balzacs. Unabashedly elitist, secretive, and totally honest, the “mergers and acquisitions page” (as some of its devotees call it) has always provided an accurate look at at least a chunk of the American ruling class. And over the years it has reflected the changing ingredients of elite status.
When America had a pedigreed elite, the page emphasized noble birth and breeding. But in America today its genius and geniality that enable you to join the elect. And when you look at the Times weddings page, you can almost feel the force of the mingling SAT scores. It’s Dartmouth marries Berkeley, MBA weds Ph.D., Fulbright hitches with Rhodes, Lazard Frères joins with CBS, and summa cum laude embraces summa cum laude (you rarely see a summa settling for a magna—the tension in such a marriage would be too great). The Times emphasizes four things about a person—college degrees, graduate degrees, career path, and parents’ profession—for these are the markers of upscale Americans today.
Even though you want to hate them, it’s hard not to feel a small tug of approval at the sight of these Resume Gods. Their expressions are so open and confident; their teeth are a tribute to the magnificence of American orthodonture; and since the Times will only print photographs in which the eyebrows of the bride and groom are at the same level, the couples always book so evenly matched. These are the kids who spent the crucial years between ages 16 and 24 winning the approval of their elders. Others may have been rebelling at that age or feeling alienated or just basically exploring their baser natures. But the people who made it to this page controlled their hormonal urges and spent their adolescence impressing teachers, preparing for the next debate tournament, committing themselves to hours of extracurricular and volunteer work, and doing everything else that we as a society want teenagers to do. The admissions officer deep down in all of us wants to reward these mentor magnets with bright futures, and the real admissions officers did, accepting them into the right colleges and graduate schools and thus turbocharging them into adulthood.
The overwhelming majority of them were born into upper-middle-class households. In 84 percent of the weddings, both the bride and the groom have a parent who is a business executive, professor, lawyer, or who otherwise belongs to the professional class. You’ve heard of old money; now we see old brains. And they tend to marry late—the average age for brides is 29 and for grooms is 32. They also divide pretty neatly into two large subgroups: nurturers and predators. Predators are the lawyers, traders, marketers—the folk who deal with money or who spend their professional lives negotiating or competing or otherwise being tough and screwing others. Nurturers tend to be liberal arts majors. They become academics, foundation officials, journalists, activists, and artists—people who deal with ideas or who spend their time cooperating with others or facilitating something. About half the marriages consist of two predators marrying each other: a Duke MBA who works at NationsBank marrying a Michigan Law grad who works at Winston & Strawn. About a fifth of the marriages on the page consist of two nurturers marrying each other: a Fulbright scholar who teaches humanities at Stanford marrying a Rhodes scholar who teaches philosophy there. The remaining marriages on the page are mixed marriages in which a predator marries a nurturer. In this group the predator is usually the groom. A male financial consultant with an MBA from Chicago may marry an elementary school teacher at a progressive school who received her master’s in social work from Columbia.
These meritocrats devote monstrous hours to their career and derive enormous satisfaction from their success, but the Times wants you to know they are actually not consumed by ambition. Each week the paper describes a particular wedding in great detail, and the subtext of each of these reports is that all this humongous accomplishment is a mere fluke of chance. These people are actually spunky free spirits who just like to have fun. The weekly “Vows” column lovingly details each of the wedding’s quirky elements: a bride took her bridesmaids to get drunk at a Russian bathhouse; a couple hired a former member of the band Devo to play the Jeopardy theme song at the reception; another read A. A. Milne’s Christopher Robin poems at a ceremony in a former du Pont mansion. The Times article is inevitably studded with quotations from friends who describe the bride and groom as enchanting paradoxes: they are said to be grounded but berserk, daring yet traditional, high-flying yet down to earth, disheveled yet elegant, sensible yet spontaneous. Either only paradoxical people get married these days, or people in this class like to see themselves and their friends as balancing opposites.
The couples tell a little of their own story in these articles. An amazing number of them seem to have first met while recovering from marathons or searching for the remnants of Pleistocene man while on archeological digs in Eritrea. They usually enjoyed a long and careful romance, including joint vacations in obscure but educational places like Myanmar and Minsk. But many of the couples broke up for a time as one or both partners panicked at the thought of losing his or her independence. Then there was a lonely period apart while one member, say, arranged the largest merger in Wall Street history while the other settled for neurosurgery after dropping out of sommelier school. But they finally got back together again (sometime while taking a beach vacation at a group home with a bunch of people with cheekbones similar to their own). And eventually they decided to share an apartment. We don’t know what their sex lives are like because the Times does not have a fornication page (“John Grind, a lawyer at Skadden Arps with a degree from Northwestern, has begun copulating with Sarah Smith, a cardiologist at Sloan-Kettering with an undergraduate degree from Emory”). But we presume intimate relations are suitably paradoxical: rough yet soft about modern couples who propose to each other simultaneously, but most of the time the groom does it the old-fashioned way—often, it seems, while hot-air ballooning above the Napa Valley or by letting the woman find a diamond engagement ring in her scuba mask while they are exploring endangered coral reefs near the Seychelles.
Many of these are trans-conference marriages—an Ivy League graduate will be marrying a Big Ten graduate—so the ceremony has to be designed to respect everybody’s sensibilities. Subdued innovation is the rule. If you are a member of an elite based on blood and breeding, you don’t need to carefully design a marriage ceremony that expresses your individual self. Your high status is made impervious by your ancestry, so you can just repeat the same ceremony generation after generation. But if you are in an elite based on brainpower, like today’s elite, you need to come up with the subtle signifiers that will display your own spiritual and intellectual identity—your qualification for being in the elite in the first place. You need invitations on handmade paper but with a traditional typeface. Selecting music, you need Patsy Cline songs mixed in with the Mendelssohn. You need a 1950s gown, but done up so retro it has invisible quotation marks around it. You need a wedding cake designed to look like a baroque church. You need to exchange meaningful objects with each other, like a snowboard engraved with your favorite Schiller quotation or the childhood rubber ducky that you used to cradle during the first dark days of your Supreme Court clerkship. It’s difficult to come up with your own nuptial wrinkle, which will be distinctive without being daring. But self-actualization is what educated existence is all about. For members of the educated class, life is one long graduate school. When they die, God meets them at the gates of heaven, totes up how many fields of self-expression they have mastered, and then hands them a divine diploma and lets them in.
From the beginning of the fifth chapter:
If you’d like to be tortured and whipped with dignity and humiliated with respect, you really ought to check out the Internet newsletter of the Arizona Power Exchange, an S&M group headquartered in Phoenix. The organization offers a full array of services to what is now genteelly known as the leather community. For example, on a recent August 3, according to the summer newsletter, there was a discussion and humiliation session. On August 6 at 7 p.m., there was a workshop on caning. The next night the Bondage Sadomasochism Personal Growth and Support Growth and Support Group met with Master Lawrence, while on August 10, Carla helped lead a discussion on high heel and foot worship. A week later a visiting lecturer came to discuss “blood sports.” All of these meetings were to be conducted with the sort of mature high-mindedness embodied in the organization’s mission statement: “Treating the S&M, B&D, and D&S experience with acceptance, caring, dignity, and respect.” Dignity and respect are important when you’re tied up on the ground worshiping someone’s boot.
The organization, which goes by the acronym APEX, has a seven-member board of directors and a long list of officers and administrators. There’s a recording secretary, a treasurer, an archivist, an orientation officer, a logistics officer, and a Web page staff to design its Internet site, which is more demure than the one that might be operated by your average Rotary Club. APEX sponsors charity drives. There’s a special support group for submissives who are too shy to vocalize the sort of submission they like. There’s a seminar on S&M and the law. There are 12-step meetings for sadists and masochists recovering from substance abuse. Finally, there are outreach efforts to build coalitions with other bondage and domination groups nationwide.
When you read through the descriptions of the APEX workshops, you are struck by how much attention is devoted to catering these affairs. Topics like nipple piercing and nude gagging are supposed to evoke images of debauched de Sades, but in this crowd paddling and punishing are made to sound more akin to bird watching or wine tasting. You imagine a group of off-duty high school guidance counselors and other responsible flossers standing around in nothing but a leather girdle and their orthotics, discussing the merits and demerits of foreign versus domestic penile clamps. It’s all temperate and responsible. It’s so bourgeois.
Sex, especially adventurous sex, used to be the great transgressive act. Dissolute aristocrats would gather their whips and manacles and repair to the palace attic. Peasants would slobber their way through lewd drunken orgies. Bohemians would throw off the fetters of respectability and explore the joys of Free Love.
But today that is obsolete. And it’s not only organizations like APEX that try to gentrify norm-challenging Eros to make it responsible and edifying. There is now a thriving industry that caters to people who want to practice moral sex. There are shelves and shelves of Barnes & Noble erotica that owe more to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop than to Hustler magazine. There are high-minded sex journals and catalogues, such as Good Vibrations, Sex Life, and the Xandria Collection, that advertise in the back of upscale magazines like Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly. (These high-minded sex journals are easy to distinguish because, to avoid committing the sin of lookism, they prominently feature ugly people having sex; to emphasize that sex is a life-long endeavor, they spend so much time on elderly sex you can practically hear the banging of the medical ID bracelets.) There are so many academic theoreticians writing about sexual transgressions that orgies must come to resemble an Apache dance at tourist season, done less for the joy of it than to please the squads of sociology professors who have flown in to quote Derrida.
In short, over the past few years the educated class has domesticated lust by enshrouding it in high-mindedness. The Bobos have take sex, which for centuries has been thought to be arousing or sinful or possibly dangerous, and they have made it socially constructive.
Bobos turn out to be the parsons of the pubic region. Nearly gone are 1960s traces of Dionysian wantonness. Instead, “Play Safe” and “Play Responsibly” are the slogans that are repeated again and again in sophisticated sex literature. The practitioners talk so much about how healthy it all is that you’d think they were doing jumping jacks. To keep everything responsible and under control, weird activities are codified in rules and etiquette. Judging by the sexual encounter groups that describe their activities in newsletters, the rules at a group sex community meeting—when it is necessary to sign a legal waiver, when to wear latex gloves, when it is OK to smoke—are strictly adhered to. Theirs may not be the same as the etiquette that governed behavior in a 10th-century parlor, but in their relentless demands on self-control, they weirdly mimic those sorts of social codes.
Today’s Marquis de Sades don’t seem to want to create an immoral underground society. They’re not trying to subvert normalcy. They’re trying to join it. They want to win mainstream acceptance and so gain a respectable place in the middle-class world. “We affirm that loving more than one can be a natural expression of health, express joy and intimacy. This is a lovestyle we call responsible non-monogamy,” reads the mission statement of Loving More magazine, the journal of polyamory. Every “affirmation group” (as they are now called) seeks a place in the land of the up-and-up: the bestiality community, the necrophiliacs, the cigar lovers (people who enjoy watching women smash things), and the macrophiliacs (people who fantasize about women who destroy buildings with their breasts).
In odd ways, these are moralistic people. Sex is now frequently seen as a way to achieve deeper moral understandings. The former monk Thomas Moore, who wrote Care of the Soul, followed it up with the Soul of Sex, just one of hundreds of the moral sex books that have been published over the past few years. Others can go to the Church of Tantra, which offers such courses as “Tantric Sex: The Spiritual Path to Ecstasy.” Others use their sexual lives to advance social change. To avoid ethnocentrism, the orgies in the highbrow sex journals tend to be as diverse as the cast of kids on PBS children’s shows: one Asian, one Hispanic, one African American, one Caucasian, and one Native American. I imagine that if there were a room full of people rubbing each other’s excrement over each other and somebody confessed he didn’t recycle, he’d be immediately expelled from the group and told never to come back. It’s a weird version of propriety, but it’s propriety nonetheless.
But Bobos do more than merely moralize what was once subversive. They are meritocrats through and through. So they don’t just enjoy orgasms; they achieve orgasm. Sex in this literature is like college; it’s described as a continual regimen of self-improvement and self expansion. It’s amazing how many sex workshops, seminars, institutes, and academies there are out there to cater to people who want to learn more about their bodies. What’s available at the Human Awareness Institute: The Web site tells you: “Examine and shed limiting notions about love, intimacy and sexuality. Relate and communicate more effectively with yourself. Be more loving, intimate and fully self-expressive with others. Make exciting and empowering choices in your life and relationships.” Lady Chatterley’s lover becomes Lady Chatterley’s empowerment counselor.
These practitioners work extraordinarily hard to improve their skills and master new techniques. It’s not for the Bobos to be content with the sort of normal practices of the bedroom onanist. They have to turn it into graduate school. JoAnn Loulan, the author of Lesbian Passion: Loving Ourselves and Each Other, offers the following exercise: “Look at your genitals. . .Write a letter to your genitals. . . Spend an hour of uninterrupted sensual time with yourself. . .Look at yourself in the mirror for an hour. Talk with all parts of your body. . . Spend an hour touching your genitals without the purpose of having an orgasm. . .Masturbate for an hour.” Even just reading about this curriculum is enough to give you an acute case of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Everything in the Bobo life is purposeful. The most animalistic activities are now enshrouded with guidebooks, how-to videos, and magazine articles written by people with advanced degrees. Everything gets talked about and shared. Even masturbation can be measured and evaluated by the standards of connoisseurship. And it’s not only the techniques of sex that can be continually worked on and improved; it is the perceptions and knowledge that comes from sex that can be deepened and refined. Sex can’t be just a fun thing between the sheets. It’s also got to be profound thing between your ears. It’s got to be safe, responsible, and socially constructive. Hedonism sure has changed.
And lastly this from the end of the sixth chapter:
Given this moderate, small-scale morality, it’s hard to imagine what will happen to us Bobos when the world finally comes to an end. It’s hard to imagine some fiery Last Judgment, some awful moment when the God of the Educated Class separates the saved—those who bundled their newspapers for the recycling bin—from the damned, those who did not. Bobo morality is so gentle and forgiving. Dwelling as it does in the moral temperate zone, Bobo morality doesn’t seem compatible with the unrelenting horror of hell. On the other hand, Bobo morality doesn’t seem compatible with something as final and complete as heaven either. Maybe instead of a Last Judgment, there will just be a Last Discussion.
Or maybe, as in that Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come, Montana is the closest we get to heaven. Maybe our heaven isn’t some grand place far above earth and its reality. After all, we are a group who seem to get our spiritual charges from tangible things, from spiritual places and evocative objects. Maybe if we walked around with a coherent moral order built into our head, we would feel at home in the supernatural realm. But lacking that faith in that next world, we tend to experience our spiritual epiphanies while communing with the physical environment in this one. We Bobos are more likely to try to discover great truths in particulars, the wonder of a leaf or the shape of a child’s ear, than in a divine vision. With our tendency to seek peace in serene places, maybe a second home on some beautiful mountainside really is as close as we can come to experiencing paradise. Maybe our heaven is grounded in a piece of reality.
Picture a saintly Bobo woman pausing on her Montana hilltop at dusk, with thoughts of her law practice or mutual funds or teaching load far away. The air is still and fragrant, and even her dogs, Caleb and George, pause to savor the silence. As the breeze comes up, she pulls her FoxFibre shirt close around her neck. Lights are coming on in the distant houses across the valley, where former urban professionals have moved to start their own specialty food companies—Uncle Dave’s Pestos is just on the far ridge to the north, Sally’s Sauces is over to the west, and Yesterday’s Chutney is on a few hundred acres south of that. She looks over the tangle of wildflowers on the field that was junk strewn when she and her partner bought this “ranch,” and she gazes lovingly upon the old pine she hired a tree surgeon to preserve.
Someone once said the essence of American history is the conversion of Eden into money. But with a little income, effort, and the right contractors, the educated person can spend money to build Eden. For hundreds of miles around, content couples are just settling into the creaky divans of their B&Bs and cracking open books by writers who have moved to Provence, novels that are like pornography to the overstressed. And so the Bobo decides to head down the path toward her second home. She is careful not to compact the soil over the tree roots and remembers a wonderful phrase by Steinbeck about a gentle person who “steps high over bugs.” She passes under the arbor she attempted to cultivate last season and the pond she and her partner installed as a skinny-dipping space—they’re much more sensual up here, though they wouldn’t do anything that might alarm the hawks. As she approaches the house, she can hear the soundtrack of a Merchant-Ivory film wafting up to greet her; the melodies echo off the walls of the outbuildings that now serve as guest cottages.
The biggest thing they had to do when they moved in to this place was to triple the size of all the windows. They wanted to meld the interior and exterior elements of the home and so live more fully within nature. How sweet it is to wake up in a bedroom with one wall made entirely out of glass, allowing yourself a quiet hour to observe the sunrise (it helps if you own the surrounding 150 acres so there will be no neighbor observing you observing the sunrise). As she approaches the house, she slows to admire the sophisticated mosses that now grow along the walkway to the front door. She smells the aroma of the native grasses they planted around the house, and then she bounds lightly into the wraparound porch, gently patting the aspen woodpile stacked neatly by the door. They don’t burn this wood. But they’ve become devotees of the woodpile aesthetic, feeling that its form and texture complete a place such as this. As she pushed open the maple doors that were flown in from New England, she hears her partner working away in his studio. This property has allowed him to take up the activities he never had time for. Aside from his new hobby as a narrator of environmental documentaries, he’s playing the violin again, reading the novels of women writers of the Asian subcontinent, and doing community work—he’s now treasure of the local preservation society.
The living room is large but spare. The broad floor planks appear to glow and set off the redwood mantelpiece that sits amidst their massive stone fireplace. The redwood tree blew down nearly three years ago, and the stones they found a few years further back while hiking in Colorado. The furniture is rustic but comfortable. There are three of those massive curl-up chairs, each the size of a comfy Volkswagen. They’re so much nicer than all those wingback chairs of her parents’ generation. In the wingbacks you had to sit up straight. But in these wide shabby-chic chairs you can bend around into all sorts of relaxed positions.
The Bobo glances at the wooden ladles she has been collecting. She is taken by their slender curves, and prizes them more than any of the other objects she has harvested during her counter-connoisseur browsings. On the big wall she has displayed some old tortoiseshells and Cambodian statuettes. Her favorite statue is of the Bodhisattva, the spiritual entity who achieved enlightenment but delays entry into Nirvana in order to help others get there.
And just as she is feeling delicious tranquility wafting over her, she notices there in the doorway to the kitchen stands the Angel of Death, the one especially delegated for the Bobos. He looks radiant in an old tweed jacket, and he must have been waiting for her for some time, for he has found one of the supersize ceramic mugs she bought at the crafts fair in Santa Fe the previous spring. The Angel of Death is full of questions about the renovations they did last year. She tells him that they decided to build the new kitchen wing using a Nordic technique called straw bale construction, which does not require the depletion of any timberland. Then they filled in the walls with rammed earth, which involves taking raw dirt and compacting it with such awesome force that it forms sturdy walls, caramel in color and radiating a woodsy aroma. The new doors were made from reclaimed wood from an old mission house in Arizona and squeak intentionally when opened. Nonapparent technology controls the heating and air conditioning and turns off the lights after everybody has left a room. The Angel of Death is enchanted by how they have tripled the original size of the ranch home and yet still preserved its original integrity. He informs her that she has just died but he doesn’t plan to take her anywhere. She just gets to exist forever amidst all this glorious materiality. The only thing he requests is that she redo the floor tiles in the hall, which didn’t work out as nicely as she had hoped anyway. But this is sensitive, New Age eternity, and every radio frequency is filled with National Public Radio. She thanks the Angel of Death, and after a final sip of hazelnut he fades into the distance, taking her Range Rover with him as he goes.
Buy the book and enjoy it!