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For the week of January 31 through February 6, 2001

Have you seen any 
Bobos lately?

Often the most effective social critics have been the poets, novelists, entertainers, musicians, film makers, essayists, journalists and scholars from the same social categories they are skewering.

Express Staff Writer

There have always been social critics, thanks be, and every so often one of them has the perspicacious talent and the wicked wit of the irreverent that is necessary to cut through the pretenses society and its institutions build around themselves. Such qualities enables the gifted social commentator to educate, expose and entertain the very society he or she focuses upon. Inflated self-images, puffery of all kinds and affectations of both the hot and cold air varieties are the intended (and sometimes unintended) casualties, deflated like balloons punctured by the point of telling it like it is. Often the most effective social critics have been the poets, novelists, entertainers, musicians, film makers, essayists, journalists and scholars from the same social categories they are skewering.

One’s favorite critics reflect one’s age, perspective, background and spirit. Social criticism without a sense of humor may be accurate, like the aim of the hunter of sitting ducks (or, for that matter, standing elk), but is more the realm of authorities, pedants and ideologues than people with real nervous systems. Some serious people, for instance, consider George Will a social critic.

The best film of social criticism I’ve seen in a long time was Warren Beatty’s Bulworth from last year. (It contained the only rap music I’ve ever enjoyed, appreciated or would listen to a second time; and it is worth noting that Beatty was also involved in Shampoo, a wonderful social/political deflation of the facades of an earlier era.)

Lenny Bruce was in a category all his own among stand up comedians of his time or any other in terms of social criticism. George Carlin has moments.

Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are my poets of choice.

Hemingway, Kerouac, Kesey, Tom Robbins, Russell Banks, Peter Matthiessen, Barbara Kingsolver, Louis de Bernieres, Jim Harrison and Louise Erdrich are among novelists I seek out for their social insights and their artistry. But Carl Hiassen is a fine social critic masquerading as a novelist, and he is more fun than a care package of George Bush malapropisms and gaffes. I can’t wait for the novel he must be working on about the recent Florida elections. How could he resist?

Tom Wolfe’s essays and novels are in a class all their own. Wolfe is the undisputed champion of recent popular social critics. I think he should be required reading in every sociology class in America.

But now Wolfe has an acknowledged challenger. His name is David Brooks and he has written a splendid book called Bobos in Paradise. Wolfe, the champ himself, says of the book, "The most delightful dissection of the brainy class since A.C. Spectorsky’s The Exurbanites 40 years ago."

Bobos in Paradise is deadly accurate. Bobos is Brooks’ term to describe today’s upper social class. It is derived from bourgeois and bohemians, whose unlikely marriage in recent years has created the Bobo, the educated elite that Brooks says is the new establishment. He both defends and deflates the ideology, manners, morals of the Bobo because, as he writes, "I’m a member of this class, as, I suspect, are most readers of this book. We’re not so bad. All societies have elites, and our educated elite is a lot more enlightened than some of the older elites, which were based on blood or wealth or military valor. Wherever we educated elites settle, we make life more interesting, diverse, and edifying."

Whether one entirely agrees with Brooks’ self-congratulatory assessment of Bobos contribution to society (and there is much to like and admire about the Bobos), they are the current upscale culture of America. The bourgeois capitalist and the bohemian counterculture were once separate entities, the former embracing the values of the yuppies of the 1980s, the latter those of the liberated 1960s. Now, they are mixed together, neither entirely one nor the other, and their attitudes toward morality, sex, work and lifestyle set the tone for society in general. Bobo tone it might be called.

According to Brooks’ tome, one of the first signs of Bobo influence is a Starbuck’s coffee house in the neighborhood. It will be frequented by "blue jean conservatives" who might be discussing a work of art or a novel, but who won’t be creating any.

Bobos drive Lexus’, Range Rovers and SUVs.

Bobos discovered Montana where, Brooks writes, they "…built a part-time, affluent Montana atop the real Montana. Their spiritualized Montana feeds off the idea of Montana and the beauty of Montana, while rarely touching the lower-middle-class grind of the actual state." (Brooks doesn’t say so, but they have discovered Idaho as well.)

Bobos "…seldom object if they hear someone taking the Lord’s name in vain but are outraged if they see a pregnant woman smoking." They value the worldly more than the divine.

Bobos are "serious" about leisure as accomplishment. Brooks writes, "The most accomplished are so serious they never have any fun at all, whereas if you went out onto some field or trail or court and acted happy and goofy, you’d be regarded as someone who is insulting the whole discipline."

Have you seen any Bobos lately?

If not, read Brooks’ book and they will appear everywhere around you.


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