Bobo—journalist David Brooks’s coinage for bourgeois bohemian—has become one of those cultural bywords every bit as definitive as Douglas Coupland’s Generation X. Brooks’s recent book, Bobos in Paradise, is a trenchant satire of this strange breed, onetime dirt-poor radicals who have since become establishment consumers. It describes in hilarious detail the transformation of Berkeley, California, into a virtual strip mall and the morphing of the Philadelphia Main Line into a pseudo Left Bank. Bohemia has become bourgeois, and the bourgeoisie, though wealthy as ever, is striking a bohemian pose. Alas, what are we to make of this phenomenon?
Such was the subject of a panel discussion held at the New School on March 6. Naturally, Brooks was there, trying to remind some of his seemingly bemused fellow panelists of just how satire works. Robert Boyers, for example, editor of Salmagundi, railed against Brooks’s demonstrated fondness for Bobos, in all their tepid, cushy complacency. Of course, if you’ve read Bobos in Paradise with any kind of critical eye, you know such a critique is about as absurd as denouncing Jonathan Swift for supporting Irish infanticide. Or, as Brooks put it, “I feel like I was aspiring to be Mark Twain, and I’ve ended up being Martha Stewart.”
Other panelists were the ubiquitous Russell Jacoby, author most recently of The End of Utopia; Chris Lehmann, Washington Post books editor; and Bard professor Rochelle Gurstein, author of The Repeal of Reticence, a book about censorship in the arts. Though the panel began with the intention of addressing concerns about the disappearance of bohemia and the ascendancy of archetypal Bobos like the Clintons, it soon became a rather spirited tit-for-tat about the size of Christopher Hitchens’s income—which, believe it or not, turned out to be perfectly emblematic of the topic at hand.
How, you may wonder, did the discussion come to this? It began banally enough, with the use of that phrase we hear so often these days, “the end of the left.” It is, after all, an expression that comes readily to mind when you contemplate what appears to be the mass migration of the erstwhile counterculturati into the nauseatingly overprivileged, all-American mainstream. They once drove VW buses and more often than not lived out of them too. But now they’ve got the split-level dream house with a fully loaded, gas-guzzling SUV (plus eco-friendly bumper sticker, of course) parked in the circular drive. They once led campus protests. Now they’re what Roger Kimball dubbed “tenured radicals.” Or, to paraphrase a quip Jacoby made during his presentation, they’ve become chairs of various departments of marginalization.
So, when the left steals the center, as Bill Clinton was always accused of doing, or as Julien Benda complained in The Treason of the Intellectuals, when the “clerks”—i.e., intellectuals—cease to be “the mirror of the disinterested intelligence,” what happens to radicalism? When the gadflies become the establishment, what happens to the conscience of a generation? Well, again to quote Benda, then “the ‘clerk’ is not only conquered, he is assimilated.”
Which brings us to Hitchens, who, among others such as Martha Nussbaum and Edward Said, was offered up by Boyers as an example of an unassimilated soldier on the living left. It was quickly pointed out, however, that Hitchens, who purportedly professes to be a Marxist, not only writes for Vanity Fair, the ultimate organ and purveyor of capitalist opulence, but makes something on the order of $400,000 doing so. Leaving aside the question of whether or not Hitchens is actually a Marxist, or whether he does, in fact, make $400,000 a year writing for Vanity Fair, it’s still relevant to ask whether such a person (for many such people exist) is emblematic of the Bobo, and hence the disappearance of the left. Moreover, it’s relevant to ask whether such a person is commonplace enough and hypocritical enough to warrant the ridicule of Mr. Brooks. To choose another example, Brooks spoke of listening to an anticapitalist lecture from an academic he met, who then took him to his luxuriously appointed home and offered him a drink out of his Sub-Zero refrigerator.
Does Brooks mean to say that academics and journalists can’t be leftists and make money? No, he simply means to say that you can’t be a rich Marxist, and you can’t honestly bewail an establishment of which you’ve become an integral part.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 13, 2001