Monday, April 04, 2005

# Posted 12:35 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BOBOS IN PARADISE HELL: One shouldn't take for granted the upbeat and neighborly tone of David Brooks' socio-comic treatise. Brooks suggests that Bobos are inherently moderate, friendly and willing to compromise. But there is a dark side to the Bobo lifestyle and I became aware of it last night.

Last night, I began to watch Super Size Me, the highly-acclaimed documentary about a director who put himself on a strict, McDonald's-only diet for thirty days. The politics of the film are pretty boring. If you've seen one anti-corporate polemic, you've seen them all. As we all know, corporations brainwash us with slick advertising and spend millions on lobbyists in order to prevent the government from actually representing the voters who put it in office.

What kept me interested was the culture. Super Size Me is the perfect expression of the Bobos' unmitigated condescencions towardAmerica's primitive middle-class or, if you will, lumpenbuergertum. Although the film holds McDonald's responsible for the atrocious eating habits of its very satisfied customers, there is a powerful subcurrent of horror at the ignorance of those who subject themselves to this sort of nutritional abuse.

Although the film never says so explicitly, it has a very rigid, albeit unspoken class structure. The lower class consists of those who love McDonald's, dozens of whom are interviewed by Spurlock, usually in one of our glorious nation's many McDonald's franchsies. The upper class consists of the physicians, nutrionists, scholars and legal experts who practically beg Spurlock not to force himself to eat all that junk food.

According to the pop-psychological theory on which Spurlock bases his argument, manipulative advertising has the ability to instill vulnerable children with unbreakable, lifelong habits of consumption. Yet somehow, all of the educated individuals who advise Spurlock have cleansed themselves of the destructive messages to which they were exposed as children. Although Spurlock never explains exactly how this is possible, the implicit message is clear: educated people simply know better.

While the average American may think that he really enjoys eating at McDonald's, he actually is suffering from what scholars refer to as 'false consciousness'. Early on, Spurlock seems to enjoy some of what he is eating. But after a while, his only reaction is to mock both its appearance as well as its taste. In other words, well-informed people find McDonalds to be self-evidently disgusting.

I have to admit, I find this argument somewhat persuasive, since I also find much of what's for sale at McDonald's to be self-evidently disgusting. (On the other hand, Burger King and Wendy's cook food that I can really enjoy.) However, I don't hold it against anyone that they like McDonald's. In fact, it is perfectly sensible to say that eating at McDonalds is an enjoyable activity in spite of being bad for one's health.

This sort of trade-off between short-term pleasure and long-term welfare is not irrational. It is necessary for living a good life. And it helps explain why people do things like smoke, have extra-marital affairs and vote for Howard Dean. Yet instead of acknowledging that such a rational trade-off is taking place, Spurlock & Co. are genuinely disgusted by the thought of liking McDonalds. Rather, they live in a world where basic choices about personal consumption must reflect profound ethical commitments.

This is classic Bobo thinking. One might even say that it is Bobo religion. Everything must be organic. Instead of instant coffee, there is cappucino made from fair-trade Colombian beans. Instead of low-priced mega-stores, over-priced boutiques. Instead of SUVs, gas-electric hybrids. (NB: Brooks identifies the SUV as the ultimate Bobo vehicle because of its pseudo-ruggedness, but I think he'd now agree that the smart set has come to regard SUV's as a guilty pleasure. Someday, it will loath them as it does McDonald's.)

What prevents the Bobos' condescension from exploding into utter loathing and contempt is the sense that America's primitive majority is not responsible for its crude and ignorant behavior. Instead of contempt, there is a certain pity. If you watch Super Size Me, I think you'll agree that Spurlock betrays a definite affection for all of the misguided McDonalds' lovers he interviews. He wants them to live better and healthier lives, but he would hate himself if he ever became like them.

The ignorant middle-class is the shameful Other that helps Bobos reinforce their identity. The Bobos' confidence in their own enlightment depends to a considerable extent on the availability of a pathetic, pitiful Other. While there may be much to admire about the Bobo lifestyle, it also has a divisive side that Brooks doesn't seem to acknowledge.

When a Bobo sees (on film, of course) a 200-pound woman ordering a Big Mac, large fries and 32 oz. soda, he or she says to himself, "There but for the grace of Harvard (or Swarthmore or Middlebury) go I."
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