Sunday, March 27, 2005

# Posted 2:35 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BOBOS IN PARADISE, CONTINUED: Almost two weeks ago, I attempted to write my own review of David Brooks' zeitgeist classic, Bobos in Paradise, in honor of its fifth anniversary. I got halfway through what I wanted to write, but then got distracted. So, since I really like Bobos and really want to write about it, let me pick up right where I left off.

In the first half of my review, I observed that Bobos says almost nothing, until its final chapter, about the politics of the bourgeois bohemian class. Then, in that brief final chapter, Brooks suggests that Bobos are inherently moderate because Bobo culture itself represents an effort to reconcile liberal and conservative lifestyles.

With the benefit of hindsight, I have enough confidence to add Brooks to the list of those authors whose generalizations about American politics simply cannot withstand the fallout of an event like September 11th. Naturally, one can't hold Brooks responsible for failing to anticipate an event no one foresaw, but it is still important to point out that the political analysis of Bobos has become an artifact of the post-Cold War era, which came to an end on the morning of September 11th, 2001.

Five years ago, Brooks wrote that:
The politicians who succeed in this new era have blended the bohemian 1960s and the bourgeois 1980s and reconciled the bourgeois and bohemian value systems. These politicians do not engage in the old culture war rhetoric. They are not podium pounding "conviction politicians" of the sort that thrived during the age of confrontation. (Page 256)
More or less, the elected officials of today hold the same offices they did five years ago. And yet we now live once again in age of confronation where both the left and right have more than enough moral clarity to last a lifetime. Alongside the great divide over the war in Iraq, there is also far more talk about values and culture today than there was five years ago. This is clearly not what Brooks expected. He wrote that:
Whereas the old Protestant Establishment was largely conservative Republican, the new Bobo establishment tends to be centrist and independent...Indeed, in the Bobo age disputes within parites are more striking than conflict between parties...

The people of the left and right who long for radical and heroic politics are driven absolutely batty by tepid Bobo politics...Whether you are liberal or conservative, Bobo politicians adopt your rhetoric and your policy suggestions while somehow sucking all the radicalism out of them. (Pages 258-60)
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems the relevant question to ask is whether the moderates of yesterday have simply receded into the background while avowed partisans claim the spotlight, or whether the moderates of yesterday have become the avowed partisans of today because they once again have something to fight about.

I would argue in favor of the latter. Rather than losing its ideological edge, American politics simply went through a more moderate phase during a decade in which there were no great issues to fight about, except for the occasional blowjob. But the ideas were always there, embedded deeply in American culture, ready to reemerge once a new age of peril had begun.

According to Brooks, the essence of Bobo politics is an effort to rein in the excesses generated by the social liberation of the bohemian sixties and the economic liberation of the bourgeois eighties. Thus,
The two crucial words in the Bobo political project these days...are community and control. Across American society one sees effort after effort to restore social cohesion, reassert authority, and basically get a grip on the energies that have been unleashed over the past quarter century...

The main thrust of Bobo politics is the effort to restore the bonds of intimate authority. (Pages 261-64)
George W. Bush was still a candidate for President when Bobos went to press. In light of Bush's rhetorical style on the campaign trail, it is not surprising that Brooks described him as emblematic of the new Bobo consensus. Yet even if one disregards Bush's post-9/11 foreign policy, his agenda has been very un-Bobo. Bush's massive tax cuts and current drive to marketize Social Security are a return to the Reagan era, not a step beyond it. Thus, even if there never had been a War on Terror, it would be hard to defend the proposition that Bobo hegemony was assured.

But there has been a War on Terror, so we have to take that into account. At first, this new war didn't challenge the Bobo emphasis on community and control. But sometime during 2003, the War on Terror transformed itself into a global crusade for democracy. What we saw in Baghdad after its liberation from Saddam was anything but community and control.

And now we look at Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan and see struggles for liberation emerging all around us. Of course, David Brooks has had no reservation about celebrating these remarkable developments. And if you take a closer took at the final pages of Bobos, you can see exactly why. Brooks writes that
I don't want to close witha paean of praise for everything Bobo...In preferring politicians who are soggy synthesizers aand in withdrawing from great national and ideological disputes for the sake of local and community pragmatism, we may be losing touch with the soaring ideals and high ambitions that have always separated America from other nations...

It could have been something like that this that alarmed Tocqueville as he speculated about the future of America. "What worries me most," he wrote in Democracy in America, "is the danger that, amid all the constant trivial preoccupations of private life, ambition may lose both its force and its greatness"...

This is no longer a prediction for the future. Tocqueville's scenario has come to pass. These days most of us don't want to get too involved in national politics because it seems to partisan and ugly. (Pages 272-73)
And yet ironcally enough, now that national politics have become far more partisan and ugly than it was five years ago, Americans are voting in larger numbers than they have in decades, organizing massive protest marches, and donating more money than ever to political causes.

Although we don't usually think of partisanship and polarization as a good thing, perhaps Brooks' reminder that the good old days weren't so good will enable us to appreciate that the kind of politics we have right now are actually quite healthy for America.

Moreover, the direction taken by American foreign policy is almost exactly what Brooks hoped for. In Bobos, he suggested that the process of reinvigoration would entail
Picking up the obligations that fall to the world's lead nation: promoting democracy and human rights everywhere and exercising American might in a way that reflects American ideals. (Page 272)
Strangely enough, that sounds a lot more like what Al Gore was talking about five years ago rather than George W. Bush. Yet somehow, Bush managed to run for re-election by espousing the exact same ideals he once denigrated. The difference, of course, was 9/11. It changed the way that Americans see the world.

And I think the transformation of our president reflects a broader truth about American society that was obscured by the halcyon daze of the late 1990s. We have never lost touch with our ideals. We were just waiting for them to become relevant again.
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