Bhemian Rhapsody

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Date: Tue Dec 05 2000 - 04:21:18 PST

"the bourgeoisie has triumphed by co-opting the
counterculture and draining all the substance out of it. What
you get is a counterculture that becomes shallower and


bobos v limlibs
the pendulum's gone wacky
with too-long sideburns


the breakfast table: Can conservatives be Bobos, too?

(David Brooks is senior editor of the Weekly Standard
[ ] and author of Bobos in
Paradise [ ]. Tom Frank is editor
of the Baffler [ magazine and
author of One Market Under God [ ].)

Subject: The '60s: Ancient History
From: David Brooks
To: Tom Frank

Posted: Monday, Dec. 4, 2000, at 10:25 a.m. PT

Dear Thomas,

Holy University of Chicago!
Here I have been leading my normal shallow life watching Judge
N. Sanders Sauls, asking the trivial questions that have
become the substance of my life. Why is his name so plural?
Why does he wear an expression that suggests everyone else in
the room smells bad? Why does David Boies still insist on
wearing $9 shirts when everyone knows he is one of the most
expensive lawyers in the country? And you hit me with a big
important question.
You make me feel trivial like Kimball Brace. He's the witness
in that trial who spends his entire life thinking about
punch-card ballots. He's the geek who can discourse
knowledgeably about the difference between a serrated stylus
and a needle stylus, about the different chad effects of
being punched with a natural rubber point versus an
artificial rubber point. You make my feel like another of the
pedantic witnesses, John Ahmann, who interrupted one of the
lawyers who kept calling a voting machine a voting machine.
"It's a voting device," Ahmann angrily insisted.
But then I remember I went to the University of Chicago, too.
In fact, watching your career from a distance I've been
struck by some of the rough parallels between our lives. We
both went into the hybrid world of letters that exists
somewhere between ephemeral journalism and jargon-corrupted
academia. We both think and write about consumption a lot.
But whereas you have emerged as a left-wing critic of
capitalism and consumption, I'm a right-winger who celebrates
capitalism and consumption while finding them insufficient.
So let me begin an answer to the big questions: What will
happen to the 30-year conservative ascendancy when corporate
gentry adopt the style of bohemia? The first answer is we
didn't have a conservative ascendancy in this country. If we
did, Bill Clinton would have been removed from office. If we
did, most Americans would have what conservatives say they
should have--an instinctive understanding of natural law, a
sense that there is an eternal moral order. If there had been
a conservative ascendancy, Americans would want to radically
shrink the size of government the way conservatives still do.
No, I'm afraid it just looked like a conservative ascendancy.
Instead it was a bourgeois ascendancy. People just wanted the
values of the suburb, the minivan and barbecue celebrated
instead of denigrated. They didn't want government money
going to people who wouldn't work. They want as much
government as the country can afford, but not so much as to
run up a deficit.
What we get out of this is the Risorgimento of the
bourgeoisie. As you note in so many of your writings, and as
I tried to note in my book (though I didn't hit the point
hard enough), the bourgeoisie has triumphed by co-opting the
counterculture and draining all the substance out of it. What
you get is a counterculture that becomes shallower and
shallower. I've been spending a lot of time recently on
college campuses. Among those folks, the 1960s are ancient
history. Bohemia and its ideas are there in only tracelike
doses. These kids are pure achievement.
Watch the people who go into the Bush administration: Dick
Cheney, Andrew Card, Conde Rice, Robert Zoellick. On one
level, they are all deeply impressive men and woman: bright,
competent, professional. They are the sort of executives that
other executives dream about. But if they were affected by
the 1960s one way or the other, that influence has faded
away. George W. Bush will be the Delegator in Chief, and they
will be his corporate vice presidents.
We're back in the 1950s with Ike and his crew of cool
professionals! Even the clothing I'm seeing in the malls is
beginning to look less and less 1968 and more and more 1958.
In what ways is this good or bad? I'll throw that over to
Best, David

Subject: Lynne Cheney Baking Cookies?
From: Tom Frank
To: David Brooks

Posted: Monday, Dec. 4, 2000, at 9:07 a.m. PT

Dear David,
As I understand our charge, we are to expand on the ephemera
of the day with great displays of wit and plenty of
collateral cleverness. But though I have watched a lot of TV
and collected great stacks of in-flight magazines and taped
hours and hours of commercials suitable for mocking, I'm
hoping to take a different approach.
My suggestion is that we start with a big, historically
sweeping proposition, which will then give us lots of room
for irresponsible conjecture and grand pronouncements. And,
as it happens, your very amusing book Bobos in Paradise
provides a succinct way to get at an issue I've been thinking
about a lot lately. Let's grant your main point--that in
certain precincts bourgeois and bohemian (bo + bo = Bobo)
have merged in recent years, have grown prosperous in their
hip neighborhoods and provided a market for all those
accouterments of commodified dissent like Starbucks,
Fruitopia, and Humvee stretch limos.
You point out that Bobos reign in the boardroom these days,
that they are now the ones who inhabit the mainline suburbs,
read the management literature, direct the work force, and
consume the various luxury goods. In fact, you identify them
as a "New Upper Class." So here's the big question: What is
to become of the great 30-year conservative ascendancy now
that bohemianism is clearly a style of the corporate class?
The conservative politicians who've built the free market
order haven't done so by campaigning openly for increased
power for corporations, for the rollback of banking
regulation, or for union busting. They did it through culture
war, through a massive wave of outrage against
permissiveness, flag burning, "countercultural McGoverniks,"
limousine liberals, and so on. More importantly, the culture
war has always had a curious class angle to it: Think of
Nixon and his Silent Majority, or Agnew berating the Eastern
establishment, or Reagan speaking up for the good, honest,
hard-working citizens. The common people were mad as hell at
an arrogant elite, but by definition the business
community--the entrepreneurs and managers and owners--weren't
members of that elite. The target of the great backlash was
liberals, who were often identified one-to-one with the hated
counterculture. Nice, square business people were supposed to
be hard-working regular citizens, just like the hard-hats who
were beating up demonstrators.
But what happens when it's business people who flaunt their
countercultural tastes? What happens when the guy who
outsources your job to Arkansas wears a nose ring and doesn't
give a damn about flag and country? Or when the person
denouncing big government from the heights of Davos is a
Deadhead? Or when the latest management theory tract seeks to
reconcile you to "change" by referring to aura or the
What becomes of the "Reagan Democrats," who mainly voted
Republican on cultural issues, when boho and billionaire are
one and the same? Will the inherent absurdity of Bobo
capitalism--the millionaires consuming peasant food, the
management consultants chattering about the soulful
corporation--ever bring some sort of breakdown? And, perhaps
most importantly, what of the family values crowd? Will the
Bobos scream if Tom De Lay revs up the culture war for
another sortie? Or will Bush and Co. keep Lynne Cheney busy
baking cookies this time around?
Does this seem like a good beginning? If not, feel free to try
another one. And from now on, I vow to keep it short,
ephemeral, and amusing.

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