Monday, August 2, 2021


Jerry Lewis and Stella Stevens in The Nutty Professor, 1963. Via Wikipedia.

Thing I learned: the word "bobo", a contraction of "bourgeois-Bohemian" apparently coined by David Brooks in his amusing 2000 sociological bestseller Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, grew extremely big in France (and Québec), even as it never caught on in the US. 

Brooks himself didn't have anything particularly ambitious in mind, as he pointed out in his preface, partly because he didn't have any particular knowledge of how to practice sociology, or any interest in learning how:

There aren't a lot of statistics in these pages. There's not much theory. Max Weber has nothing to worry about from me. I just went out and tried to describe how people are living, using a method that might best be described as comic sociology. The idea is to get at the essence of cultural patterns, getting the flavor of the times without trying to pin it down with meticulous exactitude. Often I make fun of the social manners of my class (I sometimes think I've made a whole career out of self-loathing), but on balance I emerge as a defender of the Bobo culture. In any case, this new establishment is going to be setting the tone for a long time to come, so we might as well understand it and deal with it.

Just as the fraudulent psychic Sibyl Trelawney in the Harry Potter books does at one point manage involuntarily to do a real prophecy, Brooks in his career has done one actual creative thing, the invention of the bobo concept; but it was just a little comic sociology, nothing pretentious, except for the interesting claim, which I'll get back to, that he's a bobo himself ("my class" for which he advertises his "self-loathing", the "creative class" as he often calls it, following Richard Florida, the holders of "intellectual capital"), even though there was nothing even slightly Bohemian about his life at the time, living in a suburban house in Bethesda with the stay-at-home wife and kids, attending a Conservative shul on Saturdays, writing for Kristol's Weekly Standard, and wearing a suit on PBS. While very much something of belonging to a "new establishment" as he cheered on the electoral triumph of the neoconservatives under George W. Bush the year the book came out, and the advent of the Iraq War.

And in France as a result of this single creative act he has become a kind of Jerry Lewis figure, if you know what I mean. Lewis in France was regarded (rightly, IMO, though I hate his movies) as a cinematic auteur of genius, and Brooks is the master of comic sociology, or socioLOLogie as an interviewer for the French Brain Magazine  nicely put it in 2016, taken much more seriously than he could hope to be at home, not that I think he's completely aware of this himself, and the avatar of an intellectual industry, which was largely devoted to showing that the bobos of France, and Europe in general, were a problem (because of the superficiality of their leftism, which was wrecking the effectiveness of the socialist parties, which Brooks would have seen as a feature rather than a bug). There's a big French Wikipédia entry devoted to "bourgeois-bohème", with a whole historical survey of its development and a 32-item bibliography. 

And more recently, in the ultimate tribute, French sociology has arrived at a counterterm, boubour, from "bourgeois-bourrin", where bourrin, originally soldiers' slang for a bad horse, is now a word for someone who's dumb, stubborn, and unnecessarily aggressive—a boor (though the etymology is different; "boor" is through Dutch boer meaning cow-keeper, from Middle French bovier), if you like—coined by the legit anthropologist Nicolas Chemla (the person Brain was interviewing in the cite above) and developed in his 2016 book L'Anthropologie du Boubour.

The boubour is the bobo's evil twin. Bobos—properly speaking the descendants or younger siblings of Brooks's own native 1980s yuppies—combined healthy financial circumstances (we're told you needed an income of better than $105,000, which in 2000 was over 200% of the median) with countercultural aspirations, wearing distressed clothing, listening to indie music, spending their money on experience rather than display, anxious to be seen as sensitive to minority rights (it's implied, if not stated, that they are themselves invariably white) and carbon footprints, and of course voting generally left (as Brooks, obviously, did not). Boubours, in contrast, are defiantly no-culture and anti-intello, given to vulgar ostentation, contemptuous of racial and sexual diversity and ecological stewardship, big fans of macho posturing, and voting—duh—right.

And not voting for the well-bred conservatives of old like Valéry Giscard d'Estaing; no, for thug Nicolas Sarkozy, in the place and time Chemla was working in, and you know what was happening in Britain and the US (not to mention the post-Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, and fill in your own favorites from Berlusconi's Italy to Zuma's South Africa and Netanyahu's Israel to Duterte's Philippines). It's remarkable how it starts to look like a real international phenomenon.

What got me onto this was a lengthy new essay by Brooks written not for his employer but for The Atlantic, under the title "How the Bobos Broke America", which is on its face another restatement of the ongoing conservative campaign to blame Trump on the Democrats, not to put too fine a point on it, with their continuous assault on systemic racism and sexism and whatnot, which forced otherwise goodhearted conservative voters to feel that they were forever barred from being cool and decided—the hell with it!—to be uncool instead. Brooks has learned the word "boubour" somewhere, and that, he thinks, not without reason, is who the Trump voter is, or at least some of the Trump voters.

Incidentally, it's pretty clear he learned the word from The Great Class Shift: How New Social Class Structures are Redefining Western Politics by Thibault Muzergues, an almost totally unheralded and unreviewed book from 2019, but the only English-language source for the term Dr. Google can find; Muzergues,the Europe Program Director at the International Republican Institute’s Europe Regional Office, Austria, divides US voters into four categories designed in Brooksian fashion to exclude nonwhites ("Urban and Liberal Creatives, Suburban Middle Class, White Working Class and the Millennials"), and briefly defines the boubour as follows:

—which Brooks cites later in the essay, characteristically after many paragraphs of pretending that he found out about the boubour concept on his own:
if our old class structure was like a layer cake—rich, middle, and poor—the creative class is like a bowling ball that was dropped from a great height onto that cake. Chunks splattered everywhere. In The Great Class Shift, Thibault Muzergues argues that the creative class has disrupted politics across the Western world. In nation after nation, the rise of the educated metro elite has led the working class to rebel against them. Trump voters listed the media—the epitome of creative-class production—as the biggest threat to America....

But of course it's not the "working class" that is in fact rebelling, as I keep telling you, it's what Brooks refers to, thinking of the Trumpy boat parades of the 2020 campaign, which Brooks treats as something like the Tea Party, as the "people of the populist regatta: contractors, plumbers, electricians, middle managers, and small-business owners," and the "GOP gentry":

In other circumstances, the GOP gentry would be the natural enemies of the proletarian aristocracy , but now they are aligned. Both embrace the symbolic class markers of the sociologically low—pickup trucks, guns, country music, Christian nationalism. Both fear that their children may not be able to compete in the creative-class-controlled meritocracy. Both dislike sending their kids to schools that disdain their values, yet understand that their children will have to adopt creative-class values if they are going to be accepted in the new elite. As Thibault Muzergues writes, “The boubours and the provincial bourgeois thus have a common agenda: to unmake the Creative Class’s societal transformation of the late 2000s and early 2010s.”

"Proletarian aristocracy"—that is, the economic group at the greatest remove from proletariat (which they employ at abusive wages) and aristocracy (which they serve with tugged forelock, hardly "natural enemies") alike, what's universally known in sociology as "petite bourgeoisie".  They fucking own boats! And have the leisure to come out and demonstrate in them! (Same people, naturally, as the ones who are always eating breakfast in diners when The New York Times shows up looking for color copy on real working class voters; the rest of us aren't doing that because we're working.)

Anyway, the bobo bowling ball "dropped from a great height" (by whom?) has literally destroyed class structure in the US, in the first place by its responsibility for that Boor War

led by people who are doing well financially but who feel culturally humiliated—the boubour rebellion. These are Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the rich St. Louis couple who waved their guns at passing Black protesters last year. These are the people who elected as mayor of Toronto the crude, brash-talking Rob Ford, who attempted to put a very non-bobo shopping mall, a suburban Disneyland, right in the center of the city. These are people who rebel against codes of political correctness.

And causing "psychic crisis":

What causes psychic crisis are the whiffs of “smarter than” and “more enlightened than” and “more tolerant than” that the creative class gives off. People who feel that they have been rendered invisible will do anything to make themselves visible; people who feel humiliated will avenge their humiliation. Donald Trump didn’t win in 2016 because he had a fantastic health-care plan. He won because he made the white working class feel heard.

(Again, the "white working class" had little to do with it, though the enthusiastic turnout of white low-income voters 

Via Financial Times.

certainly played an important part in Biden's victory in 2020.)

They—or we, including self-denominated bobo Brooks—also failed to take on institutional responsibilities—

The bobos believe in human dignity and classical liberalism—free speech, open inquiry, tolerance of different viewpoints, personal autonomy, and pluralism—but our class has not delivered for the people outside it. On our watch, government and other public institutions have deteriorated. Part of the problem is that, steeped in an outsider, pseudo-rebel ethos, we never accepted the fact that we were a leadership class, never took on the institutional responsibilities that go with that acceptance, never got to know or work with people not in our class, and so never earned the legitimacy and trust that is required if any group is going to effectively lead. 

even as it made them more powerful than their hapless bosses, with the deli-menu exoticism and complexity of their vocabulary

Yet wokeness is not just a social philosophy, but an elite status marker, a strategy for personal advancement. You have to possess copious amounts of cultural capital to feel comfortable using words like intersectionality, problematizetriggering, and Latinx. By navigating a fluid progressive cultural frontier more skillfully than their hapless Boomer bosses and by calling out the privilege and moral failings of those above them, young, educated elites seek power within elite institutions. Wokeness becomes a way to intimidate Boomer administrators and wrest power from them.

Poor Boomer administrators are the real victims, constantly being embarrassed by you whippersnappers and your fancy words! What the hell is soppressata, anyway?

Oh, Democrats also include the actual working class—

On the lowest rung of the blue ladder is the caring class, the largest in America (nearly half of all workers, by some measures), and one that in most respects sits quite far from the three above it. It consists of low-paid members of the service sector: manicurists, home health-care workers, restaurant servers, sales clerks, hotel employees. Members of this class are disadvantaged in every way. 

—for some reason that Brooks doesn't try to imagine. Why on earth would these miserable tools voluntarily associate themselves with intellectual capitalists, anti-yacht agitators, and people who use "wokeness" as a strategy for personal advancement? Answering that might involve mentioning that they're not necessarily white, though I'd guess massive efforts by Democrats to help them unionize and attain constitutionally guaranteed voting rights and what not haven't hurt. 

But Brooks thinks they're nicer than bobos, and much more like him, though he also says he's a bobo himself...

members of this class are less likely to behave unethically than the creative class when put in tempting situations.

Surveys suggest that members of this class stay at some remove from the culture wars—they are much less likely to share political content on social media than other groups, and more likely to say they “avoid arguments.” Many are centrists or detached from politics altogether, but as a whole they sit to the right of the bobos on abortion and LGBTQ issues and to the left of the bobos on issues like union power and workers’ rights.

(The last crack applies very well to bobos in the French sense, which is why they are a problem, but I doubt that they apply to the Florida-Brooks "creative class" in the US at all.)

The GOP donor class is harmed by the "creative class" through the continual anti-racism harassment:

When I interview members of the GOP donor class, they tell me they often feel they cannot share their true opinions without being scorned. Few of them supported Donald Trump in the 2016 GOP primaries, but by 2020 most of the red one-percenters I know had swung enthusiastically pro-Trump, because at least he’s scorned by those who scorn them.

(at least I think it's about racism— are there are some other "true opinions" they're anxious to conceal tht I don't know about?) 

While the "proletarian aristocracy", i.e. petite bourgeoisie, is sadly alienated, because it hasn't been through the "meritocracy" grinder: they

have succeeded in America, but not through the channels of the university-based meritocracy, from which they feel alienated

and in this way

The bobos achieved a sort of stranglehold on the economy.

Really? How exactly does that add up? Where does the economy come into it? Why does everybody from the CEO to the plumber have so much more MONEY than I do if I have a stranglehold on the economy? And how did you, repentant representative bobo David Brooks, contribute to this unhappy result?

I'm sorry, I really don't think you've made your case. It was a lot better in the original French (the French bobos really have pretty much ruled the country, as énarques, or graduates of the Écoles Nationales from which the higher rungs of the civil service and political actors are almost entirely recruited), but those analysts were socialists, and they've noticed that it's the boubours who seem actually to be largely in charge now.

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