When shopping takes shape of philosophy

April 09, 2000|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- A harbinger of politics as consumption was the discovery that faded blue jeans could be pricier than unfaded ones.

This signaled "status inversion," whereby you ascend in estimation (your peers' and your own) by descending in lifestyle, dress and manners.

Today people sip designer water that costs more than gasoline as they drive thirsty sport utility vehicles (time was, "sport" and "utility" had opposite connotations) to Fresh Fields, where, David Brooks writes, their sense of seriousness and superiority can be sustained by buying commodities for "middle-aged hypochondriacs, like whole grains." For fun there are Ben & Jerry's ice cream cones with attitudes.

How, Mr. Brooks asks, did "the quintessential bourgeois activity, shopping," become a bundle of "quintessential bohemian activities: art, philosophy, social action"? His answer in his book, "Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There," is that Marx got two things wrong.

Marx said classes inevitably conflict and are defined by their means of production. However, the bohemian and the bourgeois classes have melded, producing Bobos -- the bohemian bourgeoisie, defined by consumption. In an America swimming in discretionary income, consumption is an assertion of Bobo cultural values.

Bobos are generally affluent (more than 9 million household incomes exceed $100,000) and many live in what Mr. Brooks calls "Latte towns," where there may not be many artists and intellectuals, but many people want to drink coffee like one.

Often these are university and high-tech towns (e.g., Boulder, Colo., or Burlington, Vt., home of Ben & Jerry's) where the aspiration is for life to resemble an extended hobby, or an unending graduate school.

Work should be playful, but play should be earnest and self-improving (see "sport utility," above). In Latte towns, lots of children are named Dylan and Joplin.

Getting the best bread

Such towns have magazines to help anxious consumers protect their status and self-esteem by making exquisitely nuanced decisions about the simplest things. Such magazines feature articles like "Where to get the best bread." Imagine the status subtraction for having the second best.

The purpose of such perfectionism in consumption is, Mr. Brooks says, for people to show that they are "smart enough to spend the very most." There is a chain of clothing stores with a perfect Bobo name, "Anthropologie," where, Mr. Brooks says, "the feel of the store says `A Year in Provence,' while the prices say six years out of Medical School."

The ostentation of intellectual consumption is characteristic of the new upper class of Bobos. Ralph Lauren ads cater to this: the wooden motorboat near the green light at the end of the dock, Long Island before Levittown. History has been called the graveyard of aristocracies, and in America the graves of those the Bobos supplanted were dug by admissions officers at Ivy League universities.

In the 1950s they interred the WASP establishment, replacing an elite of blood with one of brains. A society of accomplishment displaced one of pedigree. Mr. Brooks says the average (by SAT scores) Harvard freshman in 1952 would have been in the bottom 10 percent of freshman of 1960. In 1960, just 10 of Princeton's 62 football players were from prep schools. Three decades earlier, every player was.

Behind the Bobo elite

In its power to set tastes and manners, the Bobo elite makes America today as hierarchical as in the 1950s. Bobos, says Mr. Brooks, are "epistemologically modest," claiming to be too short on certitude to be "judgmental." Except, of course, about some things, such as smoking, which is considered more sinful than breaking at least five commandments. And Bobos favor the indoctrination of children, who, Mr. Brooks notes, are more "awash in moral instruction" than Victorian children were. Today's three R's -- pumped into them by television and teachers -- are racial sensitivity, recycling and reproduction.

Today, Mr. Brooks says, to calculate a person's status, multiply his net worth by his anti-materialist attitudes. The 1960s countercultural radicalism has, he says, been reconciled with bourgeois consumption. But Mr. Brooks' thesis -- that 1960s radicalism has been gentrified -- takes too seriously the 1960s radicals' own self-flattering estimate of their seriousness.

A few years ago, some long-of-tooth radicals had a conniption when Nike used the Beatles refrain "You say you want a revolution" in a sneaker ad. They said consumerism was "co-opting" their cause. But their cause was always a style -- an alternative consumption pattern -- tarted up as politics.

What hath their revolution wrought? A brochure, "The Feng Shui of Ironing," that comes with Rowenta irons. It explains that "a wrinkle is actually `tension' in the fabric. Releasing the tension by removing the wrinkle improves the flow of ch'i." Right on, Rowenta.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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