It looks as if we shall have to speak of a Weekly Standard school of sociology. First came How We Got Here , by Standard contributing editor David Frum, a supple look at the 70’s and its effect on everything. Now his colleague David Brooks gives us Bobos in Paradise -a portrait not, as you might think, of the Clintons, but of bourgeois bohemians, who, Mr. Brooks argues, are the new American ruling class.
Mr. Brooks has been capturing people in unflattering poses for years. In a piece for Terry Teachout’s collection, Beyond the Boom , he swept his basilisk eye around the dinner table at the banquet of a Washington think tank. He noted “an activist of some sort who comes to all these dinners and talks of nothing but her efforts to empower the people who are not invited.” Next to her, the man “with his shirttail hanging through his fly is a senator, of course.” Now, disconcertingly, he has written about me.
This was not his intention, but what else am I to make of his descriptions of bourgeois bohemian living rooms that are stuffed with the loot of a dozen souks? Too late to schlep everything in mine back to Rajasthan and replace it with pieces from Ethan Allen or even Moss. How one likes to observe, how one resents being observed. Or what about Mr. Brooks’ insight that bourgeois bohemians decorate with the icons of faiths that none of their guests practice? I ask the dancing Shiva or the metal plates of body parts to which the Greek Orthodox used to pray for cures. Mr. Brooks is describing an oppositional class, weaned on the worldview of popular entertainment and music, with its rebel poses. But rebels bred by the arts, it turns out, express their rebellion chiefly in aesthetic, or moral, terms. It is a rebellion of the wardrobe and the bedroom, not the factory (except in the sense that, in the new technology, there are fewer factories). Bourgeois bohemians work as hard as Poor Richard in the Almanac, but they don’t want religion, society or custom telling them how to behave-except on those occasions when they all spontaneously do the same thing, like furnish their bookshelves with Buddha heads.
Michael Lind (not of the Weekly Standard ) took a crack at the same people a few years back, calling them the “overclass,” suggesting their Island of Laputa indifference to the concerns and the toiling of average folk. David Frum maybe steals the march on both men, for the point of How We Got Here is that we’re all here together, responding to similar tropisms.
Two symbols of the new ruling class strike me. (Don’t worry, we shall leave the Clintons out of this; there will be time enough to consider the boner king before he rides off to Chappaqua, or the Cohiba Presidential Library or Bring-Your-Spouse-to-Work Day at the U.S. Senate.) One symbol is negative, the surrender of a symbol. Family circumstances have caused me to dispose of sets of sterling flatware, some the residue of antepenultimate generations. Who eats this way anymore, I wondered? They lay, the Prince Eugene a bit jumbled with the State House, in flannel bags with grosgrain drawstrings. Some were lined up, like drill bits, in albums whose covers were now stiff and cracked. They all struck me as faintly ugly and remarkably heavy; if manners at the table took a sudden plunge, the handles could be used a weapons. They were weapons-against boorishness, slovenliness, being off the farm or the boat. Maybe that’s where the owners had come from, but they were preparing themselves for occasions on which the distance they had traversed would be demonstrated. It used to be a sneer of the English upper classes that Americans, Jews and other climbers had bought their own silver. You bought sterling, as Henry V put it, to gentle your condition. Do people buy it now? Tiffany’s is still in business and brides register. Why then did I feel I was holding things of the past?
The other symbol came to me at the Oscars. That was a while ago, but sometimes symbols have long fuses. I was in Los Angeles to film celebrity comings and goings at the Vanity Fair Oscar party at Morton’s, for a PBS documentary on George Washington. As I stood outside in my tux in the chilly L.A. night, I watched the ceremony on banks of monitors. Peak moment: the presentation of the Irving Thalberg career achievement award to Warren Beatty and the introduction delivered by Jack Nicholson.
What made the moment a peak is that Mr. Beatty was beautiful once, Mr. Nicholson was exciting, and now they are gray eminences. Mr. Nicholson is the line of transmission from Marlon Brando to every edgy young edge; Mr. Beatty thought about running for president. (And when you look at Alan Keyes making his second try, who can criticize him?) There they had been in their youth, and there they were on Oscar night-lords of the rebellious upper class.
Peak of the peak was Mr. Nicholson. It has been argued that the toast scene in Five Easy Pieces was cruel and self-indulgent, and encouraged cruelty and self-indulgence in others. But there were many other scenes, in many movies. Don’t call the honor roll, you know them all. Now Mr. Nicholson is stout. He’s stout and he doesn’t care. He also has an ugly mustache, about which he doesn’t care, because no one will say anything to him about it, because he’s Jack Nicholson. If I wore that mustache, or a string of dead rats around my neck, or an air-freshener cookie from a urinal behind my ear, people would say something to me, but they don’t say it to Jack Nicholson. He was stout and mustached and tuxed, and if Warren Beatty had wanted to reshoot Reds , and if he had done a scene with cops breaking up a demonstration in Union Square, and if he had cut it with shots from a banquet of plutocrats at the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and if he wanted a big plutocrat to be saying something like, “America has never been more prosperous,” while he cut to a cop nightsticking Emma Goldman, he would not have to change an article of Mr. Nicholson’s clothing, or an inflection of his voice. He was stout and mustached and tuxed and happy, because he was a rebel, and he’s still a rebel, and now he’s in paradise.