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September 17, 2001: Since the bombing of the World Trade Center of September 11, there have been a number of essays that make points similar to this one. For one example, see Shelby Steele's opinion piece in the online Wall Street Journal.

Troubles in Bobos' Paradise

This is an essay on moral, cultural, and political issues. Francis Fukuyama, in The Great Disruption, argues that there is a connection between our society's open reception to new technology and the resulting "disruption" of moral codes. Perhaps that gives me an excuse to step outside the bounds of technology and economics. If you think not, then you can encourage me to stay out of the cultural thicket.

This essay mentions several other books:

July 25, 2001

Last year's Presidential election left a bad taste in my mouth. Not because I think that the Supreme Court "stole" the election for George Bush--you won't fine my signature anywhere on that petition.

I wish it were that simple for me--good and evil, cut and dried. But the ambivalence that I had before the election never got resolved.

What troubles me is the famous Red and Blue map. In the urban centers, particularly in the northeast and on the west coast, Gore was the winner. Bush won elsewhere.

The bourgeois bohemians, profiled by David Brooks as the new elite, live in Gore Country. Thus, to my mind, the election highlighted a sharp gulf between the Bobo elite and what used to be known as Middle America.

Populist, Elitist, or Constitutionalist

I myself am no populist. I do not regard stock prices as a barometer of value or public opinion polls as a barometer of truth.

Numerous anecdotes and surveys suggest that most people are badly misinformed about basic geography, history, and science. This evidence of the state of popular ignorance is something that I take quite seriously.

It seems to me that someone who "trusts the people" must fall into one of two categories:

  1. Skillful demagogues, in which case what they really trust is their own ability to manipulate popular opinion.

  2. Ivory tower professors, in which case what they really trust is their expectation of never having to deal with "the people" face to face.

On the other hand, I am not an elitist. The differences between knowledge and ignorance, while significant, are not sufficient to make me wish to live in a society ruled by philosopher-kings. For me, the idea that elites are fit to rule has been demolished effectively from the left by David Halberstam and from the right by Thomas Sowell.

What I am is a Constitutionalist. I believe that if we are lucky, an elite will fashion a Constitution that sets up a system of checks and balances that limit the damage that can be caused either by popular democracy or elitist arrogance.

The Bobo Mindset

I finally got around to reading Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks' description of people who combine bohemian rebel consciousness with bourgeois status. Although Brooks mocks some Bobo habits, in the end he backs away from a serious criticism of Bobo culture. He can deliver no stronger a rebuke than to say, "They can be silly a lot of the time." He exhorts Bobos to take on larger social causes.

Brooks comes across to me as an elitist. His message to Bobos seems to me, "You are an elite, even though you refuse to recognize it. This carries with it responsibility. You ought to become more engaged over big social issues."

In fact, one could make a case that one of the problems with Bobos is that they are arrogant and isolated from mainstream America. In that case, urging them to seize the elitist mantle seems like an unwise course.

An issue that crops up in Bobos in Paradise, The Great Disruption, and other analyses of contemporary social trends is that Bobos put up little or no moral resistance to some forms of antisocial behavior. This aspect of the Bobo mindset is captured in such labels as "nonjudgmentalism," "ethical relativism," and "tolerance for diverse points of view."

Brooks has one compelling argument for the Bobos, which is that the elite mindset of the 1950's had its own flaws. Status was based more on circumstances of birth and less on merit than is the case today. Racism and religious prejudice were more institutionalized and accepted than is the case today. Women were more discouraged from achieving success outside the home than is the case today.

In this essay, I will suggest that the common thread in Bobo moral attitudes is laziness. For most Bobos, their outlook does not reflect an intellectual commitment to ethical relativism. Instead, it results from a fear of confrontation.

If my darker view of the Bobos is correct, then the last thing we want is for them to take up social causes. If moral courage is absent, then social conscience is likely to be empty. Do we really want to combine social activism with moral laziness? At best, this seems to me to be a recipe for crusades for middle-class entitlements. At worst, it would lead to mobocratic assaults on constitutional protection for unpopular organizations or individuals.

As examples of what concern me, I can describe three beliefs that appear to be deeply embedded in the Bobo mindset.

  1. Victims cannot be villains.

    People who are members of certain victim classes are excused from responsibility for adhering to moral and legal codes. A leader can advocate racism, genocidal hatred, or acts of violent cruelty as long as that leader can claim to be a member of one of the oppressed, victim classes.

  2. Couples who practice monogamous, heterosexual sex are bored, unsatisfied, and in poor mental health. Anyone who discourages other forms of sexual behavior is a narrow-minded religious bigot.

    In my opinion, society's label (as expressed in popular culture, not by government) for sexual behavior other than monogamous heterosexual relationships ought to be "Caution: may be harmful to the individual and the community." The costs of divorce and of sexually transmitted disease are high. Are the benefits of sexual experimentation so great that it should be above criticism?

    Somehow, the Bobo mindset has it that the only alternative to bohemian celebration of sexual exploration is narrow-minded repression. I think that many people who believe in and practice restraint in sexual relationships are reluctant to express justifiable concerns with behavior that has negative effects on individuals and on society.

  3. Government is a parent.

    George Lakoff's Moral Politics is one of the most astute books that I have ever read. He anticipated the Red and Blue voting map, and he offers a clear explanation for it.

    Lakoff's thesis is that both liberals and conservatives view the government through a family metaphor. That is, they believe that good government is analagous to good child-rearing practices.

    Lakoff characterizes conservatives as believing in a "strict father" model. In this model, children will do right if they are punished for doing wrong.

    Liberals, he argues, believe in a "nurturant parent" model. In this model, children will do right if they feel good about themselves. (I'm being a little glib here. Lakoff devotes a chapter each to the definitions of "strict father" and "nurturant parent.")

    My guess is that Lakoff's categories help to explain the Red and Blue map. Other categories, such as labor and capital, or rich and poor, do not seem to do as well. (Ethnicity remains a strong factor in voting behavior.) From the map, it appears as though the bohemian bourgeois, nurturant parents voted for Gore, while the ordinary bourgeois, strict fathers voted for Bush.

    Lakoff then throws in this curveball. In a chapter called "Raising Real Children," he writes

    I should say at the outset that virtually all of the mainstream experts on childrearing see the Strict Father model as being destructive to children. A nurturant parent approach is preferred. And most of the child development literature within the field of developmental psychology points in one direction: childrearing according to the Strict Father model harms children; a Nurturant Parent model is far superior. --p. 339-340

    The reason that I see this as a curve ball is that I do not see government as a parent. I could grant that for raising children the Nurturant Parent model is superior to the Strict Father model (and the way that Lakoff describes the two approaches, I would put myself in the "nurturant parent" camp). However, this would not lead me to believe in the wisdom of the liberal political agenda.

    Constitutionalism does not mean firing shots at ad hoc targets, such as soft money campaign contributions. I found it ironic that even as the Washington Post lamented the setback for the McCain-Feingold bill, less than a week earlier that newspaper had reported that Congressional spending "earmarks," which are appropriations not requested by executive agencies, but which provide "pork" to specific districts, had reached a level of $280 billion a year.

    Those "earmarked" projects are nothing but campaign finance expenditures. It turns out that the soft money that is addressed by "campaign finance reform" amounts to less than .001 of the campaign spending that is paid for by taxpayers.

    My objection to Lakoff's view is simple and straightforward. Most citizens are adults, not children. Government consists of imperfect adults making decisions that primarily affect other imperfect adults.

    Any model that treats government and its citizens as if the former are wise, mature adults while the latter are underdeveloped children is strongly elitist. As stated earlier, I am not an elitist. I am a constitutionalist.

    When imperfect adults are given power over other imperfect adults, what is most critical is a careful system of checks and balances. This must be constructed in order to minimize the potential that the adult citizens who happen to hold positions of political authority might inadvertently or intentionally harm those of us who do not.

On Moral Courage

Moral courage is the willingness to stand for principles even when you cannot count on support from people that matter to you. Some examples include:

The American Civil Liberties Union is a particularly notable example of moral courage. It defended American former Communists during the McCarthy period. It defended the right of the Ku Klux Klan to march through the Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois. It defended the right of Elian Gonzales' Miami relatives to protection against unlawful searches and seizures.

All of these positions unpopular in general. Moreover, the Skokie and Elian positions were most unpopular with the ACLU's strongest contributors and supporters.

I should note that I sometimes disagree with the ACLU. For example, I believe that their opposition to school choice is unwise. However, it does nothing to detract from their moral courage.

I would not want to depend on moral courage becoming widespread. Moral courage, like altruism, should be treated as a scarce resource in a Constitutional system.

Bobos do not have moral courage. Bobos only take moral stands that are low risk, based on consensus. They go to the movies to see As Good as it Gets and when they see people applauding Helen Hunt's cursing of HMO's, they join in.

The moral stands that carry the least risk are those that people adopt ex post facto. Today, every politician denounces the Holocaust. At the time, most political leaders sought to distance themselves from the plight of the Jews, for fear of appearing too sympathetic toward them (again, Churchill was an exception). Today, everyone is for Civil Rights. In the 1950's, the big concern was "moving too quickly" to end discrimination.

People with moral courage often must face anger and mass denunciation. It is easier to overlook villainy, or to try to "split the difference."

Finally, I should note that moral courage by itself is not sufficient to make a person a constructive force in the world. In the absence of wisdom, moral courage looks a lot like misguided righteousness.

The Nurturant Parent Trap

Although I put myself in the nurturant parent camp, some caution is in order. In particular, a nurturant parent could fall into the following trap:

  1. We believe that children who feel good about themselves will do right.
  2. Confronting children when they do wrong will cause them to feel badly about themselves.
  3. Therefore, children who do wrong should not be confronted.

If you fall into this trap, then you become merely a weak and indulgent parent, who enables your child the way a weak wife enables an alcoholic and abusive husband.

This trap is no mere theoretical curiosity. Recently, I read Augusta, Gone, a striking and disturbing account of a mother's relationship with a difficult daughter.

Every parent is afraid of having a rebellious child. When you put boundaries around a child's behavior, the child will express anger. This is very uncomfortable.

Augusta's mother is almost unbelievably indulgent. Augusta violates her curfew and faces no consequences. Her mother finds drugs in her room, and her reaction is to feel guilty over invading her daughter's privacy (I'm thinking: why not only promise to stay out of Augusta's room as long as Augusta comes home on time?)

Augusta's mother makes lunches for Augusta to take to school, and Augusta throws them away. But when Augusta insists that her mother continue to make lunches, the mother thinks she has no choice. (I'm thinking: if your kid throws out the lunches you make, then tell the kid to make her own lunch.)

Augusta's mother has a desperate need to be accepted by Augusta, and she is intimidated by Augusta's anger. The net result is a relationship in which Augusta has all of the power.

There are many Augustas running rampant today. This recent article in the Washington Post describes the rudeness, disrespect, and physical assaults that students commit against teachers in schools. Often, schools react as weakly as Augusta's mother (and the students' parents typically side with their children, or at best shrug and say, "What can we do?").

One of my regular readers blames court decisions and anti-school lawsuits for this phenomenon. However, I think that school staff reflect the moral laziness of society in general. If fear of lawsuits were not available to justify moral laziness, another excuse would be found.


David Brooks seems to have hit the nail on the head when he says that the Bobo elite has indeed supplanted the 1950's elite. An inbred, hierarchical social order has been replaced by something more fluid. The authority of religion and tradition has been replaced by the Bobo mindset.

The advantage of the old order, of the Strict Father model if you will, is that it did not demand much in the way of moral courage. If people are restrained by the fear of God, or by fear of their strict parents, then at least they are restrained.

The Bobo model may not be as robust with respect to the absence of moral courage.

The over-arching commandment of Bobo-ism is "Thou shalt not confront." A Bobo does not want to confront a disruptive child, a villain who claims membership in a victim class, someone whose sexual behavior is damaging, or a government that expands its power in the name of fulfilling a parental mission.

We would be a most unhappy society if we frequently sought confrontations over these issues. We should minimize such confrontations. However, unlike the Bobos who automatically avoid all moral confrontations, we should occasionally make conscious decisions to take a stand.