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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Sept/Oct 2001 : Frankel-y Speaking

Frankel-y Speaking
Bobos in Purgatory

Cultural Creatives will save
the world . . . maybe.


by senior columnist Carl Frankel


On September 11th, two jumbo jets flew into the World Trade Center, and a third flew into the Pentagon. Then something truly extraordinary happened: global consciousness changed. Our souls were exploded into the air, and they are still drifting down, seeking to discover how best to be present in this strange new world of ours.

When the planet’s in trouble, who you gonna call?

Not the Ghostbusters, although the idea of Dan Akroyd zipping around in a green superhero suit certainly has its appeal.

No, you’ll call the Cultural Creatives, that’s who. If, that is, you happen to believe the social researcher Paul Ray.

Ray’s recent book, The Cultural Creatives, which he co-authored with his wife Sherry Anderson, has attracted a lot of attention in some circles. The book’s sub-title, How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, gives a clue as to why. According to the authors, there are three main subcultures in the U.S.: Traditionals, Moderns and Cultural Creatives.

Traditionals are, more or less, your standard-issue conservatives. They want the world to be as they imagine, say, Kansas to have been in the late 19th century.

Moderns are our yuppies. Ray and Anderson write, “They are the people who accept the commercialized urban-industrial world as the obvious right way to live.”

• And then there are the Cultural Creatives—the green cavalry, if we are to believe Ray and Anderson—which is galloping over the hill to save the eco-day. Cultural Creatives embrace values that are called “progressive” in some circles and “politically correct” in less sympathetic ones. They are concerned about things like the environment, women’s rights and spirituality. They are the sort of people who join men’s groups, take yoga classes and believe in the importance of “sharing.”

Now, it’s hardly news that Cultural Creatives exist. We all know our share of them, especially in the sustainability community where they dominate the landscape. But that’s not Ray’s main point. According to his research, Cultural Creatives comprise about one-quarter of the adult U.S. populace, and more momentously still, they are the only one of the three main subcultures that is growing. Ray infers from this that the Cultural Creatives are winning the War of the Worldviews. And this delights Ray, who is a Cultural Creative through and through.

Other Cultural Creatives like the model, too. Partly, this is because it has practical applications. For a time in the mid-90s, I consulted with Civano, a sustainable community then under development in Tucson, AZ. The marketing staff was facing a problem. They knew they were going to have lots of ecologically-designed homes to sell, but they didn’t know who would purchase them. They hadn’t been able to identify—to name—their market. When they learned about the Cultural Creatives, they heaved a sigh of relief. These were the buyers they had been looking for.

More broadly, in a world where it is easy for people with strong environmental and spiritual concerns to feel overwhelmed, the vision of one out of four Americans being a compadre is bracing. Essentially, Ray is telling us that the progressive movement is alive and well and more evolved, too. Back then it was secular, patriarchal and class-obsessed. Now it embraces spirituality, feminism and environmental protection. The subtext of Ray’s message is, “We are wiser, we are powerful, we shall prevail!” His views are couched as social science, but their essence is inspirational.

There’s nothing wrong with that; we can all use some encouragement. But I can’t help wondering if Ray’s message is true as well as inspiring, and here I’m a bit more skeptical. Even if we accept the social researcher’s numbers as valid—and Ray swears by them—we must also consider how he interprets them. To this perhaps too-jaded observer, his perspective is suspiciously rosy.

Ray starts with the premise that modernist culture is dead—or, if not quite dead, in its death throes. A brand-new culture awaits us, Ray believes, and it is rising phoenix-like from the ashes. What the sub-title’s “50 million people [who] are changing the world” are really doing, according to Ray and Anderson, is ushering in this brand-new and much greener culture; hence the term “Cultural Creatives,” as in creating the values of the new culture.

I love this argument. I want it to be true. Unfortunately, there’s more than one way to skin a data-cat—and Cultural Creatives, too. Although Ray and Anderson’s book has garnered the most attention in sustainability circles, there’s another book making the rounds.

It’s called Bobos in Paradise, and its author, cultural critic David Brooks, doesn’t skin the Cultural Creatives so much as skewer them.

“Bobos” stands for “Bourgeois Bohemians.” We all know who these characters are, even if the term is unfamiliar. They’re the male doctors sporting earrings, the bankers lounging in their pinstripe suits in espresso bars and the artists anxiously scanning their stock portfolios. Bobos are a study in contradictions. They are socially and professionally ambitious in the conventional ladder-climbing way, but they view these qualities as something to be underplayed, to both themselves and the world. Their “real selves,” such as they are, are softer, gentler and more into caring and sharing. Bobos believe in artistic self-expression, in caring for the planet, in women’s rights, in spiritual growth, in . . . hey, wait a minute. These are the Cultural Creatives!

Which, of course, is precisely my point. Are the 50 million people of Ray’s and Anderson’s sub-title really Cultural Creatives, or are they . . . the horror . . . Bobos? These are two different breeds of change agent, to be sure. Whereas Ray’s Cultural Creatives are the vanguard of a brighter future—the avatars of a culture in transformation—Brooks’ Bobos are much more lightweight. They’re not concerned with social change so much as with being fashionable, albeit in the curious, contradictory style of our unlikely era. Where Ray sees a Wagner opera, Brooks sees a Molière comedy—Bobos as participants in the timeless and ultimately comical game of social striving. And while Brooks acknowledges that Bobos have made the world a better place—he writes, for instance, that “[s]hops are more interesting [and] the food in the grocery stores and restaurants is immeasurably better and more diverse”—on balance, this is pretty mild stuff. Certainly it lacks the gristle to transform (never mind save!) the world.

So which is it, Cultural Creatives or Bobos? Which, to be more blunt, are we? (And forgive me if I’m presuming here, but I’ll bet a lot of this magazine’s readers are Bobos/Cultural Creatives.) Are we (drum-roll, please) Avatars of Great and Important Changes, or are we (comical tuba-belch, thank you) pretentious and conflicted social climbers?

It is a question worth asking, I think, for two reasons. First, it’s always good to prick the balloon of our pretensions. Confronting our Inner Bobo helps us keep a sense of humor about ourselves. Second, and more fundamentally, it goes to the question of hope. When one considers the forces arrayed against positive change, it is easy to fall into despair. The vision of an army of Cultural Creatives provides an antidote to that.

Does the Bobo Alternative extinguish this ray—or rather Ray—of hope? I don’t think so. For one thing, the either/or phrasing of the question is all wrong. We’re not either Cultural Creatives or bozos, I mean Bobos. Useful though these constructs are, in the end they’re just labels. The reality is we’re neither and we’re both. Take me, for instance. I blush to admit it, but you could put my living room in a Bobo Museum—it fairly reeks of nubby indigenous chic, in precisely the way that Brooks tells us Bobos’ living rooms do. Yet I am also deeply committed to the cause of sustainability and not just putting on airs. If it is too melodramatic to see us Bobos as Wagnerian heroes, it is too flippant to dismiss us as powderpuffs. Viewing people as fools or as heroes, as powerless or as Promethean, sells us short. We are rarely simply (a) or (b). We are (c) “all of the above”—and then some. We are human. Hey, even when we’re phony, we’re real.

In the end, I don’t think the Cultural Creative/Bobo conversation is about who we are so much as who we can be. Each of us has it in us to be a change agent or a social butterfly, heavy or light, truly engaged or not really there at all. Each of us has it in us to take ourselves too seriously, too lightly or to find a healthy balance between the two. Are we Bobos or Cultural Creatives? At the end of the day, who cares? What matters is what we choose. What matters is what we do.


Carl Frankel is a writer, journalist and consultant specializing in business and sustainable development. He can reached via e-mail at cfrankel@aol.com.

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