The Cucarachas Won’t Save Us


In Spanish (well, at least in Puerto Rican Spanish), the “pacifier” that babies and little children suck on is called a “bobo.” The word means “idiot.” I don’t know which came first, but you can see the similarities…. It seems that when I was passing through that stage of development, I developed an attachment to my bobo and would not give it up. In despair, my parents cut a hole in it and told me that an insect (a cucaracha, to be precise) had eaten through it. Apparently that did it. I quickly came out of my bobo-stage.
According to a splendid new book, the contemporary cultural elite can be called the “bobo-class.” In this case, the word comes from the first syllables of the two words that describe this sociological sample: bohemian bourgeois. The book (Bobos in Paradise, The New Upper Class and How They Got There, by David Brooks, Simon & Schuster, New York [and some other places including Singapore!]) argues that the new dominant cultural circle is the synthesis of the bohemian-bourgeois dialectic. This is the New Man living in what Francis Fukuyama once thought was the end of history. What made Bobos possible is the marriage between money and intelligence; the triumph, in the age of information, of the educated class. Whereas education–for financial success was once the privilege of the capitalist ruling class imitated by the bourgeoisie, the cultural transformations of the seventies and eighties turned the higher education world into a haven for the counter-cultural Bohemians. But now the information age has brought the two together in a stunning synthesis: “counter-cultural capitalism,” Brooks calls it. As Daniel Bell wrote in The Cultural Contradiction of Capitalism
(1976), capitalism requires both self-discipline and hedonism to succeed. The latter, he feared, would eventually destroy the former. It was not to be. It is not simply that the hedonists became capitalists. It is that hedonism and self-discipline have been amazingly brought together into a kind of self-disciplined hedonism, or hedonistic self-discipline. Read for yourself how this marvel happened and confirm its evidence everywhere.
The Protestant faith once sustained the self-disciplined capitalists, whereas religious skepticism or secularism seemed to promote hedonism. So now how does one describe the Bobos’ religious sensibilities, their attitude toward the Mystery?
Just consider the present Broadway Tony-Award winning play “Copenhagen,” by Michael Frayn. It is about Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, the authors of, respectively, the famous “Principle of Complementarity” and “Indeterminacy Principle” upon which the so-called “Copenhagen interpretation” of sub-atomic physics is based. I saw this play a few weeks ago and it brought me back to my early days as a physicist, and the exciting questioning about reality that it unleashed within me. The problem is that most people who see this play do not understand, nor do they care to understand, the great questions of modern sub-atomic physics. The New York Times
reviewer admitted that he had almost failed his one college physics course (“Physics for Poets”) and yet urged everyone to see this play because it posed important human questions.
Indeed, a local TV station interviewed members of the audience during intermission and discovered no one that could explain precisely what the two principles claimed. The lesson we are supposed to learn is expressed by Bohr in the play: “There is no precisely determinable objective universe…The universe exists only as a series of approximations. Only within the limits determined by our relationship with it. Only through the understanding lodged within the human head.” For this reason, the religion of the Bobos is the worship of Mystical Uncertainty. They themselves embody the Principle of Complementarity, being both bourgeois and bohemian at the same time, culturally dominant counter-culturals, or whatever. It makes sense that they need a Religion of Uncertainty to be both at the same time.
The problem with Bobism is seen in the play itself, which reminds us that these are the people who built the atomic bomb and dropped it. Bohr’s friends dropped it over Japan because the Germans surrendered before they were ready. Heisenberg’s companions were building a reactor for the Nazis while he was paralyzed by uncertainty as to what was right or wrong. Bobism would be only anthropologically interesting if they all lived in Burlington, Vermont, making ice cream. The problem is that they have real power, and a technology to implement it.
My parents knew better. When morality and inspiration failed, they appealed to a reality quite independent of my mind’s creations. Still, the cucarachas cannot save us now. We can be saved only by the certainty based on an encounter with the Reality that became determinate in human flesh.