Saturday, May 2, 2009

Nation of Narcissists

Narcissism is a personality disorder characterized by grandiose posturing to disguise a weak self-esteem. Narcissists exhibit the following symptoms:

—thinking they are superior to other people

—assuming that others ought to automatically go along with their schemes

—believing they are exceptions to rules

—exaggerating their accomplishments and abilities

—expecting approval, never accepting blame

—failing in relationships

—ignoring feelings, needs, and values other than their own

—indulging in fantasies of their importance, power, and irresistibility

—insulting those whom they think are inferior, but overly sensitive to others’ criticism

—resenting others’ good fortune or success, but assuming that others envy them

—setting impossible standards and goals

—taking advantage of others’ good nature, weakness, or gullibility

—wearing a mask of toughness, coolness, or emotional detachment

If these sound familiar, the reason is that we Americans are a nation of narcissists. Yes, this is me in my apocalyptic mode. Sorry.

Not that there’s anything wrong with healthy self-esteem. But narcissism has nothing to do with healthy self-esteem, which is generous, cooperative, egalitarian, and not easily threatened or insulted; in fact, the two conditions are opposites. Narcissism is the exaggerated pretense of self-esteem to hide insecurity, guilt, anxiety, inner conflict, and fear. Narcissism is a mental illness.

We Americans chant, “We’re Number One!” because we feel like number two, a feeling that has escalated since World War Two. Our victory over fascism was indeed cause for celebration—but the Holocaust is a painful reminder of how long we dawdled before reaching out to help other people in desperate circumstances (our allies, no less), and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a reminder that we created a weapon with the potential for global destruction and our responses to aggression are not always proportionate.

What is more, we perhaps sense that the racism, lust for power, and exaltation of the will we saw in our enemies cut close to the bone of our own disposition.

Especially after the first war with Iraq, we Americans demonize France because, as a people and a government, the French have not been prone to jump when we say jump. Also, America and France are a case of competing narcissisms. France, after all, gives us the word “chauvinism.” Each nation is attracted and repelled by what it sees in the mirror posed by the other.

We Americans are blasé about accusations that we practice torture, imperialism, and unfair competition because, in general, we do not feel bound by the same rules and standards by which we judge other nations and governments.

We Americans go around the world tooting our own horn and wonder why the world doesn’t still give us a six-gun salute for saving its ass in 1945.

We Americans break our pacts and treaties—with the Indians who were on this continent before there even was an “America,” and with the rest of the world, too: Kyoto, Geneva, Vienna, the Platt Amendment, and so on. We imagine that our breaches of trust are rationally, perhaps even humanitarianly motivated, but we seldom offer evidence to back up our assumption that America is and ought to be an exception to the rule—even to rules we strong-arm others to follow.

Our mass entertainments—spectacular epics patterned on those of pre-WW2 Italy and Germany, not to mention imperial Rome—reveal the splendor and decadence of our self-imagination. Their manic yet phony optimism—glamour, happy endings, superimposed laugh tracks, bling, breathless color commentary—belie a fragile ego propping itself up with fantasies of exaggerated muscle, control, and allure.

We are easily impressed with the fantastic and the pretentious. We tend to under-value simple realism in film, art, and literature, perhaps because we desperately want to escape reality.

Likewise, we under-value character in favor of image. Where once we spoke of renaissance and revival, we now speak of makeovers.

If all this sounds like unfair America-bashing, keep in mind that I’m an American too, likewise subject to the nation’s cultural flaws and neuroses. But I think it’s time we seek help. We can’t expect others to stage an intervention because, despite recent calamities, we are still dauntingly powerful and, besides, many of those in a position to diagnose our mental illness look forward to the entertaining spectacle of our imminent nervous collapse.

Already, it’s been a pretty fascinating show—what with Bush dressing up as cowboys and fighter pilots, Obama clinging (like Bush) to the unconstitutional notion that the Presidency is somehow exempt from the nation’s laws against surveillance without judicial oversight, throngs of thousands protesting not so much for the moral wellbeing of the nation but for their own piece of the pie, corporations deemed “too big to fail” receiving massive aid even while persisting in snuffing out the little guys (not excepting even their employees), and frightened and superstitious bigots demanding that rights and legal privileges be retained by only them and those like them—all accompanied by maudlin tears, hymns to liberty and hope and democracy, state-of-the-art production value and special effects, the waving of flags, and the thumping of sacred texts.

America is a nation of narcissists—alienated in our cubicles, gated communities, and narrow beliefs and cocooned in our thousand-dollar entertainment systems and the reverberations of deafening ghetto blasters. As a people, we have been practicing “social distancing” long before H1N1.

Thus, we are less capable of seeing and defending the common good (what is generally good for everybody). Many of us (though, thankfully, not all, perhaps not even a majority) have lost the ability to make sacrifices for the good of the collective whole.

Many of us have lost the ability to argue an issue without stooping to ridicule, name-calling, emotional acting-out, even acts of violence. We respond to criticism as if it were an attack. We respond to lack of conformity as if it were criticism.

We teach our children pride and entitlement, but not math, science, history, arts, logic, manners, and languages (not even an adequate grasp of the one language they do know)—thus equipping them with plenty of self-esteem, but few tools for achieving actual excellence.

We claim to be moral and religious, but most of what we know and feel is simple human prejudices, some of which are not even addressed in our sacred texts. We condone torture but condemn cleavage on TV. What the fuck?

We are a sick culture, and we have, in our century of power, infected the world with our sickness. We are on the verge of collapse. Right now the collapse looks inevitable. If and when it comes, we will need to be a people strong in character and honest, healthy self-esteem. We have mismanaged our wealth and power and moral high ground—and now, with these lost or steeply declining, we appear ill equipped to face the challenges that lie before us.

Right now, our best hope seems to be that collapse will be an impetus for the growth of character, integrity, and human decency.

What do we say to the collapse, any minute now, of a 400-year-old culture built on genocide, slavery, and the polarization of wealth and sustained by hypocritical fanfare about rugged individualism?

To quote a recent notably arrogant and narcissistic world leader, “Bring it on.”

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