MARTIN LUTHER KING, whose 90th birthday would have been around now, wrote Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? in 1967, after some hard-won successes in the struggle for the rights of Black Americans. It is sobering to consider how far from community and close to chaos we have come. But it might be useful to understand just how it’s happened.
I think a clue comes from a book that appeared nine years after King’s famous one: Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism. The very word, ‘narcissism,’ makes us think immediately of the 45th President now in the White House. Of the many aspersions cast on him, the one that could tell us something about how we have allowed our country to slip down to this deplorable state is, to quote a recent version, “his insatiable ego.” Now, people who have to feed their egos are usually suffering from low self-esteem, and that may be useful in dealing with him, possibly even helping him if one were in a position to do that – but what we’re after here is an explanation how he became President. More pertinent still, why does he still have approval ratings in double digits which, while historically low, are still enough to cry out for explanation. This, I think, is what Lasch offered.
People make heroes out of those who represent most conspicuously the values of their culture. This was true of earlier Presidents whose values have disappeared into the quaintness of past history: honesty, competence; in the case of ‘probity’ the very word has dropped out of common vocabulary. And it’s true today. How, then, has egotism, self-centeredness usurped their place in the imagination of enough people to secure a big enough minority that election fraud (which we do in about half a dozen ways, almost all on the Republican side) can push him over the edge of victory?
On the way into town I pass two billboards about a hundred yards apart. One says MAY THE BEST DREAM WIN. That’s an advertisement for the scratchies, and it has two equally deleterious messages: one, that life is a competition, and two that our ‘dream’ – the measure of our aspirations – is getting money, preferably without working. Personally, I don’t expose myself to commercial mass media if I can help it; but like all of us, I can’t. According to some recent studies, we in urban America are being exposed to around 5,000 commercial messages a day. So I’ve seen a few fewer adverts in my long life, but that’s still a lot. And exactly once in my life – once, years ago – I saw an advertisement for volunteerism; the message, I still remember, was Ich helfe gern, ‘I like to help.’ I was, needless to say, not here, but on a train going from Holland to Germany.
The second billboard says, THRIVE YOUR WAY. Again, this may seem perfectly harmless at first sight; but with some practice reading subtexts (as it happens I was a professor of comparative literature), ‘your way’ should set off an alarm. It is not an isolated message. It echoes the refrain of everything from iPhones to YouTube: the incessant refrain of self-centeredness which is the seductive message of virtually all advertising. Self-centeredness is a relatively innocuous form of egotism, perhaps – but a form of it nonetheless. And it’s so endlessly repeated that advertisers feel it has to be used even to advertise not a commercial product, but healthcare, which once upon a time was the preeminent selfless profession.
Oh, and before the ‘thrive’ message went up the same billboard hosted a real estate ad with the compelling slogan, Our Pain is Your Gain. Ah, the added pleasure of knowing you’re hurting someone else.
These are only the (relatively) subtle messages of self-centeredness. Think now of “entertainment” media, from video games on up. This fare ranges from extreme violence and pessimism – Real Ain’t Pretty, Unleash Truth (depicting a dehumanized, raging warrior), The Beast at the Center of the Universe. Enough said. Where can you go today to escape the advertisement (literally or otherwise) of self: anger, fear, and greed, competition and violence. Lasch was right: we have steadily, passively for most of us, created a culture of narcissism – of ego, not to put too fine a point on it – and in the land of egotism, he with the biggest ego is king. I do not for a moment downplay the disaffection of rural, white, working-class people and the other factors so well brought to our attention by Arlie Hochschild and others. But the substrate of their discontent and ‘background count’ of our culture is self-centeredness, and that cannot lead anywhere resembling happiness. Tragically, we see reflected in the President, writ large, the worst that we are carrying in ourselves. This is ultimately how we got here.
What, then, can we do now? Two things. As the philosopher Epictetus said a millennium ago, warning about ‘entertainment’ even in his day, “take good care of your precious mind.” Just avoid the degrading imagery of the mass media, which, yes, might mean just about all of it. Trust me, you miss nothing.
Second, talk about this. Draw attention to what’s being done to our precious consciousness. That does not come naturally here in the West, or almost anywhere in this faltering age. But when it does come, we discover that it was our real nature after all.