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Can We Bail Out of Narcissism?

The problems we face and the problems we face getting out of the problems we face have more than a little to do with the culture of narcissism that has enveloped our politics, corporate life and entertainment over the past three decades.

We have been taught to regard personal success as more significant than cooperation, community, joint achievement, common advancement, or shared values and systems (such as democracy and fairly regulated commercialism). Better, in short, than qualities that benefit large numbers of citizens rather than just a few. Having accepted the very values that helped push us over the edge, we are now in a poor position to recover from the mess they have created. Add to that all the isolating factors in our society from television to population growth to Ipods, and it makes finding a common way back to social, political and economic sanity extraordinarily difficult.

A good place to start would be to jettison our heavy adulation of leaders in the arts, business, sports and politics for their appearance and attitude rather than for actual achievement. We need to free ourselves of hyper-manipulated dependence on hyper-exalted individuals.

For example, in politics we find ourselves increasingly huddled in the glow of favored individuals rather than united in a cause or joined by values. It doesn’t really matter if it is Sarah Palin or Barack Obama. It’s the same phenomenon: politicians about whom we know far too little upon whom we are taught to project far too many hopes and dreams.

Most Obama supporters, for example, had extraordinarily little idea where he stood on a large variety of subjects and now will only learn randomly and by chance over time. Neither was there much evidence of experience, but in today’s culture, a sufficiently attractive if unfamiliar man can apparently leap from being an unknown state senator to the White House in four short years. What this says is less about Obama and more about how we deal with issues like war, the environment or the economy. We just put the right personal brand on them and hope for the best.

We only ask that the politician in question acts enough like a leader. We are thus behaving not as citizens but as directors of a reality show version of West Wing.

For this to occur, you basically need two things: an easily obsessed audience and a character actor willing to exploit that obsession. It is small wonder that the ambitious notice this and play to it.

Obama, mind you, is only the most prominent example of this phenomenon. The reason he was able to win was because we had long come to accept a similar principle in film, business and the news media. Ideas, issues, principles, record and known skill have faded in importance. Whom we trust with these things has become what matters.

This is an open invitation for control of our lives by narcissists.

As a culture it is not something we talk about. We have drifted into this approach with help from TV fantasies, bad books claiming to explain good management, parents who teach their children that they are the world’s best, and an approach to leadership modeled on car dealers from back in the day when they were still able to sell cars. Thus it is not surprising that Bill Clinton’s stepfather was a gun-brandishing alcoholic who lost his Buick franchise through mismanagement and his own pilfering. He physically abused his family, including the young Bill. According to FBI and local police officials, his Uncle Raymond — to whom young Bill turned for wisdom and support — was a colorful car dealer, slot machine owner and gambling operator, who thrived on the fault line of criminality.

An abused kid raised by hustlers. Not a bad formula for narcissism. But it can also come from being constantly told how wonderful you are, say like a black Harvard law school student or handsome black state senator when there aren’t that many. Or it can be taught in business school as good management or exceptional leadership. Or you can learn it from the movies. Or watching who makes the most money in baseball or on Wall Street.

We are, in short, a culture that cultivates, teaches, celebrates narcissism and its results. And this may prove to be one of the hardest obstacles in our recovery from our recent past.

SAM SMITH is the editor of the Progressive Review, where this column originally appeared.

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