LeBron James and the Culture of Narcissism

Last week I watched LeBron James allow, without much of a fuss, his Cleveland Cavaliers to lose to the Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs’ Eastern Conference second round, while the media storm around him speculated what team he would go to next, a step on his way to his goal to becoming a billion dollar athlete. His triple double (points, rebounds and assists) in game six was the weakest triple double I’ve ever seen, one short of a dreaded quadruple double with his nine turnovers. While no one player can singlehandedly determine a series’ outcome, James’ effort was conspicuous for its lackluster character relative to what he’s capable of. This was after two successive losses to the Celtics. In each of the last three games James had been strangely passive, especially in the 32-point demolition in the crucial Game 5 on his home court. He explained that his jumper wasn’t falling, yet left unsaid why in the absence of his shot falling, why he didn’t take the ball to the hoop, something he does better than any other player in the game.

The series and James’ response and explanation for his play made me think more broadly about what celebrity and money mean today. Clearly, what was wrong with James wasn’t his prodigious basketball ability – though his dribbling and jump shot are still technically not sound. It was something else. It wasn’t fatigue, because champions don’t become passive because of fatigue. And it wasn’t his elbow, which had a Twitter account all by itself. There was a kind of preoccupation with self that came through. His mind seemed to be on July 1, 2010, the day that he becomes a free agent, the day that he previously declared the biggest day in the history of basketball.

New York Magazine called out to him, like a siren:

“Whatever it is you enjoy most — going out for a nice steak, clubbing with friends, sitting at home stacking your money — this is the place to do it. That’s right, we think signing with the Knicks, the team that has lost more games than any other during your NBA career, is the best thing you could do.” (From Steve Politi, “LeBron James is not worth Knicks groveling over,” Star-Ledger, May 14, 2010.)

I would have thought that what the allegedly best player in basketball enjoys the most is … playing basketball!

And yet, as craven as the magazine’s appeal, I think the magazine and those trying to lure LBJ to the Big Apple do know something about what really moves the “King:” celebrity and, cue the big lights over Times Square: MONEY, MONEY, MONEY!

Be careful what you wish for, the other guy who achieved billionaire athlete status is not too happy right now.

I don’t think it matters whether LeBron ends up in NYC or NJ or Chicago or if he remains in his home state of Ohio.

He will not, on the path that he’s on now, ever by himself, lead a team to an NBA Championship. He has the talent, but he doesn’t have the desire. You can’t be coached to develop the desire, anymore than, as they say, you can coach 7 feet. You can’t be the best player in the game if you can’t take your team on your shoulders and say, follow me. The problem here is more than the fact that his supporting cast isn’t quite up to the task.

Here is where LBJ’s prodigious physical skills and body don’t compare to Kobe or MJ or Bill Russell or Magic or Bird or Isiah Thomas. All of those guys wanted to (or want to) win more than anything. The celebrity that surrounds their victories is secondary to that for those champions. (Until MJ and the Bulls got Scottie Pippen and past the Pistons and won the NBA ring, Jordan was still only the best player not to win a championship. He wasn’t yet the best to ever play the game.)

For LeBron, it’s the reverse. He already identifies himself as the King when he calls people up. How can he be the King when he hasn’t taken his team to even the NBA finals?

I cannot imagine any of those other guys behaving on the court or in the pressroom the way that LeBron did after Game 5 in the playoff series against Boston. You just got embarrassed on your home floor by 32 points, losing game 5, after losing game 4. The season and the dream of an NBA championship are essentially over. He pardons himself on the grounds that he’s had three bad games in his career and he’s disappointed with himself (but not for his team and for the city of Cleveland.)

This isn’t about you James. This is about your team and your city. A real leader would have excoriated himself in the pressroom for failing.

If I were a Cleveland fan, I’d think real hard about whether I wanted him back after this. Not because he lost to Boston, but because of the way he did it.

* * *

The story of LBJ, or as one pundit put it, LeDisappearance, is part of a bigger story with threads that extend out to a prominent aspect of mass culture in the US today.

As I was thinking about the Cavs/LeBron debacle last night, I was reminded of Lindsay Lohan, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Porn and the SEC and the torture photos from Abu Ghraib. I know this sounds far-fetched, but bear with me.

Let me start with Lindsay Lohan, who, unlike her friend Paris Hilton, actually has acting chops. But despite having the real thing, something that Jane Fonda tried a few years ago so hard to get Lohan to focus on, she has chosen to follow the path of her friend Paris Hilton, trading her real skills for trash and the ersatz. Hilton, of course, is famous for being famous, a shameless self-promoter who hasn’t any acting talent. Instead of being known for her acting skills, Lindsay has become known for her partying and drug induced stupors. This is like someone who can play concert violin trading it in to listen instead to an iPod with Top 40 on it.

Both Hilton and Kardashian owe a substantial amount of their fame to a sex tape of themselves. The cheap road to fame now for women is to do a porn tape of yourself, then pretend that it was released without your knowledge. Kardashian is the New Paris Hilton, showing up on the covers of the tabloids regularly.

What has happened to the news, that celebrities are constant fixtures, with the media carrying breathless stories 24/7? It’s as if the whole society has become a Reality Show and we are collectively asked to decide who’s hot and who’s not, who gets to stay and who gets banished from the Island. Celebrity news is cheap and easy news and it promotes the Horatio Alger Myth: “See how rich and famous he/she is? You too can be like him/her. You can have their multiple mansions and six-figure automobiles, their yachts, their lavish life-styles. You just have to wish hard enough and maybe it will happen for you. Maybe you’ll become the next American Idol.” (I owe this analysis of celebrity news to Karen Sternheimer at USC.) Cheap baubles for the masses, like the beads they gave the Native Americans for Manhattan.

Tiger Woods’ fall from grace, after he was touted as the paragon of rectitude, for acting on his belief that he was entitled to all of the perks of fame and fortune and after becoming the first billion dollar athlete and achieving it by actually winning, should be an object lesson of the perils of having it all, but getting ensnared in the trappings of fame. No matter that Tiger had it all: fortune, a blonde swimsuit model, and not just any blonde, but a Swedish blonde, wife with brains, dominance in his profession. This only made his entitlements all the more enticing. These women, oh, all those women: decorations for his narcissism.

Even people with real talent like LeBron James and Lindsay Lohan are emulating the people who don’t have talent but who do have the rich and self-indulgent lifestyles.

In the world of books we see the same phenomenon – the most famous people are given huge contracts, leaving the rest of the authors to have to contend for what is left of the now heavily depleted publisher’s funds. In the movies we see the celebration of the blockbuster, with most of them being retreads of what has already been proven marketable. In music, the acts that are signed and promoted are those who sound like what has already proven to be commercially successful. And in salaries and wages we see the sucking of the lion’s share upwards to the CEO’s and the Wall Street parasites who make huge commissions and bonuses buying and selling derivatives and bets on bets, creating nothing of real value.

In the 1987 film Wall Street tycoon Gordon Gekko declared, “Greed is Good:”
“You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you buddy? It’s the free market.”

In sports, the teams and cities that crave a championship drool over the possibility of getting LeBron, who is supposed to save the city and to whom goes the gigantic salary. This is the implementation of supply side economics: to those who are at the pinnacle, we give the lion’s share.

Meanwhile, it came out a few weeks ago, some key high level bureaucrats in the SEC in charge of supervising and regulating the financial giants, while these same financial giants were robbing us blind and gambling spectacularly and criminally recklessly, were spending hours and hours and hours on their jobs watching porn on the Internet. In other words, instead of observing – and doing something about – the obscenity of financial capital’s pell-mell profit-making plutocrats who were taking us to the brink of financial disaster with worldwide consequences, these “regulators” were watching the run of the mill, ordinary, obscenity of porn and possibly masturbating while doing it. While Goldman Sachs et al were fucking the American people, SEC regulators were imagining themselves fucking.

From an April 23, 2010 ABC News Report:

“One senior attorney at SEC headquarters in Washington spent up to eight hours a day accessing Internet porn, according to the report, which has yet to be released. When he filled all the space on his government computer with pornographic images, he downloaded more to CDs and DVDs that accumulated in boxes in his offices.”

What kind of individuals can spend all or most of the working day watching and downloading porn? Even horny teenaged boys can’t spend the entire day doing this. The rightwing wants to take this revelation as a lesson that government regulation is a bad thing. But the opposite conclusion is warranted here. These bureaucrats were doing what neoliberalism (the underlying philosophy of supply side economics) expects and celebrates: acting like autonomous individuals without any obligations and responsibilities to anyone but themselves.

This brings us to the Abu Ghraib torture photographs. The posing of these shots and the positions the detainees were placed into show the obvious influence of the pornographic imagination: the dog leash on the detainee, the human pyramids, the coerced simulated homosexual blowjobs, the woman’s panties draped over the detainee’s head. But beyond the evident porn inspiration is the underlying idea that rationalizes torture of others: anything done to others to protect Americans, no matter how illegal or immoral, is justifiable. We see again the work of neoliberal logic here: whatever must be done to others in order to protect me is ok. In bumper sticker style this would be: I © me. America: the land of the entitled. The corollary to I © me is I § you because you’re not me.

Narcissism, amoral and immoral policies, they interpenetrate. Societies, like basketball, are team sports.

Drill, baby, drill: the mantra of the entitled. Who cares whether the ocean and the flora and fauna in it are fragile? They are not us. They are not Americans. Therefore, they don’t matter in the calculations. What matters is that our oversized carbon footprint lifestyles as presently constituted need oil. What matters is that we get to do whatever the hell we want to do. What matters is me.

This is a life without balance. It is doomed to produce disasters, much as the oil spreading across the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe looks like blood from a mortal wound, a giant ice pick plunged into the heart of the Gulf, hemorrhaging and hemorrhaging and hemorrhaging. Meanwhile, our soldiers, who ought to be in the Gulf of Mexico mobilizing in massive fashion to protect and defend the ocean and marshlands, not the Saudi Arabian Gulf, not killing for Gulf Oil and the prospective oil pipeline through Afghanistan, not torturing people who aren’t us.

For they are us. We are all us.

So this article is and isn’t about LeBron James. It’s about something much larger.

In the game of basketball, as it is in this life and death game of life, we need heroes who will take responsibility, who will say, come with me, we will do what must be done. We need people who will declare: we will not stop until it is done, no matter what sacrifices we must make and no matter how unpopular it might be at first to take on the culture of narcissism and the system of plunder that spawns and sustains that narcissism.

DENNIS LOO is an associate professor of Sociology at Cal-Poly Pomona. He is the co-author of Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney. He can be reached at http://dennisloo.blogspot.com.