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In Love With Ourselves

American culture is full of narcissists of all shapes and stripes -- George W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh, Paris Hilton and any number of other public figures leap to mind.
 
 
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"It seems like just yesterday I was at the White House staying in the Lincoln bedroom, and everything was wonderful."

These were the words of former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland to a group of teenagers in early July. Rowland was trying to explain his downward trajectory from one of the Republican Party's favored political "stars" to standing in line for toilet paper in a federal prison.

He described his "sense of entitlement" as a political persona. "Before you know it, you're doing things you never thought you'd do in the past. ... Then you send that message to others."

The former governor no doubt got the message from those who influenced him in his rise to power, including the president himself. "I can't tell you how important it is to have people who hold office who deliver," President Bush glowed about Rowland during the Connecticut Republican Committee Lunch in April 2002. "[O]ne of the jobs of a governor is to help restore faith in the political process of a particular state. And the best way to defeat cynicism is to accomplish things on behalf of everybody ... to rise above the traditional noise that tends to dominate the political scene and perform."

"Performing" indeed. The governor put on a great act as a public servant -- that is, until he had to resign from office in 2004 amid an embarrassing investigation into rampant corruption and influence peddling.

Rowland's myopic perception of endless omnipotence could be described as wholly narcissistic. But he is not alone. Building a public persona in America often amounts to a narcissistic exercise on the grandest of scales.

Narcissism is clinically defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) as a "pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy." Although just about any person can possess certain narcissistic tendencies, the disorder can't technically be diagnosed until five out of nine criteria are met:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance unsupported by reality;
  • A belief that s/he is special and unique and can only be understood by other 'special' people;
  • A preoccupation with fantasies of extraordinary success, wealth, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love;
  • An intense, excessive need for admiration;
  • A sense of entitlement;
  • A frequent tendency to exploit interpersonal relationships without guilt or remorse, including advantageous behavior to satisfy his/her own end goals;
  • A lack of empathy;
  • An envy of others, or the perception that s/he is the object of others' envy;
  • Regular displays of arrogant behavior or attitude.

The likes of Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Rumsfeld, Rush Limbaugh, Paris Hilton and any number of other public figures leap to mind. But narcissists come in all shapes and stripes -- you may even be living or working with a few or have one as a parent.

Addressing an audience of people desperate to understand the narcissists in their midst, a subgenre of self-help books have been written to help non-narcissists identify and extricate themselves from this kind of interpersonal "toxicity."

Some of these authors are beginning to insist that the preponderance of narcissists in our society did not develop in a vacuum. In an April 2005 interview in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer , Julia Sokol (co-author of Help! I'm in Love With a Narcissist) observed: "I think society places a value on narcissism and narcissistic values. We put an emphasis on the superficial. We put an emphasis on the people who sound as though they know what they're talking about, even when they don't. ... Narcissism forgives an awful lot that in an earlier time would have been considered obnoxious."

Sociologist Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations, first published in 1979, was the furthest thing from a self-help book. Written in a dense, unemotional style more suited to the classroom than to armchair psychology, the work was nonetheless groundbreaking. Lasch grasped an emergent sociopolitical trend: a societal push toward self-satisfaction and self-aggrandizement, to the near exclusion of a sense of collective responsibility and accountability. One of Lasch's greatest feats was to pinpoint the narcissistic by-products of our American culture of "competitive individualism." Our society, he argued, had carried the "logic of individualism to the extreme of war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of narcissistic preoccupation with the self."

Lasch's book is both illuminating and prescient, particularly as the author predicted what we would later come to know as the "cult of celebrity." In The Culture of Narcissism , Lasch alternated between clinical and casual observations of people who wanted not to be esteemed for their real accomplishments so much as they wanted to be admired and adored for their fortune, beauty, or social standing -- and politicians were not exempt from his scathing analysis. "Success in our society has to be ratified by publicity," Lasch writes. "[A]ll politics becomes a form of spectacle."

As a prime example of how narcissism had infiltrated the American political realm, Lasch used the still-fresh memory of the Vietnam War to argue that politicians had so concerned themselves with the image and the reputation of American power that they had, in essence, lost sight of reality -- that is, until a tremendous amount of unnecessary cost and casualty to human life had already been paid.

Comparisons to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are inescapable. But we need not look as far as U.S.-sponsored warfare on foreign soil to see the evidence of a disordered, sickened body politic. Increasingly, the nation's idea of collective welfare is defined by measures of individual attainment: house and condominium purchases; salaries, perks and bonuses; the availability of luxury goods and accommodations; and the purchase of gigantic, gas-guzzling vehicles decked out with "extras" unimaginable to the American drivers in the not-too-distant past.

University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen examined narcissism in an Alternative Press Review article, "Diagnosing the U.S. 'National Character.' " While political tendencies to self-aggrandize are hardly unique to the United States, the extent to which our nation has concentrated wealth and power should cause us to "worry most about the consequences of such narcissism here," Jensen wrote. Yet, Jensen cautions, we should be wary of conveniently ascribing abuses of power to the right-wingers or the obscenely wealthy in our midst.

"Part of our task on the left is to both critique the Bush administration, but also to remind people there's something fundamentally wrong with the structure of empire," writes Jensen. "We are the most affluent country in the history of the world, and that affluence breeds a pathological disconnect with the rest of the world."

At an August 2004 appearance in San Francisco, Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy spoke of that pathological disconnect as an outgrowth of America's ratings-driven election process. "Unfortunately, the importance of the U.S. elections has deteriorated into a sort of personality contest," Roy said. "[The elections have become a] squabble over who would do a better job of overseeing empire. ... The U.S. political system has been carefully crafted to ensure that no one who questions the natural goodness of the military-industrial-corporate power structure will be allowed through the portals of power."

As Jensen puts it today, the confluence of "corporate capitalism with the media-centric nature of this world combined with the absence of the organized resistant left" has made it more difficult for those of us opposed to repression and greed to tame the beast of narcissism in our midst -- and in our own minds.

The path toward a more meaningful, collective-oriented future -- has to begin with an introspective re-evaluation of how narcissism has skewed our personal, social and political lives. Many of us have, consciously or subconsciously, rejected a society that requires incessant self-promotion for economic survival by refusing to center our existences around publicity-seeking approaches to our life and work. In that act of rejection we can find a bit of shelter from the dangers of a hyperinflated ego.

But in the absence of a cohesive framework that helps us understand exactly what we've rejected (and why), many of us simply retreat from public engagement in what Commonsense Rebellion author and psychologist Bruce Levine characterizes as a "passive-aggressive rebellion against a society that demands we be incessantly self-promoting narcissists in order to survive."

Perhaps the hope, then, lies in a fuller understanding of what we are reacting to, and a healthier, more humane sense of what we'd rather embrace, including seemingly antiquated notions of honesty, humility, collectivism, ethical conduct and moderation in material possessions.

Essential to this process, as psychologists like Levine suggest, is also developing a more finely tuned awareness of the role narcissism plays in society. When complete extraction is not possible, then boundary setting is a necessary practice for preserving a healthy, socially and politically-engaged life.

Lasch, in a 1990 afterword to The Culture of Narcissism , wrote, "The best hope of emotional maturity, appears to lie in a recognition of our need for and dependence on people who nevertheless remain separate from ourselves and refuse to submit to our whims. It lies in a recognition of others not as projections of our own desires but as independent beings with desires of their own."

Most importantly, Lasch said, "The world does not exist merely to satisfy our own desires."

True words, indeed. And now, to heed.

Silja J.A. Talvi is a senior editor at In These Times .