An American Narcissus
To many individuals who think on a collective scale and nurture a tendency to formulate awareness in the broadest possible terms, the wonderful ‘Great American Experiment’ that is the United States’ founding aggregate precept of egalitarian liberty, equal economic opportunity and unconstrained religious freedom appears increasingly to be in dire jeopardy. Within the past several decades alone, the downward, regressive shift in our collective national fortune has become notably palpable to the point where it should pose grave concerns for anyone who considers him/her self to be experientially open, broad-minded and given to intelligently thoughtful considerations of social culture. Evidence of this decline, found in ugly threads of intolerance, expressions of narrow-mindedness and manifestations of thoughtless ignorance now lace through the fabric of American life in just about any sector one chooses to examine critically.
As one may or may not imagine, the fatal flaws in our system result partly from actions and interactions carried out between institutions whose socio-economic dynamics operate largely unchecked within our own culture to a greater extent than most are aware of. While much of our present dilemma may be attributable to ordinary aspects of variable human awareness (such as basic ignorance, low quality education and effects of an increasing ethnic diversity that have resulted in profoundly polarised social fragmentation), it is tempting to levy an appreciable amount of blame upon the capitalistic corporate ‘machine’ that our political-economic model more or less champions: unconstrained and/or poorly modulated profiteering by powerful commercial interests who are more influenced by greed than they are by any sense of obligation to function responsibly and maintain standards of ethical behavior that are benevolent to our society across its entire spectrum.
Perhaps one of the strongest of these unhealthy focal corporate concerns relates directly to exploitation of youthful consumers, for our purposes here defined as constituting that age group between 12 and 20, and who today wield an immense amount of economic clout by virtue of their consumption habits and spending practices. Recognising both the potential discretionary income this segment of the population represents and the fact that this group of consumers is comprised of intellectually immature individuals who are easily influenced by visual and verbal media, America’s corporations have within the past 50 years actively sought to instill a massive sense of narrow-minded, selfish material acquisitiveness in American youth. Unfortunately, America is a nation that has traditionally recognised and strongly encouraged individualism as its overwhelmingly ascendant philosophical ethic, as contrasted to one based more broadly on the benefits of altruistic collectivity (i.e. the common good), so the effect has been amplified beyond all understanding. The present result is that today’s youths are even more socially myopic than their predecessor generations.
The effects of this aggressively exploitative marketing effort have taken direct form in corporate efforts to encourage the natural egotism and concentric outlook that is indigenous to immaturity as an enabling fulcrum. Nowhere has this effect been more strongly encouraged than by obsessive media doting on superficial ‘celebrity’ or ‘personality’ culture and in that sense, institutions that are most often viewed by the average American as benign (the best example would, of course, be Hollywood’s entertainment industry) have actually contributed disproportionately to the collective self-obsessiveness and self-centered narcissism that typifies today’s American youth. In this process, those traditionally most appealing assets of youth (hyper-dynamicised fitness and healthy sexuality) have been ‘mined’ by corporate America unmercilessly, purely for the purpose of driving corporate profit margins as high as they are sustainably possible in our economy. If wouldn’t be that great a stretch of the imagination to think of this corporate predating upon youth in terms of a war carried out by a powerful nation against a markedly weak and inferior adversary that is totally unable to resist effectively.
In direct opposition to the wisdom of earlier, more enlightened civilisations on our planet that lauded and rewarded the cultivation of humane, altruistic outlooks on human social and economic interactions (holding them up as hallmarks of enlightenment) above all else, our crass American capitalistic ethic of unconstrained profiteering has completely thrown over any sense of conscionable restraint and concern over the broader (but perhaps subtle) effects of rampant economic exploitation of human weakness. Especially economic exploitation of immature human beings (juveniles not yet fully matured or adults who have never matured intellectually…the so-called ‘arrested adolescence’ syndrome that characterises so many individuals in our country) whose choices and tastes, by virtue of still being in a vulnerable formative phase, are easily manipulated.
While it is obvious (or should be, at least) that those who wield corporate power and influence in the audiovisual ‘entertainment’ media industry (i.e. Hollywood) have no qualms at all about the use of sleaze, prurient material, sexual titillation and ugly gender stereotyping to promote corporate profits, it is less obvious that proliferation of today’s leading edge communications science and technology has contributed just as significantly to the creation of our remarkably shallow contemporary American culture (obsessed as it is with youthful self-absorption, material consumption and instant gratification). Perhaps no better example of this terribly unhealthy influence may be seen than in the effects enabled by a new generation of personal communications and entertainment devices now coming into widespread use, that combine telephonic communication with entertainment capabilities (i.e. the internet, etc.).
Consumer goods of this type (such as the new Apple and Droid hand-held devices, to name just two out of many) of personal infotainment electronics contribute immeasurably to cultivating a vastly pervasive (if almost totally unconscious) sense in immature persons that they are completely and totally isolated within the highly insular and narrow world of their own perceptions. We see this on the streets today commonly, where every other person on the sidewalk shambles along in a distracted, disconnected and situationally unaware haze, all the while staring into a small hand-held device (specifically, ‘texting’ activity). Those that aren’t texting or staring intently at a small screen in their hands hold cell-phones up to their ears, holding animated conversations with unseen parties; or perhaps, thanks to wireless ‘Bluetooth’ devices, seem to be having conversations with themselves. Not too long ago, such individuals would have been immediately regarded as unpredictably, possibly dangerous schizophrenics and viewed by passers-by with mild apprehension. Now, it’s usually just another example of some completely self-absorbed individual talking to friends or colleagues in another locale on a personal communications device.
As I have observed repeatedly in the past, this effort by commercial business interests to turn the masses of our population into highly conditioned, uncritically reflexive consumers of material products is rarely criticized and almost never commented upon in ‘normal’ social intercourse among ordinary individuals. This is partly due to the fact that we Americans have been so massively conditioned to consider our American way of life as completely perfect in and of itself, from our earliest years onwards. The thought that there might be something terribly, tragically wrong with the whole basis of our culture is therefore virtually unthinkable. While America as a nation is inarguably a courageous and enlightened experiment in striving to create creating an equitable social, political and economic society that encourages each individual to reach his or her highest level of personal potential, the fact is that circumstances have now changed so radically (thanks largely to incipient perversion of our economy’s business ethics) that we have become virtual slaves to an empty promise we have been told is the source of enormous ultimate fulfillment. That ‘empty promise’ is that happiness and fulfillment are the product of endless consumption of material products and the conditioning that has enabled this foregone conclusion to exist at the core of all American endeavor begins from the moment of birth. For any literate and well-read person, Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ should immediately flash into mind.
Firmly captured in the sticky matrix of this perverse mythical fulfillment process are those least able to think for themselves, to think ‘outside’ the box of convention (excluding those who are simply cursed by simple genetics to lack adequate intelligence to do so) and apply sufficiently mature judgment in the daily conduct of their affairs. In other words, youth (who are immature adults-to-be) and those who voluntarily choose to remain in a perpetually arrested state of immature adolescence. These groups constitute the core targets of enormously expensive, highly organized and incredibly sophisticated effort by corporate commerce for economic exploitation and the present explosion of the ‘social network’ phenomenon, aided and enhanced through use of personal portable electronics, has become their chief means of social conditioning to attain this end.
‘Social networking’ effectively encourages personal expression while simultaneously discouraging the very foundation of democratic exchange: discussion and open debate. Due to the ‘protection’ and ‘anonymity’ that electronic communication devices confer, the potential for highly imbalanced communications encourages an unhealthy emphasis on unchecked personal opinion. The process that results is simply another expression of the highly insular ego-centric nature individuals are encouraged to develop that works so well for marketing forces in our society intent on exploiting it.
We end up, thanks largely to advertising and marketing media influences, with a nation of egotistical, narcissistic and highly self-centered people who lack both real understanding of anything outside their immediate spheres of concentric concern and scant recognition of the fact that other values (ideas, outlooks, and impressions, et al) are just as important as their own. Naturally, the faster the pace of activities, experiences and concerns the ‘target’ population is subjected to, the less time its members have to apply whatever intelligent reasoning ability they have to the living of their lives and the more susceptible they are to skillfully persuasive media cues (i.e. corporate sales & marketing efforts).
The cumulative effect may be seen all about us as we walk any street in America today, where a profound lack of understanding by others obtains that collective concerns should properly outweigh individual ones. As demographics force us closer together and as an abnegation of personal responsibility (not just for personal actions but for any social interactions with others) accelerates, the impact gathers momentum. As a directly attributable consequence, unhealthy personal habits (such as dependent behaviors, abuse of substances, gross economic indebtedness and lack of concern for health) manifest themselves and become further ‘targets’ for commercial exploitation.
It should be stated here that in any homogenous community, wherein the predominant demographic is uniformly of one ethnic or racial make-up, the chances are favorable that most of the individuals in that communal group share commonalities that may include faith (religious orientation), moral standards, ethics, behavioral norms, etc. This is best seen in nations that have one predominant ethnic group. By contrast, we in the United States have embraced the concept of diversity (in every sense of the term) and have traditionally welcomed all immigrants, regardless of faith, belief or ethnic origins. The ‘feel-good’, politically correct philosophical result is that, according to the stereotypic cliché that prevails, “Diversity is our strength”.
Experience has shown otherwise, however, as in recent decades immigrants have demonstrated increasing reluctance to become acculturated in mainstream (white Christian) American society, preferring instead to maintain highly fragmented and individualized sub-cultural enclaves within the broader population in which their own traditional cultural values may be perpetuated and/or sustained to a degree perhaps found only in their nation of origin. To a lesser but no less discernible degree, other sub-cultural groups that have long been a part of the American demographic mix (the best example would be American blacks) often persist in refusing to acculturate smoothly and in fact frequently flaunt this fact through practices, habits, and expressions of preference and sentiment that run in direct contradiction to any hope for establishing a more harmoneous cultural homogeneity.
In addition to further fragmenting American mainstream culture, these ‘diverse’ groups also become specifically targeted foci of specialty marketing campaigns and corporate media advertising that exploit them deliberately, thus increasing the alluded-to lack of broad social cohesiveness that a more collectivist sentiment would foster and support. It isn’t hard to grasp the idea that anything that ‘thinging’ another person or group into a semblance of being some lesser than any other (makes less important or inherently worthy) works against the broadened social and cultural awareness that is sadly in danger of disappearing altogether in modern America. And yet this is part of the process that hard-core commercial and corporate media advertising campaigns help create (perhaps unintentionally) in their efforts to make everyone feel somehow more important than anyone else (the philosophy of being at the center of your personal universe and free from any sense of greater responsible obligation to the larger group or culture one exists within).
Ok. Lots of preliminary context to digest here, but the question I propose to you is this: how does this unhappy paradigm manifest itself practically in our ordinary, everyday lives?
As a person who has always run counter to conventions of accepted social dogma and cultural conformity myself, I am sensitive to it most often when I run (for exercise) or bicycle (I commute to work via bicycle). I encounter passersby on the sidewalks who refuse to observe the most basic courtesies to other peds (such as staying on the right side of the walkway, or perhaps refusing to yield a small bit of space so that someone going in the opposite direction may pass). I see it on my bicycle in the overtly belligerent and often highly aggressive behavior of automobile drivers who make clear though their driving that they resent the presence of bicycle traffic on roadways (despite the effort to make motorists aware of the need to ‘share the road’, given that bicyclists are required by law to ride on roadways with cars and not on sidewalks with pedestrians).
These anti-social actions and oblivious behavioral disregard for others are sometimes unconscious or occasionally the result of basic ignorance (or lack of simple comprehension), but they are (in my opinion) far more often deliberate, purposeful and intentional expressions of small-minded disregard for the rights and entitlements of others. In other words, these individuals actively choose to express themselves in public through the applied dynamics of confrontational provocateurs.
This mindset (one might speak of it more basically as being ‘me first and to hell with you’ sentiment) that emerges from this posture of severely egocentric outlook is, unhappily, somewhat the result of the original frontier philosophy that characterised America up until the time that the continent was completely settled, from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean boundaries. With plenty of wide-open, insular spaces to withdraw into, it wasn’t really that necessary to develop a more genteel and collectivist sense of responsibility in public associations. Until, that is, the present moment, when the sheer force of increased population density is now making some sort of collectivistic accommodation mandatory.
Unfortunately, far too many people who come from insular self-centric backgrounds are unable to make that shift. It would be easy to characterise them as ignorant hicks, ‘trailer-trash’, poor whites who feel vulnerable and threatened by the new waves of non-Caucasian, non-Christian immigrants and dismiss them as such, but I suspect that behavioral ‘ignorance’ is quite often an actively acquired, rather than inherited characteristic. Counted in this last category are both urban blacks who feel excluded by the economic system (and therefore justify criminal behavior within it) AND dispossessed or displaced white supremacists who fear becoming a minority themselves. A third type of self-centric disdain may be found in the behavior of the ultra-wealthy, the uppermost 10% of American society whose ‘white collar’ crime demonstrates a sneering class arrogance that (to them) justifies economic predations and illegalities that exceed the limits of the law ion their business dealings (financial investor Bernie Madoff is an excellent example of this ‘supra-class’ ethic). Underlying all of these groups is a seeming belief (either conscious or unconscious) that they are somehow entitled to depopulate their personal universe of everyone but themselves.
One could go on and on along these lines, drawing in other examples of anti-social behavior being actually championed by some individuals and groups as ‘cool’ (notably among youth and ethnic gangs). One could also cite extreme examples of such behavior as that found in the 1982 New York City criminal case involving four young black teenagers and Bernard Goetz (a well-educated, highly intelligent white man who had simply had enough of being ‘victimised’), but the point is clear enough: an unacceptable degree of universal disdain for the rights of others increasingly figures in the actions and behavior of others all about us today and therein lies the rub. I often find myself highly indignant over evidence of social breakdowns such as these referenced above.
One of my self-admitted character faults is that I expect my fellow homo sapiens to think and act responsibly most of the time. It’s been a problem for me all my life and the cause of much angst, upset and even depression, since as an inward directed and intensely reflective individual, rather than act out my occasional angry moments spontaneously, I tend to subsume my frustrations within a need to allow for fault and individual failure in others. Call it the ‘brother’s keeper’ syndrome, if you must, or even 'the intellectual's burden', but the cumulative, long term effect of being continually responsible for everyone else does take a huge chunk out of one’s reserves of internal calmness and personal tranquility.
Of course I know better than to internalise conflicts like this and I am also intellectually aware of the need to let such feelings go, shrug them off, and/or otherwise not ‘wear’ them like a hair shirt. However, as a person who was ‘properly’ (I say that not without a tinge of irony) raised from earliest life to be aware of and accept the need for personal responsibility (i.e. actions/consequences, etc.), irresponsibility in others has always been an extremely irritating and annoying manifestation of personal behavior. In my efforts to shake off irritations of this sort, I’ve studied (unsuccessfully, for the most part) various philosophies and disciplines extensively throughout my life, including but not limited to several of the transcendent Eastern (East Asian) value systems such as Zen (Ch’an) Buddhism. The intellectual part of me understands all too well that in the most absolute sense ‘everything is meaningless’ and that given our universal ‘emptiness’, it is unhealthy to cling to relative expectations of moral and ethical behavior. However, the validity of that higher understanding notwithstanding, the unavoidable proximity of our daily interactions with each other often acts to render that requirement difficult, if not impossible, to meet on a practical basis.
Given my ‘insider’ understanding of the intensely fallible nature of Western medicine’s psychological and psychotherapeutic treatment applications (as a member of the medical community), I’ve avoided seeing a shrink to discuss these issues like the plague itself. Solutions for the most part are elusive and everything one says to one’s personal snake-oil salesman (doctor) or witch-doctor (psychiatrist/psychologist) is entered into one’s medical records with a perspicacity that would make Tantalus seem like an indecisive and irresolute weak sister. The typical patient seeing a shrink through the auspices of your typical HMO about afflictions such as depression, worry, anxiety will likely gain little more from the experience than a handful of the latest mood control drugs and a follow-up visit to be seen in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, if the poor chap finally snaps, goes ballistic and decompensates explosively (as so many seem to be doing these days), all that documentation will simply provide lots of incentive for investigators to cluck their tongues, glance smugly at each other and say “Yep, the poor bastard really WAS crazy, alright!” A lot of good that does for either the berserker (whom is by now either dead or in police custody) or his victims (who are usually VERY dead or at the very least severely injured), naturally, but it certainly makes an interesting narrative for the professional head-shrinkers to peruse and comment upon in their professional journals, well after the fact.
The salient point here is that since existing available medical and/or psych treatment for afflicted individuals is grossly inadequate (given the massive numbers of people with significant problems seeking effective treatment), when one includes all the millions of substance abusers whose needs dwarf the number of treatment sources available, it doesn’t take the IQ of a goat to see that just about anyone with any sort of problem is pretty well f**ked. Unless, of course, one has LOTS of money and an absolutely peerless health insurance policy, in which case the options for treatment are simply more extensive and not as constrained as those the person of average means must settle for. In the case of psychiatric diagnosis and threatment, as in general healthcare, it's all a matter of basic economics.
I suppose what I am trying to say here is that the most obvious truth about human experience is that we are all doomed to experience unhappiness, tragedy and misery from birth to death and we really have no choice but to recognise and accept that fact. Given that rather depressing reality, our attempts to establish value systems (e.g. systems of etiquette, religion, philosophy and behavioral guidance, etc., whereby and wherein we may all get along without constantly being at each other’s throat) are only Band-Aids and not fully or completely effective. Shit, in other words, still happens despite our best intentions and our fondest hopes. No matter how hard one may try to be responsible and act with appropriate constraint in all things with others, human nature runs contrary to the process and grief most assuredly shall come along, sooner or later (usually sooner).
All that is merely tossed out as context for understanding here, since as remarked earlier, I’ve assiduously avoided spending any time on a couch with a shrink for the previously cited reasons. This past year I broke my own prime directive in a fit of more persistant depression and made an appointment with my HMO’s shrink to discuss my frustrations (over the irresponsibility of others); not because I either anticipated or expected to go on some chemical control regime (i.e. mood elevators or anti-depressants, et al), but because I was experiencing moments of doubt about the sagacity of some of my fondest pet assumptions and needed feedback. I simply thought I’d sound out my attitudes and opinions on the learned doctor and see what sort of insight running my reflections past a learned member of the medical community might produce.
The result was both as unsatisfying and irritating as I had imagined it would be. The good doctor, after listening to me complain about rampant abnegation of self-responsibility in others, essentially reminded me that “Yes, shit happens” and offered the opinion that I might have a healthy component of narcissism in my own make-up. His insinuation was that I was frustrated because others failed to live up to my expectations, resulting in a sort of internalised repressive childish sulk over the fact that the universe didn’t fully conform to my expectations. Phrased another way and a bit more bluntly, one might interpret his remarks as saying: “Your view of ideal life is both defective and unrealistic. Get used to it or go on PROZAC! Our hour is now up; that’ll be US$ 300, thank you.” Um. Gee…thanks, Doc. I feel better already!
In all seriousness, I can accept the fact that reality doesn’t conform to my personal expectations, no matter how benevolent they may be, but what I have particular trouble with is shrugging off his opinion that widespread irresponsibility is the factual operative norm in human affairs, with no effective alternative recourse open. Conversely and viewed within that context, the act of being responsible stands nakedly exposed be an aberrant social dynamic!
Lest anyone entertain the idea that what we call ‘civilisation’ is anything more than a painfully thin sugar-coated shell separating the blueprint of our nobler aspirations from the rough cudgel cut of our baser potentials, let me at this point assure you that there are plenty of ‘civilised’ people in the world who daily commit more pure, savage mayhem than a busload of meth-riddled Slobodan Miloševićs. The difference between them and us is ONLY that they long since stopped listening to their inhibitions and begun wearing their animal hides with the hairy side inwards. The itch, once begun, can drive you truly crazy.
At any rate, I thanked my doctor, paid my bill (helping him defray his massive educational debt), and bemusedly wandered out of the HMO psych clinic, my curiosity satiated (if not calmed) with the knowledge that not only is Narcissus alive and well in civilized America, fully three-quarters of the entire population fit that categorisation (both the responsible and irresponsible types)! I can’t help but reflect how sad it is that, due to the increasing rationing of health care in our wonderful nation, my HMO will no longer pay for an elective frontal lobotomy so that I can once and for all stop fretting about irresponsibility in my fellow Americans. Meanwhile, our nation continues to text its way down the slippery slope of ‘American style democratic capitalism’ into the waiting abyss of cultural ennui, where all human civilisations eventually end up.
Ken Kesey, where are you when we need you!?