Self-Love for Sale

You know you can do it. So just do it!

| May-June 2011

I’m sitting in a coffee shop on Wednesday afternoon in a midsize, noncoastal American city. A fiftysomething is screaming into his cell phone; the woman sitting next to me is frantically blogging about her favorite new movie, Julie & Julia, a flick about the success of a narcissist and her blog; a pair of tweens just cut the checkout line; and I just got a spam e-mail for penis enlargement.

A lot of this is harmless, of course. There’s no great damage done when your buddy spams you with pictures of himself getting lap-danced at a Vegas strip joint. The future of the republic is not imperiled by a rise in the number of assholes who drive over the median to cut in front of traffic at the freeway’s clogged exit. And sure, the planet will survive in spite of the rise in cosmetic surgeries.

There is, however, potential for damage when the achievement of fame and wealth becomes the central organizing objective of society. The future of the republic is threatened by a sharp increase in the number of people who care only about themselves, and the earth’s ecosystem may not survive the scourge of the smog-belching and gas-guzzling “me” culture that first spread in the late 1970s and 1980s. This modern blast of narcissism all but defines America now, an ugly symptom of a deeper infection that predates the rise of the Internet.

The deification of the individual and further suggestion that self-help can turn us into divinities ultimately gave rise to the virus in the machine. That’s what modern narcissism really is—a pernicious mix of qualities defined by three phrases that start with self: selfishness, self-absorption, and self-importance.



 

Sure, since the country’s founding, the rich have been buying elections and a permanent aristocracy has been exerting undue influence on the government. But up until the mid-1980s, many Americans clung to the civics-class insistence that middle-class folks playing Monopoly over beer and pizza were as important as that Mr. Peanut–looking guy in the top hat. As both ’80s class divisions and pop culture implicitly reinforced ninth-century notions of stratification between the Venerables and the Vassals, another strain of equally powerful propaganda offered a sliver of hope. There, in the midst of exploding economic injustice, Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party was still paying homage to American Dreams sculpted from rags-to-riches hagiography.

Rick Geissal
5/20/2011 12:47:56 PM

As a former (disgusted, sick of it) lawyer, I saw first-hand a number of social trends bubbling up in the late '70s and throughout the '80s. I'm glad you wrote this - I thought I was the only one who abhorred reality TV and Idol/SYTYCD. They sicken and repulse me. I think we are on a permanent degrade/decline. Narcissism is everywhere ... and rewarded.