am of the generation that read The Communist Manifesto before we read the Constitution. Well, not exactly. I did read the U.S. Constitution and The Federalist Papers, mostly in student-outline versions, so I could get a decent grade in high-school American history and get into a good college. But I really read The Communist Manifesto. It was my samizdat, my underground literature. I can still recall the experience now, well over 50 years later—the intense, almost breathless feeling as I pored over the dog-eared, slim, cheap blue paperback with the prematurely yellowing pages until the small hours of morning. In my bedroom in ultra-bourgeois Scarsdale, New York, I underlined phrases with my ballpoint, lapping up Marx and Engels’s conception of history as class struggle. Not that I even then considered myself a Communist or anything close, but there was something about it, the sense of rebellion maybe, the need to separate myself from the common, not to mention from my forebears, that drove me to pay attention. It drove me to keep reading and to commit the short book’s ideological theories to memory, later to spout those ideas to my friends and family as if I believed in them even when I didn’t.
I was not alone. In the 1950s, a small but ever-growing group of bright young men and women was acting similarly, evolving inexorably into a generation that would in turn shape generations to come, even to the present day. We did so more effectively, or at least more permanently, than our parents, the Greatest Generation of World War II. They should have been the ones to form the future but, as it happened, we were the ones. We overcame them to become the commissars of the American zeitgeist, the arbiters of all things cultural and consequently political. No one else has gotten in much of a word edgewise.
I am not talking here about what is commonly referred to as the boomer generation, born just after the war in an optimistic blast of baby making. We were pre-boomers. I, only a foot soldier in this cohort army, was born in November 1943, but look at the icons: John Lennon, born in 1940; Tom Hayden, in 1939; Abbie Hoffman, in 1936; Gloria Steinem, in 1934; Allen Ginsberg, 1926; and Timothy Leary—apostle of “turn on, tune in, drop out” and virtual patron saint of hippie culture—born in, wait for it, 1920. The game was already well established, the rules already made, before the boomers arrived on the scene. They were just our younger brothers and sisters, trying to play catch-up. They lived in imitation of us, expanding on what we did, playing variations on a theme and commercializing “the Revolution” until it was virtually bred in the bone, the very essence of American and consequently modern European culture. All others were outliers.
So who were we if not the boomers? How would you name us? You could call us the Generation of 1968, because that was when we made our most enduring mark, when the “whole world was watching” as the chant went from the Chicago Democratic National Convention of that year. It seemingly never stopped. But a better title for us would be the Least Great Generation, because that’s what we were. Maybe the Ungrateful Generation. We may have contributed significant amounts to the lifestyle—music, films, fashion, food—but as the years rolled on and centuries turned, it became ever clearer that we were callow, even selfish, inside. All our neo-Marxist declarations, recycled through hippiedom or not, were meaningless. We were just Eliot’s “Hollow Men” in hipster attire. Worse than that, we had—consciously or unconsciously or both—worked to unwind everything our parents had built. And it had its result, although not all of us desired it—or were later surprised by what we had wrought. These days the robust American exceptionalism that defeated the Germans and the Japanese and then rebuilt those despotic societies as still-functioning democracies in a virtually unprecedented manner is a distant, almost forgotten, memory.
What was the overweening psychology of this Least Great Generation that impelled it to attempt to dismantle a great country? The word “narcissism” gets bandied about a lot. We all have our definitions of it—something between a handsome Greek youth transfixed by his image in a reflecting pool and something more clinical and scientific. Psychoanalytic texts speak of grandiosity, an extreme self-centeredness to such an extent that there is a failure to distinguish between the self and the external world. Another simpler but reductive explanation might come from the old joke about actors, “Enough about me. What do you think about me?”
We were all actors.
It has disconnected us, or a great many of us, from reality, and is in the process of undermining what tiny bit of democracy we have left.
The election of Barack Obama was the apotheosis of this melding of lifestyle with political worldview. That he celebrated his victory in front of Grecian columns was symbolic in more ways than one. Narcissus was in the house—both on stage and in the audience. The “me” generation had found its perfect leader. Hope and change were never specified, because we all knew what he meant. How could it be otherwise? He was speaking, as was said in an earlier era, to “our crowd.” But our crowd had become everyone who saw himself as politically correct, even if we weren’t sure what that meant or implied. It sounded good. Whatever it was had to be true. Obama was cool and his adversaries were not. He was our image in the reflecting pool, preening in front of those Greek columns, nose slightly elevated.1
When something obtains that much popular acceptance, one is tempted to think it is nonsense, mere cant, or at least overstated. Not true. Christopher Lasch didn’t know the half of it. Narcissism has taken over our society to such an extent that we cannot see straight. It has disconnected us, or a great many of us, from reality, and is in the process of undermining what tiny bit of democracy we have left. Every even mildly unconventional thought has a “trigger warning” lest someone be offended. Narcissism is making us blind. It is the secret sauce destroying America from within. It is also the handmaiden of perpetual distraction, the misdirection that prevents us ever from solving anything.
But ignore for the moment Narcissus admiring his visage in the pool, or even endless Kardashians parading across television screens as “real” housewives metastasizing from city to city. That is not the form of narcissism that need concern us unduly. Whatever we think of the aesthetics, it is at best a minor contributing factor and essentially trivial. Another far more lethal form of narcissism dominates and leads the parade of self-regard that is destroying our culture, even gnawing away at the fabric of Western Civilization itself, which is on the verge of disintegration, excessive as that may sound.
That form is moral narcissism—a pathology that underlies the whole liberal left ethic today and some of the right as well. What exactly is this form of narcissism that is destroying—if it hasn’t already destroyed—our families, friendships, workplace atmosphere, and democratic republic?
he short form is this: What you believe, or claim to believe or say you believe—not what you do or how you act or what the results of your actions may be—defines you as a person and makes you “good.” It is how your life will be judged by others and by yourself. In 19th-century France, the gastronome Jean Brillat-Savarin told us that “you are what you eat.” In 21st-century America, almost all of us seem to have concluded that “you are what you say you are. You are what you proclaim your values to be, irrespective of their consequences.” That is moral narcissism.
It is a narcissism that emanates from a supposed personal virtue augmented by a supposed intellectual clarity. It is what allows Hillary Clinton to go from undergraduate scold to Chappaqua plutocrat with a net worth in the tens of millions without missing a beat, or John Kerry to go from Vietnam War protester likening his fellow soldiers to Genghis Khan to a billionaire with a yacht constructed in New Zealand that he houses in Rhode Island to avoid the taxes of his native Massachusetts.
No matter what you do, if you have the right opinions, if you say the right things to the right people, you’re exempt from punishment. People will remember your pronouncements, not your actions.
And those ideas and attitudes are “reflected” in the following narcissistic manner: If your intentions are good, if they conform to the general received values of your friends, family, and co-workers, what a person of your class and social milieu is supposed to think, everything is fine. You are that “good” person. You are ratified. You can do anything you wish. It doesn’t matter in the slightest what the results of those ideas and beliefs are, or how society, the country, and in some cases, the world suffers from them. It doesn’t matter that they misfire completely, cause terror attacks, illness, death, riots in the inner city, or national bankruptcy. You will be applauded and approved of. Like the 1960s song by The Animals, it’s all okay “if your intentions are good.” No one will even notice what happened. You’ll be fine. In fact, better than that, your status will continue to rise as you continue to parrot the received wisdom.
Deeper down, beneath this conformity, it’s all about how you feel about yourself. Self-regard is all. In the world of moral narcissism, we are all the ladies of Code Pink, craving attention, fairly yearning to be dragged out of a congressional hearing, preening for television cameras, as we mouth the most clichéd of progressive slogans, oblivious to their impact in the real world or even, remotely, to their veracity.
Not only are we good. We are the best, and therefore we can do anything we wish. We have permission. Moral narcissism is the ultimate “Get out of jail free” card in a real-life Monopoly game. No matter what you do, if you have the right opinions, if you say the right things to the right people, you’re exempt from punishment. People will remember your pronouncements, not your actions.
Hollywood stars, media personalities, and many politicians are prototypes of this behavior, but we are all prey to it. Look behind almost every issue of our day—climate, environment, energy, gun control, defense, foreign affairs, terrorism, education, income inequality, immigration, race (especially), women’s rights, gay rights, political correctness (the mother lode of moral narcissism), microaggressions and trigger warnings (moral narcissism as modern-day opera bouffe), media bias, cultural and entertainment bias, not to mention the very size and scope of government itself—and you will find the profound influence of moral narcissism, almost always for the worse. It is the prime hidden motor for our society, pointing to our republic’s demise because it makes people blind to reality and democracy moot.
Many of the abovementioned issues are tilted to the left by moral narcissism, but several push right as well. As much of a pose as progressivism may be, conservatives and libertarians are not excused. They too are part of this inescapable zeitgeist. Remember the slogan “Democracy! Whisky! Sexy!”—words spoken by an Iraqi after the fall of the Baathist regime in Iraq when asked what America meant to him—that dominated the right side of the Internet at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in a grand display of self-congratulatory triumphalism and misplaced hipness? Even the New York Times was quoting it. Everyone would be like us—living freedom, jazz, and kicks. In a world where only the “whisky” part of the triumvirate survives—and that more than likely on private Saudi jets headed from Riyadh to Paris—and the Islamic State runs rampant over the very territory we thought we democratized, how antique that slogan seems now. How sadly misguided.
Other examples of right-wing moral narcissism exist, particularly in areas where social conservatism bleeds over into a holier-than-thou attitude toward one’s fellow citizens, telling them how to live even when they are, in many instances, already quietly and privately living that way. Here certain beliefs work at cross-purposes, as in the opposition to gay marriage when the impulse that gays have to formalize their union is often highly bourgeois and essentially conservative. Similarly, social conservatives, putatively strong adherents of small government, veer equally strongly to the side of government intervention where abortion is concerned, wanting it forbidden by the state. Again, this frequently works at cross-purposes, since the women whose abortions they wish to forbid are often already opposed to abortion themselves. They just want to make their own choice. The legal intervention of government into their personal zone of privacy naturally repels them and has, if anything, the opposite effect from what is desired by those same social conservatives.
Further, libertarianism, particularly in its more extreme forms, can be fertile ground for moral narcissism. That government is best that governs least morphs into that government is best that governs barely or not at all. This becomes a posture dizzyingly close to anarchism. Yet few really want no government at all—especially given its results—but a fair number like to say they do or pretend as much to themselves or others. Thus the libertarian can find himself inadvertently in the camp of an Occupy Wall Street protester, dancing around in that Guy Fawkes mask and burning down what he might otherwise respect and support, an odd contradiction indeed. The advice about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good is a cliché for a reason. Like those on the left, often people on the right seek a form of purity impossible in human affairs. For those people, moral narcissism is their friend.
It could be argued that in a free country it should be your privilege to follow your narcissism, to support any foolish, unexamined, self-aggrandizing belief you want, if that is your wish, at the ballot box and elsewhere. In many instances, it will coincide with your self-interest, at least in the short run. But within that narcissism is the root of the destruction of that very society that is giving you that freedom, because the narcissistic allure is not far from the allure of fascism—a refracted hero worship. If our politics is dictated by what makes us feel good about ourselves, our mirror will soon, perhaps inevitably, morph into mass movements in which mock Gestapo salutes or pseudo-anarchist Guy Fawkes face masks, not to mention faded T-shirts emblazoned with mass murderers like Che and Mao, become the real thing.
1 Not surprisingly, with the failure of his presidency, it became de rigueur for the right to accuse Barack Obama of being narcissistic, or of having a narcissistic personality disorder. It is one of the key explanations for that failure, even though no sector of our society is immune. We are all narcissists. It’s just a matter of degree. Narcissism is everywhere.