I am of the generation that read The Communist Manifesto before we read the US Constitution.
Well, not exactly. I did the read the 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 fifty 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. I underlined phrases with my ball point, lapping up Marx and Engels’s conception of history as class struggle in my bedroom in ultrabourgeois Scarsdale, New York. 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. (He was a “war baby” all right—a World War I baby!) The game was already well established, the rules already made, long 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 than the Generation of 1968, what the French call babacool, is 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 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 has happened to that America and how did we get where we are now? Can this better past, imperfect as that too undoubtedly was, ever be recaptured? What was the overweening psychology of this Least Great Generation that impelled it to dismantle a once
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.
Whatever the case, the popularity of narcissism as a descriptive term for the behavior of our society is not a new phenomenon. As far back as 1979, Christopher Lasch published a now famous book The Culture of Narcissism that described the American behavioral patterns as largely narcissistic. According to Lasch, our family structure had produced a personality type consistent with “pathological narcissism.” We were constantly seeking attention from the outside world, making us a nation of insecure weaklings forever in search of validation to tell us we were alive, to give us a raison d’être. Lasch saw the radicals of the sixties, like the Weather Underground, as manifestations of this pathology. He also cited the “personal growth” movements of the seventies—est, Rolfing, Hare Krishna, various forms of Buddhism, organic food, vegetarianism, and so forth. These belief systems and quasi ideologies continued to gain adherents during the eighties and nineties and on into the current century with writers like David Brooks and Charles Murray documenting how what was once youthful rebellion became the norms of the contemporary bourgeoisie. The Generation of ’68 and its followers had gone mainstream, transmogrifying radical symbols into specific forms of conspicuous consumption. Everything was smeared. A trip to Whole Foods in a Tesla became the equivalent of striking a blow against world hunger. A smug and increasingly uniform political correctness dominated the culture, as in Seattle when Columbus Day was replaced by Indigenous Peoples Day.
The election of Barack Obama was the apotheosis of this melding of lifestyle with political world view. 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 themselves as politically correct, even if they 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. 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.
When something obtains that much popular acceptance, one is tempted to think it is nonsense, mere cant, or at least overstated. Not true. It’s worse. Christopher Lasch, as the saying goes, 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.