Jan/Feb 2008  •   Salon

Narcissism Nation: My Country 'Tis of Me

by Tom Dooley

Photo by Steve Wing and David Houston

Photo by Steve Wing and David Houston

It's the combination of narcissism and nihilism that really defines postmodernism.

Try substituting "present day America" for "postmodernism" in this quote from Al Gore, and then try denying it's true. I'm not sure if anyone understands exactly what the term postmodernism means—certainly I don't—but I can look at my surroundings and know narcissism and nihilism when I see them. We Americans know how to put the "I" in iPod. There's a reason why our favorite show is American Idol, why Burger King knows they'd better let let us have it our way. L'Oreal told us we're worth it, and we'll tell you all about it on our blog.

When I stumbled upon Gore's quote, it resonated with a series of thoughts I've been trying to express in one way or another for all of my adult life, but particularly in the last few months. That said, I doubt I'm ready to provide the last word on the topic just yet, so the following is meant more in the spirit of testing the waters. May they be as clear and reflective as the pool that entrapped a certain young demigod of ancient Greece.

Searching on the quote itself to see who else might have used it, I came across the following:

We are a generation for whom even revolution seems trite, and therefore as fair a target for bland imitation as anything else. We are the generation of the Che Guevara T-shirt.

This is Nicholas Handler, talking more about literature than sociology in his essay, "The Posteverything," but like most lit-crit scholars, he's happy to blur the lines between the two. After all, what is literature but the reflection of the people who speak it, and more so, the people to whom it speaks? So Handler goes on to say, "It (postmodernism) is an imitation of an imitation, something that has been re-envisioned so many times that the original model is no longer relevant or recognizable... we live our lives in masks and speak our minds in a dead language..."

It sure sounds like postmodernism is actually a symptom, or is symptomatic, of narcissism.

Of Gore's two naughty "n" words, it's narcissism I believe deserves the most credit for defining the United States today as a culture, a society, and a country. Narcissism, after all, is a disorder, while nihilism is a choice. Narcissism is a cause, while nihilism is an effect.

Wikipedia defines narcissism as "love of oneself" and goes on to say, "Everyone has some narcissistic traits," but they, "can also manifest in an extreme pathological form," which "severely damages the person's ability to live a productive or happy life." Why? "...because the traits manifest as severe selfishness and disregard for the needs and feelings of others." Indeed.

Kathy Krajco has a fascinating website about narcissism, where she paints a more vivid picture of the disorder than the one offered above. She makes the point that narcissists, particularly the ones she labels as "malignant," are rampant—"in politics, the arts, medicine, Hollywood, teaching, business, law enforcement, the clergy, and the assembly line." She provides a long list of evil doers—dictators, street con artists, pedophile priests, bullies, adulterers, gold-diggers, rapists, serial killers, child abusers, even presidential assassins—for whom narcissism is the cause of their actions. "In fact," she says, "all psychopaths are malignant narcissists, but whether all malignant narcissists are psychopaths is still being debated."

Krajco observes, "Narcissists and psychopaths often try to hide this brutal inhumanity and total lack of empathy by mimicking human emotions, often melodramatically," and she goes on to say, "Unless they are so powerful they needn't hide what they are, they go to great lengths to portray themselves as the very opposite of what they are." And she makes the somewhat shocking assertion, "One-to-three in every 20 people you meet are malignant narcissists." I'm not sure how reliable this statistic is, but heck, it does sound about right.

It especially sounds right when you start looking at the people around you through a lens calibrated to pick up on the level of narcissism they project. I have two examples from recent episodes of the Sunday evening news program, 60 Minutes.

The first was a segment on Terren Peizer, a former bond salesman who was part of the Michael Milken junk bond scandal of the 1980s. Peizer is now hawking a drug therapy called Prometa that, for the modest cost of about $15,000 per patient, is purported to instantly cure people of their addiction to, among other things, methamphetamines. The following scene struck me as odd at the time:

Terren Peizer had barely sat down for our interview, when he seemed to be overcome at the first mention of patients. "You get away from the clinical and you get down to the personal. And it—there's nothing like it. So, yeah, it's a lot of people say, well, you know, 'Why do you, why are you doing this?' Like—and say how can I not do it?" he says.

All this, while Peizer was choked up and crying.

A few weeks later, again on 60 Minutes, during a segment on Joel Osteen, the latest televangelist to catch the public imagination—a guy who dropped out of college, has no religious training, inherited a multi-million dollar "ministry" from his father, and whose best-selling book (for which he received a $12 million advance), Become a Better You, offers seven self-help tidbits like, "Be positive toward yourself," and provides illustrative vignettes like the time Osteen, frustrated by a 45-minute wait at his favorite restaurant, went to a burger stand—where because of a chance encounter with another customer, he was able to change the person's life.

Leaving aside the obvious narcissistic bent of Osteen's book title, I found this exchange interesting:

"You know, you get people that wanna criticize, 'You're not doing enough of this, enough of that.' Well, we're not perfect. But to have you know hundreds of people tellin' ya, 'You changed my life. I haven't been in church in 30 years.' Or 'You saved my marriage.' Not me, but God, but they're telling me, but you know what? You can't help but leave every Sunday afternoon..." Osteen says, getting emotional.

"Help me understand what's happening right now, Joel?" Pitts asks.

"You know, what it is, you just feel very—I told you I was a cry baby, but you just feel very rewarded. You feel very humbled, you know?" Osteen says.

"Humbled by your success?" Pitts asks.

"Humbled that you could help impact somebody's life. I think—I don't even—I don't even know these people. And you know, and God's used me to help turn their life around or give them hope, you know? It's very rewarding," Osteen says.

Here again was a man, out of the blue, crying and choked up, about... what, exactly?

What I think it is? These guys are so in love with themselves, when they vocalize something sounding like proof of what good people they are, they're actually overcome with the emotion of self-love.

Is it any wonder one of them is selling drugs to drug-users, and the other is selling self-help advice to church-goers? The two things are more closely related than you might expect. Other than Prometa, and the jury is still out on that, the only thing to put much of a dent in the disease of addiction is the 12-step program, a key component of which is the belief in a "higher power." Why a "higher" power?  Because human beings, the Bible tells us, are flawed. We can't count on ourselves alone to do the right thing. And perhaps because when we put our faith into God, or whatever our conception of God is, it takes the focus, if only for a second or two, off ourselves. Which is good, because addicts may be the victims of a disease, but at least in my limited experience, they're also about as narcissistic as they come. With the caveat that with extreme self-love comes extreme self-hate. 

The self-hate part brings us to nihilism.

If narcissism is the love of oneself to the exclusion of all else, nihilism is the denial of, hatred of, destruction of everything, including oneself. On the most simplistic level, these two things could be thought of as the love/hate sides of existential dysfunctionality.

Depending upon your point of view, pop culture can be seen as either a contributor to our national narcissistic neurosis, or, to adapt a pornographer's defense, a healthy outlet for it. Every time we go to the grocery store, we see tabloid magazines with story after story about our "favorite" celebrities allegedly breaking the law, cheating on each other, getting fat... Why is this kind of largely fabricated muckraking a multi-million dollar industry? Perhaps because we, the narcissist at large, need to feel better about ourselves by tearing down the supposed best and most beautiful among us.

Ironically, the very celebrity we bestow upon these famous people to feed our own narcissistic needs, creates in them what is called "Acquired Situational Narcissism," a term coined by Robert B. Millman to describe the narcissism that "develops in late adolescence or adulthood, brought on by wealth, fame and the other trappings of celebrity."

With so many Americans believing they themselves are the stars or potential stars of their own sitcoms and rap videos and reality shows, many of us are doubly cursed with both acquired situational (albeit self-deluded) narcissism and the plain old garden variety that comes from lacking compassion, empathy, self-awareness, and/or a conscience.

The sad part is the majority of us are amateurs when it comes to narcissism, and few of us have the stomach for real nihilism, either. As The Dude says in The Big Lebowski, upon being told a man is a nihilist, "Oh, that must be exhausting." And most of us have just enough of a kernel of conscience, we begin to feel guilty about our narcissistic ways. We begin to wish for some kind of absolution, which makes us easy shills for an alpha narcissist like Osteen. Take a look at this extended quote from a letter he wrote to his followers in 2005. Notice how he brilliantly channels their inherent narcissism into his own coffers:

Sometimes it is hard for us to grasp that God wants us to prosper in every way... God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us... If you will be faithful and do what God is asking you to do, God will do His part... As you read this, God may be speaking to your heart. Trust that He will direct you how and where He wants you to sow your seed. If you are moved to send a seed gift in the enclosed reply envelope...

Ah, that's rich.

I'll give him that.