“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” – Peter Tosh
We’re a culture of babies. Our knowledge has been sprinting upward on an exponential curve, but our wisdom sighs and chuffs up a modest incline, pausing frequently for a deep fried snack and a nap. We don’t mind the planned obsolescence of new gadgetry; it gives us an excuse to upgrade to that snazzy newer version everyone else already has. We know our clothes come from sweatshops and our meat comes from factory farms, and these things are terrible, and someone should really do something about them. But we still want cheap food and clothes. Because we’re used to them. And we like them. And we want more. Because we’ve got a serious infection of narcissism.
Kevin Spacey, playing an abusive boss in the 1994 movie Swimming with Sharks, tells off his assistant with the words- “See, that's the trouble with your fucking MTV-microwave-dinner generation; you all want it now. You think you deserve it just because you want it? It doesn't work like that! You have to earn it.”
Losing contestants on American Idol often sound off bitterly against the injustice of having been eliminated, saying, through tears of rage, that they wanted to win so badly, more than anyone else there, as if that alone merited winning.
Jean Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, in an interview with Joel Pitney in Enlightennext Magazine, said that “when parents and teachers and media sources try to increase self-esteem [of children], they usually end up increasing narcissism. These self-esteem-boosting strategies create more of a narcissistic overconfidence than true self-esteem, because they’re often not based on reality. Take, for example, telling children things like ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ Well, it usually takes a lot more than just wanting something to succeed in life. You need to try hard, and you need to have the talent for that to happen.”
Talent? Dedication?? Work??? Bah!! I want it now! And if we do get what we want, we want to keep it, even when it makes us miserable. The Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Naht Hahn wrote: “Many people want to get rid of their painful feelings, but they do not want to get rid of their beliefs, the viewpoints that are the very roots of their feelings.” We hold our beliefs close to our hearts and don’t examine them for flaws. Why should we? We know we’re right. It comforts us to know we’re right. We aren’t responsible for all the problems in the world. We’re right. Somebody else should fix that all that. None of which is my fault.
In his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Mate describes why we’re so eager to find a genetic basis for addiction, for ADD, for any given deficiency:
“We human beings don’t like feeling responsible: as individuals for our own actions; as parents for our children’s hurts; or as a society for our many failings. Genetics - that neutral, impassive, impersonal handmaiden of Nature - would absolve us of responsibility and of its ominous shadow, guilt. If genetics rules our fate, we would not need to blame ourselves or anyone else. Genetic explanations take us off the hook. The possibility does not occur to us that we can accept or assign responsibility without taking on the useless baggage of guilt or blame.”
A big theme in Mate’s books is how one’s environment (physical, emotional and societal) shapes a person. Substance abusers are addicted because of deep emotional wounds and needs. Our society then villainizes the addict, scolds her for making irresponsible choices, criminalizes her and imprisons her, compounding a lifetime of abuse and alienation, making her problems many degrees worse. And who do I mean by “our society”? All of us. Unless we do something about our drug policies, of course. Mate goes on:
“More daunting for those who hope for scientific and social progress, the genetic argument is easily used to justify all kinds of inequalities and injustices that are otherwise hard to defend. It serves a deeply conservative function: if a phenomenon like addiction is determined mostly by biological heredity, we are spared from having to look at how our social environment supports, or does not support, the parents of young children; at how social attitudes, prejudices and policies burden, stress and exclude certain segments of the population and thereby increase their propensity for addiction.”
Nuh-uh. I didn’t get anyone addicted to anything. It’s their problem. Bad genes. Bad decisions. Bad luck. Tough shit. Nothin’ to do with me.
This tendency to want it all plays out quite readily in our eating habits. Headlines scream about obesity epidemics. Many articles describe the environmental impact of our meat-centred diet. In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan relates an important incident in how we became this way. In 1977 South Dakota Senator George McGovern headed the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. Following the evidence that rates of heart disease fell dramatically when meat and dairy products were rationed in WWII, but rose again when rationing stopped, the committee publicly recommended people cut down their consumption of red meat and dairy products. But those industries and their lobbyists pounced on him, and the committee’s recommendations were soon amended- now people were told to “choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.”
“First notice that the stark message to ‘eat less’ of a particular food - in this case meat - had been deep-sixed; don’t look for it ever again in any official US government dietary pronouncement. Say what you will about this or that food, you are not allowed officially to tell people to eat less of it or the industry in question will have you for lunch... Notice too how the new language exonerates foods themselves. Now the culprit is an obscure, invisible, tasteless - and politically unconnected - substance that may or may not lurk in them called saturated fat.”
So the public got to keep eating what it always had, and the meat and dairy industries got to keep making money providing it to them. Nothing changed and no feathers were ruffled. And, as Pollan then describes, “In the very next election, in 1980, the beef lobby succeeded in rusticating the three-term senator, sending an unmistakable warning to anyone who would challenge the American diet”. Our culture of babies includes bullies, herding the babies around. And bullies are really just babies with size and muscle.
The United States proved itself both a great baby and bully at the 1992 Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro, when representatives from 153 countries signed treaties to affect lasting change in pollution and climate change from economic activities. Then US president George H.W. Bush declined, saying “the American way of life is not negotiable.” It’s easy to picture him folding his arms like a five year old and stamping his foot as he said it, too. Maybe he pushed over some of the other delegates and ate their lunches. Why isn’t it negotiable, George? Or why is the American way of life, as whitehouse press secretary Ari Fleischer said a decade later, a blessed one? Because. It’s mine and I’m used to it and I want it.
A friend of mine once described the crowning virtue of Adam Sandler’s movies: “He does nothing, and he still gets the girl. And that’s why I like his movies!” Note - this is the case in the higher end Sandler movies too, like Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me. Hollywood movies are famously aimed at 18 - 24 year old males. Benjamin Barber, in a talk at the headquarters of Demos about consumerism, describes how the most successful movies of 2004, worldwide, in all demographics, were Shrek 2, Spiderman 2, The Incredibles and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - teenage blockbusters, all of them. I’m a big fan of those four movies, incidentally, and thought they were cleverly scripted and well made. But think of the main draw in all four cases: action, animation, special effects, and main characters with special powers. It’s easier for Hollywood to sell us movies if we’ve got the maturity and taste of adolescents. An Adam Sandler who has to have what he wants right now is a great customer for those selling glossy, shiny things. That same guy isn’t so good at tackling the decades long work of solving serious problems.
Bill Maher recently railed against the lack of progress in America:
“We’re stuck on a wheel, having the same arguments about getting off oil we had in the 70s, the same arguments about ballooning debt we had in the 80s, the same arguments about global warming that we had in the 90s, and we never do anything. Do you know we can’t even reform the way we make pennies and nickels? This week we learned that making a penny costs two cents, and making a nickel costs nine cents, which makes no sense... So the administration suggested we should start making our coins out of something cheaper, an idea first suggested under Nixon. But because this is America, where no one ever gives an inch on anything, and everybody has a lobbyist, including the people who run coin-operated laundromats - yes, those powerhouses, those you dare not cross, the titans of industry. Yes, the coin laundry association objected because they didn’t want to upgrade their machines, so once again, the whole country is made a little worse. We can’t even change change.”
Maher went on to recommend we put the US in the charge of Steve Jobs. “In 2001, Apple reinvented the record player, in 2007 the phone, and this year, the computer. I say, for 2011, we let them take a crack at America - our infrastructure, our business model, our institutions - get rid of the stuff that’s not working, replace it with something that does. Good-bye US Senate, hello Genius Bar!” And that brings up a significant point; the change we do like is technological advancement. The kind that gives us more to play with, that lets us play with our toys at higher speeds, for longer, in more places. The only good change is change that lets us keep acting infantile.
Worse yet, we don’t see anything wrong with childishness. We dread aging, and romanticize childhood. In Catch-22, the character Dunbar describes the all too rapid march of time: “A second ago you were stepping into college with your lungs full of fresh air... A half minute before that you were stepping into high school, and an unhooked brassiere was as close as you ever hoped to get to Paradise. Only a fifth of a second before that you were a small kid with a ten-week summer vacation that lasted a hundred thousand years and still ended too soon.” The currents of postmodernism in contemporary thought have us firmly trumpet the belief that no one is better than anyone else. This belief is true, in the sense that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and no one should be deprived of their human rights. But there are stages of personal growth, as Dunbar describes- child, adolescent, young adult, adult. Each developmental plateau has its own perceptions, values, priorities and capabilities. Going up the ladder does mean relinquishing the childish delights of a summer vacation that lasts a hundred thousand years, but greater satisfactions and achievements become possible.
Editor and essayist H.L. Mencken wrote an article about Beethoven, comparing him to Haydn, and without saying as much, makes the point that as someone evolves up the scale, they can accomplish greater things, and bring back increasing benefits to everyone.
“What lifted Beethoven above the old master was simply his greater dignity as a man. The feelings that Haydn put into tone were the feelings of a country pastor, a rather civilized stockbroker, a viola player gently mellowed by Kulmbacher. When he wept it was with the tears of a woman who has discovered another wrinkle; when he rejoiced it was with the joy of a child on Christmas morning. But the feelings that Beethoven put into his music were the feelings of a god. There was something Olympian in his snarls and rages, and there was a touch of hell-fire in his mirth.”
The joy of a child on Christmas morning - that’s the lesser guy? When I first read that I remembered the all consuming joy of Christmas morning when I was a kid. Just like I remember the ecstatic promise of an unhooked brassiere in my thirteen year old erotic imagination. But if I look at it honestly, wasn’t the joy of Christmas morning pretty self-centred and materialistic? And my adolescent sexual fantasies didn’t involve anyone getting off but me.
The Hero’s Journey, a pattern common to the mythology of every culture, famously described by Joseph Campbell, tells the story of an individual who leaves the sheltered life, goes out into the great unknown, faces challenges he’d never dreamed of, and returns, forged into someone better, more capable, more knowing, selfless, courageous - in short, mature. Campbell says that, “To refuse the call means stagnation…If we fix on the old, we get stuck. When we hang onto any form, we are in danger of putrefaction.”
Our culture is steeped in narcissism, with no conscious association of this tendency with the rotting of our souls. It doesn’t make immediate sense that there are deeper pleasures than instant personal gratification. Why the hell should I give anything up? It’s mine! And I want it! Now!! But as Gabor Mate says elsewhere in In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: “In our own hearts most of us know that we experience the greatest satisfaction not when we receive or acquire something but when we make an authentic contribution to the well-being of others or to the social good, or when we create something original and beautiful or just something that represents a labour of love.”
But don’t we need to think of ourselves first in order to succeed? How can we give back to society if we haven’t made it yet? Jean Twenge, in that same interview, describes how narcissism doesn’t actually help people succeed, and that self-esteem isn’t correlated with success. And not only that, but “getting along well with other people, having empathy for them, and being able to take their perspective are actually more likely to lead to success.” This could be where narcissism is hoist by its own petard. Tell a nation that wants more more more, now now now, that their best chance of getting everything they ever wanted and more is... to evolve past their narcissism.
End note by Trevor Malkinson
The Postmodern Superego Injunction- Enjoy!
When I read TJ’s piece one further corollary to his overall analysis jumped out for me. This comes from the work of the philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Zizek is probably the preeminent interpreter and purveyor of the work of Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst thinker who could be called the postmodern Freud. In psychoanalytic theory, the super-ego designates a faculty of the human mind that internalizes the rules and conventions of first the parents, and then society at large. This is also called by Lacan the social symbolic and the ‘big Other’. In integral terms we’re pretty much talking about the lower left quadrant, which of course takes on material forms in the lower right quadrant of visible society. The ‘big Other’ is internalized in each individual (upper left) and this leads to visible behavior in their lives (upper right). Although in certain circumstances this socialization process can be stultifying and repressive, it’s also a mechanism by which we are civilized. The super-ego (e.g. the Ten Commandments) is often involved in policing or holding back desires that society has come to deem as unacceptable.
For Zizek (and I’m in agreement with his general analysis), (post)modern society has seen the dissolution of traditional values, customs and beliefs (the demise of the traditional big Other, or the demise of mythic-membership societies in integral terms). We now live in “liberal-permissive” societies where there’s no longer any collective mode of conduct at all, no longer any meta-code to guide our behavior. We’re now individuals who are free to choose whatever we want. And Zizek famously argues that the postmodern super-ego injunction today is to ‘Enjoy!’ This is basically an injunction that emanates from a certain consumer capitalism; the secular individualism of our liberal democracies creates the conditions (the clearing away of the traditional big Other) for a particular form of capitalism that implores us to ‘Consume!’ It tells us emphatically and repeatedly (and seductively) to enjoy ourselves to the max because that’s now our right as modern individuals.
There are a few problems with this situation. The super-ego often engenders a sense of guilt and duty in the individual; I must please my parents, be faithful to God and so on. Thus one of the paradoxes of the postmodern super-ego injunction to Enjoy! is that it actually starts to make people feel that they have a duty to enjoy, which begins to suck a lot of the joy out of the enjoyment. It also makes people feel guilty and ashamed if they cannot be happy like they are told to do (and see so many images of). So we’re caught in a troublesome double bind- on the one hand a society that has no overarching meta-goals/code of any kind, and on the other a super-ego imperative that ultimately acts as a killjoy on the only thing left for us do, which is pleasure seeking.
In his book Consumed, the political scientist Benjamin Barber argues that consumer capitalism acts to “infantilize” adults. When the super-ego imperative of our culture is to ‘Enjoy!’, this opens the door for all sorts of regressive and childish behavior. It allows for an eruption of what psychoanalytic theory calls the ‘id’, a cauldron of childish and primitive desires that previous super-ego constellations (lower left quadrant) were meant to inhibit, evolve and civilize. So what looks like a progressive advance into a higher order freedom- I’m now free to enjoy!- is actually acting to dismantle several stages of what I would consider positive, civilizing forces in human development. The result- alas, a culture of babies indeed.