Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Narcissism and the Barack Obama Show

In 2009 Jeane M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell wrote an important, useful, and interesting book on narcissism,  Living in the Age of Entitlement: The Narcissism Epidemic (The Free Press, 2009)The book veers into discussions of popular culture (for instance, the personalities of rock stars and actors) that increase the book's marketability, but the statistical information presented in the early part of the book is especially useful.

In 2008 many bloggers noticed Barack Obama's narcissism.  The book inadvertently clarifies his wide and continuing appeal:  America has become a nation of narcissists.  It is not a long step from Survivor, American Idol, and the Jerry Springer Show to the Barack Obama Show.  The American left's moral exhibitionism, its claim that its self-serving political views reflect its morally superior "conscience," the conscience of specially trained intellects, is itself a version of narcissism, and the narcissistic political correctness in which the academic left and the education establishment have indoctrinated America's young came to flower in 2008.  (Arguably, George W. Bush is equally narcissistic, and I do not doubt that the conservative movement led by celebrities like Rush Limbaugh is so.)  

I have two points of difference with Twenge and Campbell.  First, as psychologists they see economic phenomena as symptomatic of psychological phenomena.  It is the reverse.  Narcissism came to flower following the expansion of government regulation in the 1960s and the concomitant abolition of the gold standard in 1971.  Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism in 1979.  The phenomena that Twenge and Campbell  describe cannot thrive in a free economy because someone must pay the bill for large homes, self-esteem-based education systems, and self-indulgent debt. The Fed's monetary creation powers allow the public to defer choices by borrowing; borrowing to build big houses, which the authors see as a key symptom of narcissism, is impossible without the Fed's counterfeit powers.  Construction of school systems that do not educate is too.  Free America depended on a gold standard, a rigid monetary system to allocate resources.  The inflationary Federal Reserve system allows unending misallocation of resources and indulgence of selfish fantasies. Eventually the system will crumble, leaving future generations worse off.

Second, the authors do not place the kind of phenomena they describe into historical context. Have there been other eras when narcissism took hold?  I would answer yes, and they have all been periods of monetary expansion.  Post-republican Rome in the times of Caesar,  Diocletian, and later,  post-Columbian Spain, Tulipmania in Holland, the Mississippi Bubble in France, the South Sea Bubble in England, and Weimar Germany also may have been associated with narcissism.

Narcissism began to increase in America before the 1970s, the era that the authors emphasize.  The Roaring Twenties, for example, were more narcissistic than any earlier era in American history;  the crash of the 1930s led to a two-decade decline, but the 1950s and 1960s saw the advent of suburban living, Playboy, and hysteria over rock stars like Elvis Presley and movie stars like Marilyn Monroe.   Easy money and narcissism go hand in hand; as well, the decline of religion in the face of Progressivism and progressive education, which paralleled monetary expansion (Progressivism resulted in both monetary expansion and the decline in religious faith) were antecedents to narcissism.

The authors seem to advocate a superficial, collectivist political viewpoint, but the process of making the American culture more narcissistic paralleled its increasing emphasis on collectivism from the Mugwump period onward.  The Mugwumps may have been the first narcissistic political movement. The authors get it right when, at several points in the book, they empahsize the sober freedom and democracy that the Founding Fathers advocated and the sharp difference between America's 19th century political ideology, which still resides in many Americans today, and narcissism.

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