America is the land of “it’s all about me.” Without a doubt, our economic, military and geopolitical imperialism has made all of us as narcissistic as Napoleon at the height of his power in France. Or as self-centered as Ted Bundy in the middle of a misogynistic killing spree. Or as self-absorbed (minus any self-reflection) as Steven Colbert appears to be while in character on The Colbert Report. It’s a shame, a symptom of sixty-five years as a superpower, as well as a history of propping up this land of ours as one of abundance, spinning fables about it all along the way.
It starts, of course, at home. With parents who face tough choices between balancing their own wants and needs with those of their kids, their spouses, and their family as a whole. Many of us fail to do so, and many of us do so spectacularly. It’s not just adultery, or serial adultery, or even divorce. It’s family annihilators, who, upon losing their jobs or some other calamity, choose to not only kill themselves, but their spouses and children, refusing to give them any choice at all. It’s folks who would prefer to talk on the telephone at the park while their kids play by themselves or who believe their babysitters should spend more time with their kids than they do. It’s parents who’ve been remarkably successful in their careers and terrifically unsuccessful in teaching their kids what they know about life.
Of course we grow up in a world of narcissism as a result. Even as much as we swear not to be like our parents, we can’t help to be. Not with TV teaching us that winning is everything, commercials that crap on losers at every turn, winner-take-all reality shows, individual archetype heroes in animation shows, and on and on. While cultural critics, corrupt politicians and priests, and parents complain about our corrupt culture and how it’s turning our kids into selfish and apathetic humans, keep one thing in mind. The bling-blingers in music videos and the ‘roid-rage-athletes on our TV, iPhone and computer screens are a reflection of us as much as we are a reflection of them. We all think that if we work really hard and get the right breaks (a.k.a. “know the right people”), we too can live the American Dream of riches and excess, of bills paid and endless amounts of goods to buy and accumulate.
College for many and high school for so many more teaches us as much about being self-centered and self-absorbed as anything else in our lives. High school history is mostly about great men (and I mean “men”) in all of their egotistical glory, especially great men as military leaders and empire builders. And why not? Despite all of the claims to the greatness of American democracy and American exceptionalism, ours is a country whose myths are all about great men and whose history is one of empires. Manifest Destiny, slavery, robber barons, the Spanish-American War, the Cold War, Iraq Wars I and II. Make no mistake, centuries from now America will be seen more as an empire than as an exceptional democracy, especially with the way we act, speak and live as a country these days.
Higher education, liberal or illiberal, is a place that fosters individualism and group identity in and out of the classroom. Even knowing the tensions between the two ideas doesn’t necessarily prevent narcissism. In fact, both ideas exacerbate our national obsession. Individualism in a post-industrial, consumer-driven economy and society leads to people borrowing the equivalent of a downpayment for a stately manor to pay for school. It leads to unreasonable expectations for a high standard of living, the lack of understanding around the need for robust public policies and services, and the need for a constant high. From drugs and alcohol, music and food, to the latest car, the best house, the finest clothes, the greatest sex. Even God for the spiritual and religious among us has become an enabler for our individual desires, without regard to the resources used, not to mention the future.
Group identity, especially in our era of neo-conservatism, exaggerates differences and minimizes similarities, making it difficult to relate to others’ ideas and perspectives on life. Blacks often act as if it’s us against the world on predominately White campuses, even on ones that have become decidedly more welcoming in the past two decades. Whites act as if individualism is all that matters, and buy into too many stereotypes about Blacks and other groups, including Blacks needing handouts and liberal Whites who will always be there to help hapless Blacks. Women talk as if men truly are a different species, while men act as if the First Amendment gives us the right to misogyny. Let me not get started on gays and straights, Latinos and Asians, and other groups on campus.
By the time we graduate, we’ve learned so little about being empathetic and sympathetic toward others that we go into the adult world with our chests puffed out (male and female, literally and figuratively, steroids and surgery). It’s about the same as our government acts toward the rest of the world. We believe we have the right to consume whatever we want, to tell others “Too bad” when they complain, and to step on others’ toes in the process For us as individuals, it’s jobs, money, cars, iPhones, spouses, children, other women and men. For the government that represents us, it’s oil, tin, rubber, trade agreements, borrowed money, cheap labor, and so much else to consume in a country full of consumers but increasingly devoid of producers.
It almost makes me ashamed to be an American when I see folks complain about immigrants (as if most Americans aren’t immigrants on some level), or talk about climate change as fantasy, or act as if the Rapture will come before all of the oil runs out. The common link between the viable and current solutions to all that ills us is that we have to begin to behave as a “we” and not as an “I” or a “me.” But if we can’t stop for someone who’s in the crosswalk crossing the street when they have the right of way, how do we make it possible for our older selves and our kids to live in a world of universal public healthcare, equitable use of resources, environmental justice, geopolitical accountability, and quality education? In a society as selfish as ours, we might as well be talking about “Peace on Earth, good will toward man.”