"Charlie X", "Original Of The Species" (2005), American Narcissism, Captain James T. Kirk, Gordon Ramsey, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004), Kitchen Nightmares, Narcissism, Psychic Powers, Self-Aggrandizement, Self-Love, Self-Promotion, South Carolina State Rep. Jenny Horne, Star Trek, Star Trek TOS (1966-69), Thasians, U2, US Foreign Policy, US History, William Shatner
There are so many examples of the US as a nation of narcissists that when I step outside of my own narcissism, it literally leaves me with vertigo. I can see narcissism everywhere. In how Americans drive, as if they’re the only car on the road in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I see it in how people walk on sidewalks, as if no one else will ever need space to walk in the opposite direction, or as if everyone wants to walk at a slow, plodding pace. I see it in how we reacted to even minor criticism, as if the comment “this needs revision” equals “you’re a lazy, untalented hack of a writer,” and deserves a response equally personal and nasty.
One of the better demonstrations of narcissism American style is through our popular culture. From Frank Sinatra to Rick Ross, Mae West to Nicki Minaj, we have a century’s worth of pop culture divas as examples of narcissism at the level of prominent American individuals. The narcissism is so normal that we have benign terms for it, like “self-promotion” or “self-love.” People, especially in the pop culture world, should promote and love themselves, of course. But at what point is narcissism a self-defeating process of “me as triumphant,” “me as the center of the universe,” “me for everyone to like/love more and more?”
A clear-cut example of art imitating life imitating art for me around narcissism would be a Star Trek: TOS (The Original Series) episode. Season 1, Episode 2, September 15, 1966, was the airing of the “Charlie X” episode on NBC. It was the one in which a seventeen-year-old who had been stranded on an alien planet since the age of three was taken up to the Enterprise by a transport ship. Once on the Enterprise, the teenager displayed both petulance and his toolbox of god-like powers, hurting crew members or making them disappear at a whim. All because they either unknowingly insulted him or made him jealous in some way. As one story line summary for the episode reads, “Captain Kirk must learn the limits to the power of a 17-year-old boy with the psychic ability to create anything and destroy anyone.”
The Charlie Evans character became fixated on a female crew member — consistently called “a girl” in 1966 (that wasn’t acceptable even back then) — in one Yeoman Janice Rand. Charlie’s obsession with having her, his dislike for criticism and being told what to do, his inability to check his emotions, his destructive responses, were all based on his needs from moment to moment. Every potential slight, every action that he couldn’t control led Charlie to do some damning things. With his thoughts, Charlie took away Lt. Uhura’s voice, broke Spock’s legs, blinded another crew member, took away one woman’s face, aged another woman, and made one other woman disappear. When Charlie couldn’t win at chess, he melted the chess pieces. “I can make you all go away! Any time I want to!,” Charlie exclaimed at one point in the episode.
Within a scene or two, just before the episode’s climax, Kirk finally said, “Charlie, there are a million things in this universe you can have and a million things you can’t have. It’s no fun facing that, but that’s the way things are.” This was when Charlie was on the verge of taking over the ship and possibly wiping out the Enterprise‘s crew. But then, the Thasians came (the aliens who’d given Charlie his powers in the first place) with their own starship to take Charlie in as one of their own. “We gave him [Charlie] the power so he could live. He will use it – always. And he will destroy you, or, you will be forced to destroy him,” the face of the Thasians said. Then, the Thasians disappeared Charlie to their starship, with Charlie’s final words, “I wanna stay… stay… stay… stay… sta…” lingering on the Enterprise‘s bridge.
If this episode doesn’t serve as a metaphor for America as a nation and Americans as 320 million individuals with varying levels of narcissism, I don’t know what does. America has always declared itself at the center of the world, centuries before it became a world superpower. Any affront — real or perceived — has often led to skirmishes and wars, embargoes and removals. America’s relatively short history includes Indian wars, Barbary pirates, the War of 1812, the American Revolution, Manifest Destiny and the Mexican-American War, the Monroe Doctrine, Banana Republics and Cuba, Manuel Noriega and Panama, Beirut and Grenada. The central theme of American history and foreign policy has been to self-aggrandize, to settle scores, to challenge other countries to duels, to take advantage of those in the most vulnerable places in the US and around the globe.
So too has narcissism been a part of ordinary Americans’ lives. Just watch a rerun of Kitchen Nightmares on BBC America or on FOX. Any criticism delivered by soccer coach-chef Gordon Ramsey is received about the same way as a toddler reacts when their favorite toy goes missing. Taunts, tantrums, threats, gnashing of teeth, juvenile guilt and despair.
And, for a moment, there may even be a haunting realization that your intellect and experiences aren’t at the center of the universe. But just for a moment. After all, there aren’t any Thasians to check and balance America’s narcissism. Still, narcissism has a way of using up people and nations. Maybe in a hundred years, maybe in 500, but some time in the future, historians will write about American narcissism the same way many historians write about the gross inequalities of an over-glorified ancient Rome.