Trump’s Failure to Honor WW I Soldiers in France Was Yet Another Sign of His Narcissism

100th anniversary commemoration of the Armistice, in Paris

Here is Fred Kaplan at Slate:

The most disturbing thing about President Trump’s disgraceful performance in France this past weekend is the clear signal it sent that, under his thumb, the United States has left the West.

He came to the continent to join with other world leaders to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. But the significance of the armistice is not so much to commemorate the fallen in an absurd and ghastly war as it is to celebrate the special peace—grounded in a democratic European Union and a trans-Atlantic alliance—that grew in its wake and the greater war that followed.

And yet, after flying nearly 4,000 miles across the Atlantic, Trump stayed in his room in Paris on Saturday rather than making the additional 50-mile trip to the Aisne-Marne cemetery, where 50,000 American soldiers were laid to rest a century ago. His excuse for not attending was lame, to say the least. His aides said, after the fact, that rainfall precluded a trip by helicopter—a claim refuted by the writer James Fallows, an instrument-certified pilot who, as a former White House official, is familiar with this helicopter.

Read the rest here.

By not showing up to honor these soldiers, Trump once again showed us his narcissism.  He cannot see himself as part of a larger story of American sacrifice.  Here is what I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

But the problem with Donald Trump’s use of American history goes well beyond his desire to make America great again or his regular references to some of the darker moments in our past–moments that have tended to divide Americans rather than uniting them.  His approach to history also reveals his narcissism.  When Trump says that he doesn’t care how “America first” was used in the 1940s, or claims to be ignorant of Nixon’s use of “law and order,” he shows his inability to understand himself as part of a larger American story.  As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote in the wake of Trump’s pre-inauguration Twitter attack on civil rights icon John Lewis, a veteran of non-violent marches who was severely beaten at Selma: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.”  Gerson describes Trump’s behavior in this regard as the “essence of narcissism.”  The columnist is right:  Trump is incapable of seeing himself as part of a presidential history that is larger than himself.  Not all presidents have been perfect, and others have certainly shown narcissistic tendencies; but most of them have been humbled by the office.  Our best presidents thought about their four or eight years in power with historical continuity in mind.  This required them to respect the integrity of the office and the unofficial moral qualifications that come with it.  Trump, however, spits in the face of this kind of historical continuity….

Believe Me 3d

Trump Nixed Plans for an Official White House Statement Praising John McCain

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The Washington Post reports:

President Trump nixed issuing a statement that praised the heroism and life of Sen. John McCain, telling senior aides he preferred to issue a tweet before posting one Saturday night that did not include any kind words for the late Arizona Republican.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and other White House aides advocated for an official statement that gave the decorated Vietnam War POW plaudits for his military and Senate service and called him a “hero,” according to current and former White House aides, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. The original statement was drafted before McCain died Saturday, and Sanders and others edited a final version this weekend that was ready for the president, the aides said. 

But Trump told aides he wanted to post a brief tweet instead, and the statement praising McCain’s life was not released. 

“My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!” Trump posted Saturday evening shortly after McCain’s death was announced.  

Sanders declined to comment Sunday afternoon. 

“It’s atrocious,” Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for Trump’s legal team and a longtime Republican strategist, said of Trump’s reaction to McCain’s death. “At a time like this, you would expect more of an American president when you’re talking about the passing of a true American hero.”

Read the piece here.

This is yet another example of the kind of Trump narcissism I wrote about in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Donald Trump is incapable of stepping outside of self-interested politics, even for a moment, to praise or thank a man who devoted his entire life to the service of his country.  He is incapable of laying aside political vendettas or understanding his presidency as part of a larger national story–a story that includes war heroes and public servants with whom he disagrees.  This kind of behavior, our founding fathers warned, that will destroy a republic.  Or to put in their terms, Trump is unable to practice virtue.

“Narcissism as a Foreign Policy Doctrine”

Russia US Summit in Helsinki, Finland - 16 Jul 2018

Here is Michael Gerson at The Washington Post:

In the run-up to Helsinki, Trump actively advanced many important national objectives — of Russia. He claimed Crimea to be Russiancredited Putin’s denials of cyberaggressionattacked NATO, called the European Union a “foe,” openly supported Brexitdisparaged the leadership of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, pushed for a trade war with Europe and blamed tension in the U.S.-Russia relationship on the United States. At Helsinki, having imitated Neville Chamberlain in every detail but the umbrella, he declared a famous victory. And so our president, who shows how tough he is by abusing migrant children, was a cringing coward before a dictator.

One of the problems with narcissism as a foreign policy doctrine is that it hides national challenges from the president that are blindingly obvious to everyone else. While Trump employs a mirror, others in the federal government have been using a magnifying glass to find a direct and growing threat to U.S. national security.

Read the entire piece here.

Barack Obama Gave Donald Trump a Lesson in Historical Thinking

Obama oval

In case you have not seen this yet, the letter that Barack Obama left for Donald Trump has been released.  Here it is:

Dear Mr. President –

Congratulations on a remarkable run. Millions have placed their hopes in you, and all of us, regardless of party, should hope for expanded prosperity and security during your tenure.

This is a unique office, without a clear blueprint for success, so I don’t know that any advice from me will be particularly helpful. Still, let me offer a few reflections from the past 8 years.

First, we’ve both been blessed, in different ways, with great good fortune. Not everyone is so lucky. It’s up to us to do everything we can (to) build more ladders of success for every child and family that’s willing to work hard.

Second, American leadership in this world really is indispensable. It’s up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend.

Third, we are just temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions — like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties — that our forebears fought and bled for. Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it’s up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.

And finally, take time, in the rush of events and responsibilities, for friends and family. They’ll get you through the inevitable rough patches.

Michelle and I wish you and Melania the very best as you embark on this great adventure, and know that we stand ready to help in any ways which we can.

Good luck and Godspeed,

BO

For me. as a historian, the key paragraph is the one that deals with the temporary nature of the office and the president’s responsibility to guard “democratic institutions and traditions.”

In order to take this advice seriously, Donald Trump must have a historical consciousness.  He must see himself as part of a larger national story that has unfolded over the course of the last 241 years.  As Sam Wineburg reminds us: “the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.”

The Mark of a Narcissist

This tweet is one of the many signs that Donald Trump is a narcissist.  It shows he is incapable of seeing himself as part of a presidential history that is larger than himself. Not all presidents have been perfect, and others have certainly shown narcissistic tendencies, but many of them have been humbled in some way by the office.  Our best presidents thought about their four or eight years in power with historical continuity in mind.  This required them to respect the integrity of the office and the unofficial moral qualifications that come with it.

Trump spits in the face of such historical continuity.  This is progressive thinking at its worst.  It makes me think of Tocqueville in Democracy of America

Not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.

Michael Gerson put it his way: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.”

And let’s not forget Sam Wineburg in the context of historical thinking:

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.–Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

If Wineburg is correct, the antidote to narcissism is “mature historical understanding.” Let’s keep working.

The Diplomacy of Narcissism

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This is what E.J. Dionne calls Donald Trump’s foreign policy of “America First.”  Here is a taste of his recent column at The Washington Post (via Real Clear Politics).

The problem with “America First” is that it describes an attitude, not a purpose. It substitutes selfishness for realism.

It implies that nations can go it alone, that we stand for nothing beyond our immediate self-interest, and that we should give little thought to how the rest of humanity thinks or lives. It suggests that if we are strong enough, we can prosper no matter how much chaos, disorder or injustice surrounds us.

America First leads to the diplomacy of narcissism, to use what has become a loaded word in the Trump era. And narcissism is as unhealthy for nations as it is for people.

Perhaps the best approach to the problem as it affects us both individually and collectively was offered by Rabbi Hillel, who lived in the century before the birth of Christ. Hillel’s lesson to us began with two questions: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”

Precisely. All of us should be prepared to stand up for ourselves. We are patriots because we love our own land in a way we can love no other. But we live in a world of more than 7 billion people and nearly 200 countries. Does our nation not stand for something more than its own existence? Can we possibly survive and prosper if we are only for ourselves?

Read the entire column here.

“The Essence of Narcissism”

Those who follow me on Twitter (@johnfea1) may recall that last week I got a bit obsessed with the present-day relevance of Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best-seller The Culture of Narcissism.

It seems that Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson has been having similar thoughts. Here is a taste of his most recent column “Trump’s Attack on John Lewis is the Essence of Narcissism.”

…The problem, however, runs deeper. Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter. He will lead a nation that accommodated a cruel exception to its founding creed; that bled and nearly died to recover its ideals; and that was only fully redeemed by the courage and moral clarity of the very people it had oppressed. People like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. People like John Lewis.

“Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.” Brilliant.  Such a “feel” or “interest” would require some degree of empathy and self-sacrifice.

Somebody needs to issue a new edition of The Culture of Narcissism.  Eric Miller should edit it and write an introduction connecting it to our times.

 

From the Archives: “Our historical narcissism indicts us”

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Wounded police officers outside the Downtown Howard Johnson Hotel in New Orleans–December 31, 1972

If you read my previous post, you know that today I watched (for about the fifth time) Barack Obama’s March 2015 speech at Selma.  There is so much I appreciate about this speech.  For example, Obama, like those who marched at Selma, connected the Civil Rights Movement to the ideals of the nation–ideals that we all share.  He also talks about the progress that has been made in civil rights over the last two centuries.

I returned to this speech after a conversation I had this morning about race in America. One of the people in the conversation said something like “racial tension is worse today than it has ever been in America.”  As the historian in the group, I said that I was not so sure about the validity of such a statement.  Race relations in America are better today than they were fifty years ago.  Obama makes this clear in his speech.  Progress can be a good thing.

And then I was reminded of a post I did back in September about Rick Perlstein’s piece at The Baffler titled “Time Bandits: Why Our Political Past is Rarely Prologue.”  I also remember quoting from this piece in a public lecture I gave a few days later at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass.

Here is my post from September 20, 2016:

Rick Perlstein, the author of several excellent (and big) books on American conservatism since the 1950s, is skeptical about the way his readers have turned to his work for historical analogies in this election cycle.

Here is a taste of his recent piece in The Baffler:

History does not repeat itself. “The country is disintegrating,” a friend of mine wrote on Facebook after the massacre of five policemen by black militant Micah Johnson in Dallas. But during most of the years I write about in Nixonland and its sequel covering 1973 through 1976, The Invisible Bridge, the Dallas shootings might have registered as little more than a ripple. On New Year’s Eve in 1972, a New Orleans television station received this message: “Africa greets you. On Dec. 31, 1972, aprx. 11 pm, the downtown New Orleans Police Department will be attacked. Reason—many, but the death of two innocent brothers will be avenged.” Its author was a twenty-three-year-old Navy veteran named Mark James Essex. (In the 1960s, the media had begun referring to killers using middle names, lest any random “James Ray” or “John Gacy” suffer unfairly from the association.) Essex shot three policemen to death, evading arrest. The story got hardly a line of national attention until the following week, when he began cutting down white people at random and held hundreds of officers at bay from a hotel rooftop. Finally, he was cornered and shot from a Marine helicopter on live TV, which also accidentally wounded nine more policemen. The New York Times only found space for that three days later.

Stories like these were routine in the 1970s. Three weeks later, four men identifying themselves as “servants of Allah” holed up in a Brooklyn sporting goods store with nine hostages. One cop died in two days of blazing gun battles before the hostages made a daring rooftop escape. The same week, Richard Nixon gave his second inaugural address, taking credit for quieting an era of “destructive conflict at home.” As usual, Nixon was lying, but this time not all that much. Incidents of Americans turning terrorist and killing other Americans had indeed ticked down a bit over the previous few years—even counting the rise of the Black Liberation Army, which specialized in ambushing police and killed five of them between 1971 and 1972.

In Nixon’s second term, however, they began ticking upward again. There were the “Zebra” murders from October 1973 through April 1974 in San Francisco, in which a group of Black Muslims killed at least fifteen Caucasians at random and wounded many others; other estimates hold them responsible for as many as seventy deaths. There was also the murder of Oakland’s black school superintendent by a new group called the Symbionese Liberation Army, who proceeded to seal their militant renown by kidnapping Patty Hearst in February 1974. Then, in May, after Hearst joined up with her revolutionary captors, law enforcement officials decimated their safe house with more than nine thousand rounds of live ammunition, killing six, also on live TV. Between 1972 and 1974 the FBI counted more than six thousand bombings or attempted bombings in the United States, with a combined death toll of ninety-one. In 1975 there were two presidential assassination attempts in one month.

Not to mention a little thing called Watergate. Or the discovery by Congressional investigators that the CIA had participated in plots to kill foreign leaders and spied on tens of thousands of innocent protesters, as well as the revelation that the FBI had tried to spur Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide. Or the humiliating collapse of South Vietnam, as the nation we had propped up with billions in treasure and 58,220 American lives was revealed to be little more than a Potemkin village.

And now? We’re drama queens. The week after Dallas, the host of the excellent public radio show The Takeaway, John Hockenberry, invoked the Manson murders: “America’s perilous dance with Helter Skelter . . . Individual feelings of fear and revenge do not ignite a race war—yet . . .” Yet.

There followed a news report about the civil war in South Sudan, one side loyal to the president, the other to the former vice president. Now that’s a disintegrating society. The Baffler is a print publication, and perhaps between this writing and its arrival in mailboxes we’ll start seeing, say, armed black militants in a major American city randomly killing scores of innocent white people, as in an earlier age—following which, I want to add, American society, no, did not disintegrate.

Our historical narcissism indicts us. Please don’t drag my name into it.

Perlstein adds:

The longing to assimilate the strange to the familiar is only human; who am I to hold myself aloof from it? But it’s just not a good way to study history, which when done right invites readers to tack between finding the familiar in the strange and the strange in the familiar. History roils. Its waves are cumulative, one rolling into another, amplifying their thunder. Or they become attenuated via energies pushing in orthogonal or opposite directions. Or they swirl into directionless eddies, with the ocean’s surface appearance as often as not obscuring grander currents just below.

It’s dispiritingly reminiscent of the consensus I sought to demythologize in Before the Storm that some see Trump only in the ways he is exceptional to the usual waves, currents, eddies of our history—except for that time Rick Perlstein writes about in his books, when Americans hated each other enough to kill each other. “How Did Our Politics Get So Harsh and Divisive? Blame 1968,” was how one recent rumination on the sixties-echo effect in the Trump movement got headlined in the Washington Post. Why not blame 1776, when the nation was born in blood and fire, brother fighting brother? Or 1787, when the Constitution repressed the contradictions between slave and free states, with all the core unresolved tensions slowly simmering until the nation had to be born again, from the blood of the better part of a million Americans slaughtering one another? “How Did Our Politics Become So Harsh and Divisive? Blame 1860.”

Heck, why not blame 1877, when an estimated one hundred people were killed in railroad strikes that involved some one hundred thousand people? Or the “Red Summer” of 1919, which set in motion race riots and lynchings, killing hundreds by 1921, when as many as three hundred died in the Tulsa riot alone? Or 1924, when it took the Democratic Party 103 convention ballots and sixteen days to settle whether the party would be represented by its pro– or anti–Ku Klux Klan factions, while tens of thousands of hooded Klansmen rallied across the river in New Jersey? Or 1945–46, when almost two million Americans went on strike? Or 1995, when a madman blew up a federal building and killed 168, including children in daycare? Why not start at the beginning and blame 1492, or the year the English settled in Massachusetts Bay?

Great stuff here on historical thinking, the uses of history, and historical analogies.  I may use this in my Intro to History course

I should add that I did use this in my Intro to History course and it led to some nice discussion.

Christopher Lasch on the Humanities

2c7ec-laschnarcissismThings have not changed much in since Lasch wrote his 1979 best-seller The Culture of Narcissism

In the humanities, demoralization has reached the point of a general admission that humanistic study has nothing to contribute to an understanding of the modern world. Philosophers no longer explain the nature of things or pretend to tell us how to live. Students of literature treat the text not as a representation of the real world but as a reflection of the artist’s inner state of mind.  Historians admit to a ‘sense of the irrelevance of history,’ in David Donald’s words, ‘and of the bleakness of the new era we are entering.’  Because liberal culture has always depended so heavily on the study of history, the collapse of that culture finds an especially poignant illustration in the collapse of the historical faith, which formerly surrounded the record of public events with an aura of moral dignity, patriotism, and political optimism.  Historians in the past assumed that men learned from their previous mistakes.  Now that the future appears troubled and uncertain, the past appears ‘irrelevant’ even to those who devote their lives to investigating it.

Lasch, Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, 19.

Deneen: Our Students Are Idiots

College-classroom

Over at the Front Porch Republic, Patrick Deneen wonders why his students don’t know anything.  He writes:

Above all, the one overarching lesson that students receive is to understand themselves to be radically autonomous selves within a comprehensive global system with a common commitment to mutual indifference.  Our commitment to mutual indifference is what binds us together as a global people.  Any remnant of a common culture would interfere with this prime directive:  a common culture would imply that we share something thicker, an inheritance that we did not create, and a set of commitments that imply limits and particular devotions. Ancient philosophy and practice heaped praise upon res publica – a devotion to public things, things we share together.  We have instead created the world’s firstres idiotica – from the Greek word idiotes, meaning “private individual.”  Our education system excels at producing solipsistic, self-contained selves whose only public commitment is an absence of commitment to a public, a common culture, a shared history.  They are perfectly hollowed vessels, receptive and obedient, without any real obligations or devotions.  They have been taught to care passionately about their indifference, and to denounce the presence of actual diversity that threatens the security of their cocoon. They are living in a perpetual Truman Show, a world constructed yesterday that is nothing more than a set for their solipsism, without any history or trajectory. 

Read the entire piece here.

Sam Wineburg on Historical Thinking

I always need to remind myself of this quote by Wineburg.  I have it on my office door.

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.–Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

The Author’s Corner with Elizabeth Lunbeck

Elizabeth Lunbeck is a Professor of Psychiatry and Nelson Tyrone Jr. Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. This interview is based on her new book The Americanization of Narcissism (Harvard University Press, February 2014).

JF: What led you to write The Americanization of Narcissism?

EL: I have long been interested in narcissism as a clinical category and a cultural phenomenon, and in the confusion that surrounds the term and its meanings. Talk of narcissism is threaded through American cultural commentary from the 1970s on and I wanted to understand why it was so compelling to so many–what cultural work was it doing? The term narcissism is perhaps singularly protean. No other clinical category is used to refer to the best in human nature (fellow-feeling, goals, ambitions–all associated with “healthy narcissism”) as well as the worst (destructiveness, grandiosity, exploitation–all associated with malignant narcissism). This made the project all the more challenging, as I tried to capture the full range of its usages and a good deal of its complexity, but it also made the project more interesting to me. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Americanization of Narcissism?

EL: In the book I argue that as narcissism, which had long been of interest within psychoanalysis, entered the cultural conversation in the US in the 1970s, it did so tied to a critique of consumption that found exemplary articulation in Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. Lasch and other cultural commentators eagerly adapted the psychoanalytic concept of narcissism for their own criticism, embracing its negative aspects while slighting its positive aspects–a move that has left us with a rather narrow conception of narcissism and that has led to an impoverished popular conversation about it.

JF: Why do we need to read The Americanization of Narcissism​​​​?

EL: I think to understand the contemporary conversation about narcissism–and especially to appreciate its limits–it helps to understand the concept’s rich history. We are quick now to condemn one another, and especially the young, as narcissists. Using the term so loosely, we drain the critique of the destructively pathological narcissist of its force: when everyone is a narcissist, as many now claim, the charge is meaningless. The psychoanalytic conversation about narcissism that I reconstruct was far richer and more forgiving of human foibles and desires than the contemporary popular discussion.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EL: Although I decided to become a historian in my first year of college (in History 1), I only decided to become an American historian in the midst of my graduate education. In graduate school, I developed an interest in psychiatry and psychoanalysis (this was when Foucault was all the rage and anti-psychiatry was in the air), and after much searching found case files from a hospital in Boston that would allow me to reconstruct the practice of psychiatry in the early years of the twentieth century. That was it–I fell in love with the subject and have been engaged in it since.

JF: What is your next project?

EL: I am considering several projects, and haven’t settled on one yet. It will almost certainly be something that brings together the clinical and the cultural–perhaps a short project on Borderline Personality Disorder. But I could easily settle on something else. I feel the field is wide open–there’s a lot for historians to do!
JF: Very true.  Thanks Liz!
Thanks to Megan Piette for organizing and facilitating The Author’s Corner

More Christopher Lasch

Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations is now about thirty-four years old, but this has not stopped bloggers, commentators, and pundits from turning to this book to diagnose the culture of the so-called millennial generation.

See, for example, Daniel Saunders’s recent piece at “The Common Vision” entitled “America the Narcissist.” Much of the post is a response to Joel Stein’s recent Time Magazine cover story on the millennials. Here is a taste:

It is a shame that Stein’s Time article only casually mentions Christopher Lasch’s seminal book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations, which was published in 1979, just one year before Stein’s cutoff date for “Gen Y” status. Stein should have found in Lasch a more solid framework for his cultural commentary than in the pop psychology he cites; Lasch, a neo-Marxian leftist turned Freudian conservative, displays an intellectual rigor that makes his prescient criticism of America’s psychological decay just as compelling for a reader in 2013 as for a reader in 1979. Moreover, Lasch escapes the cyclical generational feud perpetuated today by pointing the finger not at “the novelties of youth” but at the stagnation of the West’s dual heritage of individualism and capitalism, the seed of which was planted way back in the late Middle Ages and which came to fruition after the Industrial Revolution.

Is narcissism an inevitable result of modern life?  I think Lasch would answer in the affirmative.  And now for a more theological question:  Does narcissism best describe the human condition at rest?

For some thoughts on the study of history as an antidote to narcissism check out this book.

Job Opening in Me Studies

The department of English invites applications for a tenure-track assistant professor in ME Studies, starting Fall 2014. Applicants should demonstrate a sustained scholarly engagement with ME.

Demonstrated expertise in one or more of the following areas is preferred: research I care about, topics I’ve been focusing on for years, theories I am familiar with, practices I approve of, and debates already settled by ME.

Successful applicants will be less successful than I am but not so unsuccessful that it reflects poorly on ME. The lucky chosen one will have the opportunity to work with ME. Candidates must have a Ph.D. from an institution I approve of and have recommendation letters from people I know and respect but am not threatened by. Please send just the names of people you know I know by October 15th.
My university is an Affirmative Action/Equal Employment Opportunity Employer and does not discriminate against any individual on the basis of age, color, disability, gender, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, veteran status or genetic information. However, applicants who cite ME are particularly encouraged to apply.

No, this is not a real job.

You Are Not Special

Have you heard yet about David McCullough Jr.’s commencement address at Wellesley High School, one of the top public high schools in the country?  (And yes, he is the son of the historian/writer David McCullough. He teaches English at the school).

He told his students that they are NOT special.

In case you do not want to spend 13 minutes listening to McCullough, here is a taste of his speech:

“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection!  Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!”  And I don’t disagree.  So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus.  You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.  In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…  Now it’s “So what does this get me?”  As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans.  It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the middle level curriculum is called Advanced College Placement.  And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.”  I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition.  But the phrase defies logic.  By definition there can be only one best.  You’re it or you’re not.
          
 If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning.  You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.  (Second is ice cream…  just an fyi)  I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning.  It’s where you go from here that matters.
           
 As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance.  Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison.  Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction.  Be worthy of your advantages.  And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect.  Read as a nourishing staple of life.  Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it.  Dream big.  Work hard.  Think for yourself.  Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might.  And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer; and as surely as there are commencements there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality no matter how delightful the afternoon….

Joel Osteen: Narcissist

Chris Lehmann, an editor of Bookforum and a student of the late Christopher Lasch, has written a pretty scathing critique of televangelist Joel Osteen’s recent performance in Washington D. C. 

Osteen’s dream-big, bright and sunny, optimistic American progressivism, which he baptizes with passages from the Bible and personal testimonies, was on display this past weekend in National’s Stadium.  (By the way, Bruce Springsteen will be performing  in the same stadium on September 14th singing about hard-times and “rocky ground.”  The contrast couldn’t be greater).

Here is a taste of Lehman’s piece.  The ideas are ripped straight from his renowned mentor.  They are still relevant today.

There’s a term from the psychiatric clinics that neatly captures the outlook of someone possessed of grandiose fantasies about the imperial reach of the self, and a principled refusal to acknowledge anything poised to diminish such fantasies — such as the passage of time. That term is “narcissistic personality disorder,” and it does nothing to detract from the positive features of the Osteen gospel — the injunctions to persevere in the face of adversity, or the appeals for donations to World Vision — to note that this is a system of faith tailor-made to sustain narcissistic delusion. To grasp the overweening self-absorption of the Osteen faith, one need look no further than the frequent recourse Osteen makes to his own success story in sealing the case for God’s providential plan for the believer’s own life. Now, unlike other well-known evangelists, Osteen can’t lay much claim to a hardscrabble Horatio Alger-style life story. His 1920s forebear in Pentecostal media preaching, Aimee Semple McPherson, was a single-mother missionary before coming into fame and fortune as an evangelical celebrity in the Radio Age; Billy Graham was the son of a poor North Carolina dairy farmer. Osteen, by contrast, was a second-generation evangelical leader, who’d been working as a TV producer for his father John Osteen’s growing ministry before he succeeded to the elder Osteen’s pulpit after his father’s death…

Nonetheless, Osteen repeatedly cites his own success presiding over the spiritual flock he inherited as the prime exhibit of God’s ready transposition of divine grace into worldly success. When he first acceded to the pulpit, he recalled from his riser above second base, he felt no special aptitude for ministering; he’d heard that Lakewood church leaders were raising doubts about his vocation, and the church needed to move into a bigger, upgraded new facility. “At one point,” Osteen preached, “it seemed like everything was coming against me. The enemy was fighting me not from where I was coming, but from where I was going … He didn’t want Lakewood to be in the Compaq Center” — the former home arena for the Houston Rockets, and now home to the Lakewood congregation of nearly 50,000 souls. The Compaq Center deal is a frequent touchstone in Osteen’s faith reminiscence; it occupies a good stretch of his blockbuster best-selling self-improvement tract, “Become a Better You,” which also finds evidence of divine favor in a home-flipping deal Joel and Victoria struck at the height of the housing bubble, as well as in such mundane votes of divine confidence as setting the pastor up with a premium parking space…

…the claustral feel of Osteen’s success gospel paradoxically works exactly the same effect that he warns believers to resist: It imposes limits on God, by largely confining his workings to the dominant American culture of success. If the Osteen-coached believer does not reap abundant and large reward in career, family life or creative pursuits, they are not necessarily going to curse their God, as Job’s comforters had counseled him to do amid his notorious personal setbacks. But neither are they going to make the key connections that earlier Protestant divines have preached, going back to Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin: that the divinity does not, in fact, have your own personal happiness occupying pride of place on his exhaustive to-do list. The universe is ultimately about a larger set of concerns, and faith concerns a much vaster striving toward justice than believers are wont to see in their personal affairs, their social conquests or their annual paychecks. This is why Edwards, for all of his better-known hell-and-brimstone sermons, urged onto believers a stoic “consent to being in general” — not a plan for individual life advancement.

Filter Bubbles and Social Media

Henry Farrell, a political science professor at George Washington University, has written a very thoughtful review of Eli Pariser’s book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You.  He writes:

Instead of constructing personal micro-economies that allow us to make sense of complexity, we are turning media into a mirror that reflects our own prejudices back at us. Even worse, services like Google and Facebook distort the mirror so that it exaggerates our grosser characteristics. Without our knowing, they reshape our information worlds according to their interpretation of our interests. Few people are aware that when they look up a topic in Google, their searches are personalized. Google infers what people want from their past searching behavior and skews results accordingly.

We are beginning to live in what Pariser calls “filter bubbles,” personalized micro-universes of information that overemphasize what we want to hear and filter out what we don’t. Not only are we unaware of the information that is filtered out, but we are unaware that we are unaware. Our personal economies of information seem complete despite their deficiencies. Personal decisions contribute to this pattern, and ever more sophisticated technologies add to it. Google’s understanding of our tastes and interests is still a crude one, but it shapes the information that we find via Google searches. And because the information we are exposed to perpetually reshapes our interests, we can become trapped in feedback loops: Google’s perception of what we want to read shapes the information we receive, which in turn affects our interests and browsing behavior, providing Google with new information. The result, Pariser suggests, may be “a static ever-narrowing version of yourself.”

Farrell argues that such “self-reinforcement” has “unhappy consequences” for politics and, I would add, efforts at creating a more civil society.  Instead of connecting us to a larger world of people and ideas, the filter bubbles created by social media sites like Facebook and search engines like Google may be insulating us from anything that does not feed our own self-interest. 

Rather than leading us outward–to places where we interact in the public sphere with a sense of civility and a commitment to listening to those with whom we might disagree, the Internet may be isolating us from such a society by keeping us embedded inside our “intellectual cocoons.”

Farrell does not completely buy Pariser argument, making the rest of the review worth reading, but it does seem that Pariser is on to something here.  Education is at the heart of a civil society.  I would go one step further and argue that the study of history and other humanities-related fields works best for preparing citizens for life in such a society.  Education, in the Latin, means to “lead outward.”  If this is the case, and if Pariser is right, then social media may be orienting our lives in the wrong direction.

Look at Me! I’m a Radical Christian!

This morning I read a post in Timothy Dalrymple’s excellent series of posts on whether conservative evangelical churches are becoming “radical.”  Dalrymple’s suggests that too often Christians like to look “radical” through the lense of “Narcissus’s Camera.”  I will let him explain:

I had an opportunity last week to sit down with Richard Foster and get his thoughts on a wide variety of topics.  Since I was planning on writing this series, I mentioned my concern that some people (including myself) might pursue radical Christian living for the benefit of what I’ll call Narcissus’ Camera.  What I mean is this: we sometimes find ourselves going about our lives and seeing the world through our own eyes, but simultaneously observing our lives from the outside as it might be perceived or told by someone else.  So here I am feeding the homeless on Skid Row, but even while I’m working with the homeless I’m also observing myself, and approving of myself, working with the homeless.  A part of me is conscious of others and their needs, and a part of me is watching myself on video and admiring how I look.  I’m watching myself through a camera that hovers somewhere over my shoulder, and ultimately I’m hoping that others will, someday and somehow, see the instant replay.

I’m taking a bit of a risk here and assuming I’m not alone in this.  Perhaps I’m a uniquely narcissistic individual.  I do not take that possibility lightly.  But while I’m convinced that most people are better than I am in this respect (I know that I am highly prideful), I’m also convinced that my troubles are not unique to me (I am not uniquely prideful).  Foster seemed to think this is common, even “the Achilles’ Heel” of the striving for radicality.  He spoke of a time in his own life when he felt the praise of others, and the amount of fame he had achieved, were puffing him up.  Called “to let go of my need to be known or to be important,” he withdrew from writing and public speaking in search of “interior crucifixion” (he actually thought he would never return to writing) until he felt a year-and-a-half later that he had learned his lesson.

(Of course, the possibilities here are endless; Narcissus’ Camera can follow us into solitude, and we can gain satisfaction at the thought of playing the video for friends in later years.  Sometimes it’s the most prideful people [like myself] who learn how to conceal their pride best, but I give Foster the benefit of the doubt.).

I really appreciate Timothy’s honesty here.  I think that this is something that all of us (including myself), whether we are Christians or people who just simply want to live a selfless life directed toward others, struggle with.  His piece has given me a lot to think about.

Douthat on Andrew Weiner’s Narcissism

In today’s New York Times column, Ross Douthat argues that Andrew Weiner’s recent indiscretions have less to do with new technology or sexual desire and more to do with the culture of narcissism.  Drawing upon the work of cultural critics such as the late Christopher Lasch, Christine Rosen, and Christian Smith, Douthat writes:

In the sad case of Representative Anthony Weiner’s virtual adultery, the Internet era’s defining vice has been thrown into sharp relief. It isn’t lust or smut or infidelity, though online life encourages all three. It’s a desperate, adolescent narcissism.

The idea that modern America is in thrall to self-regard dates back to the 1970s, when writers like Tom Wolfe and Christopher Lasch famously critiqued the excesses of what Wolfe dubbed the “me decade.” But a growing body of research suggests that American self-involvement is actually reaching an apogee in the age of Facebook and Twitter. According to a variety of sociologists (San Diego State’s Jean Twenge, Notre Dame’s Christian Smith, and others), younger Americans are more self-absorbed, less empathetic and hungrier for approbation than earlier generations — and these trends seem to have accelerated as Internet culture has ripened. The rituals of social media, it seems, make status-seekers and exhibitionists of us all.  

Read the rest here.

Is there a cure to such narcissism?  I am not optimistic.  But I am convinced, perhaps naively, that the study of history can help.  With that in mind, I think it is once again time to remind my readers what historian and educator Sam Wineburg has to say about the virtues of studying the past:

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image. Mature historical knowing teaches us to do the opposite; to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeing moment in human history into which we have been born. History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense. Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of human history.