Once More Into the Wind

I repost here a piece I wrote in 2012 to show how much impact such posts have on current affairs (!) and because I do think I stumbled on a few good points — with the help of other seminal thinkers. I have added a few comments to bring the post up to date. 

The revelations highlighted in a Chronicle of Higher Education recently about the “Millennials” and the study that shows them to be much more “me” oriented than previously thought is really not all that surprising. The phrase “the me generation” has been used for some time now, and what this recent study shows is that “generation” should be plural.

Christopher Lasch wrote the definitive book on the subject back in 1979 when he noted that

“.. .the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls’ and the shift from a society in which the values of self-restraint were ascendant to one in which more and more recognition was given to the values of self-indulgence.” (The Culture of Narcissism)

Increased “self-indulgence” in the absence of a strong parental authority figure, according to Lasch, leads invariably to narcissism. In a word, permissive parents in the 1960s and 1970s were regarded by a prominent social psychologist as the root cause of the narcissism that was becoming prevalent at that time and has grown exponentially since then.

But, if this does not astonish us, we can see the same insight suggested in the pages of a novel written 50 years before Lasch wrote his book. Edith Wharton, in Twilight Sleep  is making fun of Mrs. Pauline Manford the flighty, empty-headed do-gooder who seems to be able to embrace numerous contradictory ideas comfortably at the same time. She is busy at one point in the novel forming a League of Mothers (!)

“against the dreadful practice of telling children they were naughty. Had she ever stopped to think what an abominable thing it was to suggest to a pure innocent child that there was such a thing in the world as Being Naughty? What did it open the door to? Why to the idea of Wickedness, the most awful idea in the whole world. . . how could there be bad children if children were never allowed to know that such a thing as badness existed?”

Now there’s logic at work for you!

Though permissive parenting was a theme soon to be picked up by every pop-psychologist who could find a publisher, it is possible that Wharton may have been poking gentle fun at A.S.Neill’s Summerhill project which had started up in England a few years earlier. Summerhill was a “free school”  which had no requirements whatever and just let the kids hang out until something struck their fancy at which point, presumably, they would start to learn. The assumption was that they would not learn anything unless they were interested in it, which is absurd — though it is certainly easier if the child is interested. That’s the teacher’s job, after all.

Cassandra before a burning Troy.

If Wharton was making fun of the idea, she was joined by such eminent thinkers as Bertrand Russel, among others, who ridiculed Neill’s experiment. But to no avail. The idea caught on in England and gave great impetus to the “child-oriented” progressive movement in the schools in this country as well. It is still very much in evidence in the self-esteem movement which is simply the latest episode in this rather tiresome and ill-conceived “never-say-no” educational “theory.” In fact, the entire movement, combined with an economic system that encourages competition among individuals and the accumulation of as much stuff as possible in the shortest amount of time, leads to generations of students who have turned into adults preoccupied with themselves and their own well-being which they pretty much define in terms of material success.

Thus, much of the fuss over the “Millennials” is misplaced and should really be focused on the tendency toward cultural narcissism that Christopher Lasch identified in 1979 and which began at least as early as 1924 when A.S. Neill started Summerhill. Those of us who worry about the continued survival of Western civilization are almost certainly joining the Cassandras that have spoken up throughout history. The ship has sailed and the wisest course of action might well be to simply wait and see where it ends up. The problem with this laissez-faire attitude, however, is that narcissism leads to excessive violence, as Lasch has shown, and a society made up of expanding numbers of violent people preoccupied with their own material well-being is not likely to care a helluva lot about those around them or the world they share in common with millions of others on the planet.

How does this relate to the behavior of so many around the world who seem oblivious to the fact that they endanger others when they fail to wear a face mask during a pandemic? Need I ask?


6 thoughts on “Once More Into the Wind

  1. Hugh, well said. The masks are more for other people than you. Yet, social distancing, washing hands, just being smart about the frequency of contact, should all be factors in everyone’s minds..

    We are now over 112,000 deaths in the US, over 27% of the total global deaths, with only 5% of the population. And, the numbers of cases are not declining. Summer weather helps, but crowded places hurt. We have not licked this problem. We have just managed it, but it is painfully obvious other places have managed it better than the US.

    There is an old line that says common sense is not all that common that bears repeating. Keith

    • In this age of narcissism it is not surprising that many folks simply don’t care about others: they are unaware of others (except at the point where they intersect our lives and provide pleasure our pain). But it is sad, none the less.

  2. It is only in the past few years that I have come to realize just how self-focused and arrogant many people, some I once called ‘friend’, are. When I point out that they should not be asking for a tax break, as our taxes help feed the needy, and so many are homeless or going to bed hungry at night, they basically say, “Yeah, but I’m not … I’ve got mine, let them get theirs.” I am largely disgusted by humans these days, with a few notable exceptions. Still, I see hope in the next generation, many of whom are looking at our generation in disgust and wondering where our social conscience is.

    • I’m with you. I have a friend who was paid by the State of Minnesota for 30 years to do his job and as soon as he retired he moved to Florida where he would pay no state taxes. This sort of behavior really bothers me and my feelings for my friend changed remarkably. Does he not see that he owes something to others?

      • Similarly, I have a friend who has received food stamps for years in the past, but now I hear him say he wants the government to cut the food stamp program! No, I don’t think they feel that they owe anything to anybody … it is all about them, about their convenience, about their ‘happiness’. Fortunately, not everyone is like that, but it is a mentality that seems to be increasing.

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