The Poet’s Place

 

For lack of anything new to say, I choose to reblog an old post that was widely ignored.

Shelly is supposed to have said that poets are the legislators of the world. Ernst Cassirer later said that poets create culture — using the word “poet” in the broadest sense possible. I assume Shelly was speaking about poets like himself; Cassirer was speaking about artists who could create with words and pictures and thereby help us look at the world anew.
I think Cassirer was right, though I’m not sure about Shelly. But soon after Cassirer made his pronouncement the poets became journalists who wrote stories and in writing helped us see our world as they saw it and to make it into something new whenever they got tired of the old way of seeing things. Recently the print journalists have been replaced by media journalists of the entertainment variety. Our world is now created for us by those in the entertainment industry and consists almost entirely of pictures, moving and still: films, TV, radio,electronic devices of all shapes and sizes, and the internet. And we are pounded relentlessly.
In any event, the world they are creating is one that centers around the self. It is a theme I have developed before, but it is worth mentioning again in light of recent events. We are so much in the middle of a world of self-absorbed individuals we may not be aware of it. But just listen and watch: note how many popular songs refer to “me”; watch the TV commercials closely as they stroke the viewer; note how many reality TV performers will resort to any trick to grab the spotlight (and how many thousands want to be on stage); note how many politicians talk about themselves and see themselves as the center of the political world (especially you-know-who), how the sense of entitlement is ubiquitous, and how the internet is full of images and words telling us about those who post them. Or just consider U-Tube. Note also how materialistic we have become and how fame and wealth have become the center of so many young lives in our culture.
All of these are sure signs of a narcissistic personality. And this desire for fame, which triggers millions of words and images on Facebook and My Space and the millions of U-tube episodes involving self-absorbed people who want to be seen and heard, is spreading like the plague. In fact, it has been argued that the craving for fame at any cost is the major reason for much of the violence that has become alarmingly commonplace in this society, such as the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. The kid who takes (his mother’s) guns to school and kills several teachers and twenty young children may simply want to be seen and heard: a wasted life for a few minutes in the limelight. It seems unlikely, but studies have shown that our cultural narcissism runs that deep.
As readers of my blogs will recognize, I am drawing on Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell’s important book The Narcissism Epidemic. They make a very strong case that what started as a push to make kids feel better about themselves in our schools and in their homes has blossomed into a pervasive sense of entitlement and even cultural narcissism. We have become a society in love with itself, just as Narcissus in the Greek myth fell in love with his own reflection upon seeing it in the water. If they are right in their assessment of the situation, the repercussions are serious indeed.
The two main features of narcissism are the inability to build interpersonal relationships and what Freud called a weak “reality principle.” What this means is that we are becoming increasingly unable to get close to one another and we tend to live fantasy lives. Our electronic toys make this easy as they keep us from making human contact and push us deeper into a make-believe world where everything that happens is all about us.
As Miranda says in The Tempest, “Oh, brave new world that has such people in’t!” In Shakespeare’s day Miranda was filled with wonder; if she said that today she would be snickering. And the major player in this drama is the entertainment industry that creates fictional worlds, invites us in, and tells us we are the most important part of the drama. And we lap it up.

Mean What You Say!

I was watching ESPN’s “Sports Center” yesterday morning and found one of the topics especially interesting. The four regulars were asking a sports guru off-site what he thought about the fact that the University of Richmond has suspended five baseball players for playing “Fantasy Football.” This game is regarded by both the NCAA and by the University as a form of gambling because it involves the winning and losing of money. The guru, and later the four talking heads, insisted that this punishment was a case of overkill. The KIDS (the words emphasized by the guru) were just having fun and if the NCAA and the University want them to stop gambling they should pay them for playing baseball instead of encouraging them to gamble in order to make more money (!).

As you can see from they brief synopsis, the discussion frequently went off-topic. The guru had a difficult time staying on-point; his mind jumped around like spit on a hot griddle. But I daresay he was paid well for his appearance. In any event, I tend to agree that all Division I NCAA athletes should be paid and then use some of that money to pay for their education if they want one. I have been saying this in print for years. But that was not the issue. Nor was the issue whether the rule made any sense.  The issue was whether or not those five players should have been punished for gambling. The answer — despite the unanimous opinion of the well-paid people on “Sports Center” — is a resounding YES! They should be punished.

Why?

Because there is a rule at the University and coming down from on high from the NCAA — king of all intercollegiate sports — that gambling is a no-no. It’s against the rules. The rules are clearly set out and the students, we must assume, were told ahead of time that they were not to become involved, no matter how innocent it may seem and whether or not we agree that “Fantasy Football” is gambling (which I think it is, by the way). In a word, if they broke the rules then they should be punished. Otherwise the rules mean nothing. And it seems to be coming to this, doesn’t it? It’s a cultural problem. We draw lines in the sand — at home, at work, in college, wherever — and then we are busy doing something else when the kids cross that line; we then redraw it somewhere else. It’s small wonder the kids lose all respect for authority and seem to be in a fog much of the time. And, recall, according to Christopher Lasch, this loss of respect for authority is at the heart of our narcissistic culture.

When I worked as a camp counsellor for five summers in Maine many years ago the camp director (who was a wise man indeed) told us at the initial meeting: “if you tell the kids you are going to punish them for doing something wrong, you must do so. If you threaten to kill them if they don’t stop fighting, then you must kill them!” Obviously he wasn’t urging its to kill the kids. (Or was he??) He just wanted to make a point: mean what you say*. I took that to heart as a counsellor and later as a parent — and as a teacher. If I made rules for those people to follow I expected them to follow them. And in the case of  my kids whom I loved dearly or good students who had a legitimate excuse for turning in a late term paper, believe me it hurt me to penalize them, which I did anyway. I suppose it’s what they call “tough love,” but whatever they call it, it makes perfect sense and the fact that five people on television all agree that those baseball players should not have been punished simply attests to the sad demise of basic ethics from which those glued to the television take way the wrong sort of message.

Now, if only the punishments made sense and were consistently applied it would be easier to make my case. The talking heads seemed to be more disturbed about the seriousness of the punishment than the punishment itself and with that I agree. The rules should be clear, consistent, and consistently applied to the stars on the team or the kids in the living room watching R rated movies after being told not to do so. And the punishment should fit the crime. But to say that those who break the rules should not be punished is simply wrong-headed.

 

*And as Alice learned in Wonderland, this is not the same thing as “say what you mean.” But perhaps that is a topic for another time.

History Is Bunk!

I was looking back at some of my earlier posts that mention Aldous Huxley in light of a recent article insisting that Huxley’s predictions are much more accurate than were Orwell’s — an article that is well worth reading, by the way. In doing so, I came across the following post which I reblog in the hope that this time someone will actually read it. I do think it speaks to our current malaise, which spans a broader terrain than simply the recent election and the dangerous machinations of a narcissistic president, though history has some important lessons to teach us even in this regard. 

The student protests in this country during the turbulent 1960s led by well-intentioned, idealistic young people, seem to have marked the death-throes of the American spirit. Directed as it was, unsuccessfully, against the “establishment” of materialistic, commercial, and militaristic power that increasingly controlled this country, the effort sought in its blind way to breathe life into the spirit that had once made this country remarkable. But blind it was, led by uneducated zealots who lacked a coherent plan of action, confused freedom with license, and targeted education which they barely understood and were convinced was turning into simply another face of the corporate corruption that was suffocating their country. In their reckless enthusiasm they decided that the core academic requirements at several of America’s leading universities were “irrelevant” and they bullied bewildered, frightened, and impotent professors and administrators into cutting and slashing those requirements. Other institutions were soon to follow. One of the first casualties was history, which was regarded by militant students as the least relevant of subjects for a new age they were convinced they could bring about by force of will and intimidation.

Had they been inclined to read at all, they might have done well to heed the words of Aldous Huxley when, in Brave New World, he pointed out that the way the Directors of that bizarre world controlled their minions was by erasing history. One of Huxley’s slogans, lifted from Henry Ford, was “history is bunk.” By erasing and re-writing history those in power could control the minds of the population and redirect the nation and determine its future. In the end, of course, the students who led the protests in this country and who thought history irrelevant were themselves (inevitably?) co-opted by the corporations and eventually became narrow, ignorant Yuppies, running up huge credit card debt and worried more about making the payments on their Volvos and their condos than about the expiring soul of a nation they once claimed to love. Or they became politicians tied to corporate apron-strings thereby rendering them incapable of compromise and wise leadership.

In 1979 Christopher Lasch wrote one of the most profound and informative analyses of the cultural malaise that resulted in large part from the failure of the protests in this country in the 1960s. In his remarkable book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life In An Age of Diminishing Expectations, to which I have referred in previous blogs, he warned us about this attempt to turn our backs on history:

“. . .the devaluation of the past has become one of the most important symptoms of the cultural crisis to which this book addresses itself, often drawing on historical experience to explain what is wrong with our present arrangements. A denial of the past, specifically progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future. . . . After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly dancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to ‘relate,’ overcoming the ‘fear of pleasure.’ Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past. Indeed, Americans seem to wish to forget not only the sixties, the riots, the new left, the disruptions on college campuses, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Nixon presidency, but their entire collective past, even in the antiseptic form in which it was celebrated during the Bicentennial. Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper, issued in 1973, accurately caught the mood of the seventies. Appropriately cast in the form of a parody of futuristic science fiction, the film finds a great many ways to convey the message that ‘political solutions don’t work,’ as Allen flatly announces at one point. When asked what he believes in, Allen, having ruled out politics, religion, and science, declares: ‘I believe in sex and death — two experiences that come once in a lifetime.’ . . . To live for the moment is the prevailing passion — to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.”

If there are any questions about the spiritual health of this country, then the loss of hope, the rejection of religion, history, and science, and the abandoned expectations of viable political solutions provide clear answers. We do seem to be a vapid people, collecting our toys and worrying about how to pay for them, wandering lost in a maze of our own making, ignoring the serious problems around us as we follow our own personal agendas — and remaining ignorant of the history lessons that might well show us the way to a more promising future.

Selfies

If there are still doubters out there who insist that this is not the most narcissistic age ever, they should consider the “selfie.” As we all know, and which the always reliable Wikipedia affirms, a “selfie”

” is a self-portrait photograph, typically taken [seemingly endlessly] with a digital camera or camera phone held in the hand or supported by a selfie stick. Selfies are often [seemingly endlessly] shared on social networking services such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They are usually flattering and made to appear casual. Most selfies are taken with a camera held at arm’s length or pointed at a mirror, rather than by using a self-timer.”

Indeed, according to the statistics I just made up, 93.7% of the information on social media is about the person himself or herself. Issues are largely ignored and other people only enter into the discussion if they happen to have some important relationship to the person posting the information. It’s all about “ME.”

Or consider the “self-esteem”movement about which I have blogged previously (seemingly endlessly) which has taken over our schools and which parents have swallowed hook, line, and sinker — despite the fact that all the evidence (which I didn’t make up) suggests that the self-esteem movement actually LOWERS a child’s self-confidence, their sense of who they really are in relation to others around them. But it raises their idea of how accomplished and bright they are and in recent studies of students around the world (which again I did not make up), despite the fact that test scores show that our students trail much of the rest of the world in subjects like language and mathematics, the students themselves are convinced they are the best and brightest. They have the highest sense of self-importance in the world. This is narcissism that borders on self-delusion. And, as we know too well, it has led to the sense of entitlement that pervades this culture in which a growing number of people expect to be handed things because they have a nice smile or are pleasant to be around. Or, simply because they can still breathe in and out. In addition, as Christopher Lasch has pointed out, narcissism can readily lead to violence as those who expect to be handed everything on a platter find their desires thwarted.

In the light of this, it was refreshing recently to read about James Harrison, a professional football player, who returned two very large trophies his sons received for merely participating in an activity. It was not only refreshing because it wasn’t another story about a professional athlete beating his wife or sweetheart, but about a professional football player who is practicing good parenting skills. As Harrison himself said about the awards:

“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies!” wrote the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker on Sunday in an Instagram post to his 180,000 followers. “While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they earn a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned, and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best … cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better … not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut you up and keep you happy.”

Is it possible that this professional athlete knows more about child rearing than the so-called “experts” who dare to give parents and educators misleading advice? Imagine, thinking that praise should be earned and not simply passed out until it means nothing! Harrison just uses his common sense and gut feelings to do the thing he knows is right. I can’t help but believe that we would be much better off if parents and teachers followed Harrison’s lead than they are in raising and teaching their kids “by the book.”

The Content of His Character

I have referenced Christopher Lasch’s thought-provoking book The Minimal Self which is filled with insights along with summaries of various psychological theories and a great deal of psychological jargon. It is hard to quarrel with Lasch’s conclusions as it is many of his seminal points made along the way; after wading through the technical jargon, what his thesis comes down to in the end is that young men and women in this culture no longer can be said to concern themselves what used to be called “character.” This is an old-fashioned word that was the center of Victorian ethics and ultimately came from Aristotle’s notion of areté (virtue) which has to do with the sort of person one happens to be — courageous and honest or cowardly and deceitful.

The reason Lasch thinks we no longer care about character is because we have become a “narcissistic” culture, not one that is merely selfish and hedonistic, but one comprised of individuals who are empty at the center and who take on the various persona of those presented to them by the entertainment industry or the culture at large. The world “out there” ceases to exist; it becomes a “world for me” — an extension of the ego. Values disappear: the beautiful object ceases to be beautiful in itself, it becomes pleasurable for me. The distinction between subject and object breaks down. The act of courage or honesty ceases to have any intrinsic value, it becomes simply an act of which I approve or disapprove — or ignore.

In a word, people are no longer courageous or honest at the core, they are empty at the core and take on the characteristics that those around them happen to exemplify at the moment. It is what Jean Paul Sartre once called “Bad Faith” — the inability of a person to be what he or she is, as a distinctive individual, and their relentless determination to take on roles and play at being something else. Watch the waiter, Sartre said in Being and Nothingness, and you will see that he is playing at being a waiter. He carefully balances the tray and darts between the tables and seems to relish the image he is projecting to those around him. Watch the football coach stalking the sidelines: he is playing at being a coach. Like the waiter or the coach, we lack “authenticity” and take on roles dictated by those around us: we identify with those on the screen or the playing field who are merely a projection of our own “take” on others; so in the end we are playing roles we simply adopt for the sake of getting along in a world we pretty much make up for ourselves. This is the core of narcissism. The Greek character Narcissus fell in love with his image in the water because he mistook that image for himself: the world of objects became the world of the subject. Period. Lasch thinks we do this to a greater or lesser extent and in the end abandon any genuine core of self-hood and are mere role-players in a drama we have invented for ourselves. It’s all about us: the world and the people around us are what we make of them and our concern for them extends only so far as they continue to make our lives pleasant and comfortable.

What I find most interesting and provocative about Lasch’s analysis is his notion that in this process parents and teachers have been removed from their traditional roles as mentors and guides for the young — forming character by way of their own examples, admonition, and their determination to correct and judge in accordance with an ideal of what a human being should be when correction and judgment are necessary. Parents are now perfectly willing to turn their kids over to the “helping agencies,” the social workers and psychologists (not to mention the entertainment industry) who would dictate how the children are raised. In the end the kids grow up to become adults who continue to behave like kids and who lack any real sense of “self” and an inability to make moral choices and resist the charlatans around them who would sell them pipe dreams. Long into adulthood, they remain soft clay waiting to be molded into whatever form those around them choose to make them into.

The solution to the crisis we now face, as Lasch sees it, is for parents to resume their proper parental role and take control of their kids — turn off the TV and take away the electronic toys, take them away from the “helping agencies” and return them to the homes and the blend of love and respect that ultimately comprise the very authority that the kids themselves crave and require in order to become fully human — to mold that core of self-hood that we call “character” and which Martin Luther King Jr once hoped all of us would be judged by, rather than by the color of our skins (or the social roles we happen to play). It’s worth pondering.

Forgetting The Past

The student protests in this country during the turbulent 1960s led by well-intentioned, idealistic young people, seem to have marked the death-throes of the American spirit. Directed as it was, unsuccessfully, against the “establishment” of materialistic, commercial and militaristic power that increasingly controlled this country, the effort sought in its blind way to breathe life into the spirit that had made this country remarkable. But blind it was, led by uneducated zealots who lacked a coherent plan of action, confused freedom with license, and targeted education which they barely understood and were convinced was turning into simply another face of the corporate corruption that was suffocating their country. In their reckless enthusiasm they decided that the core academic requirements at several of America’s leading universities were “irrelevant” and they bullied bewildered, frightened, and impotent professors and administrators into cutting and slashing those requirements. Other institutions were soon to follow. One of the first casualties was history, which was regarded by militant students as the least relevant of subjects for a new age they were convinced they could bring about by force of will and intimidation.

Had they been inclined to read at all, they might have done well to heed the words of Aldous Huxley when, in Brave New World, he pointed out that the way the Directors of that bizarre world controlled their minions was by erasing history. One of Huxley’s slogans, lifted from Henry Ford, was “history is bunk.” By erasing and re-writing history those in power could control the minds of the population and redirect the nation and determine its future. In the end, of course, the students who led the protests in this country and who thought history irrelevant were themselves (inevitably?) co-opted by the corporations and eventually became narrow, ignorant Yuppies, running up huge credit card debt and worried more about making the payments on their Volvos and their condos than about the expiring soul of a nation they once claimed to love. Or they became politicians tied to corporate apron-strings thereby rendering them incapable of compromise and wise leadership.

In 1979 Christopher Lasch wrote one of the most profound and informative  analyses of the cultural malaise that resulted in large part from the failure of the protests in this country in the 1960s. In his remarkable book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life In An Age of Diminishing Expectations, which I have referred to in previous blogs he warned us about this attempt to turn our backs on history:

“. . .the devaluation of the past has become one of the most important symptoms of the cultural crisis to which this book addresses itself, often drawing on historical experience to explain what is wrong with our present arrangements. A denial of the past, specifically progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future. . . . After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly dancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to ‘relate,’ overcoming the ‘fear of pleasure.’ Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past. Indeed, Americans seem to wish to forget not only the sixties, the riots, the new left, the disruptions on college campuses, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Nixon presidency, but their entire collective past, even in the antiseptic form in which it was celebrated during the Bicentennial. Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper, issued in 1973, accurately caught the mood of the seventies. Appropriately cast in the form of a parody of futuristic science fiction, the film finds a great many ways to convey the message that ‘political solutions don’t work,’ as Allen flatly announces at one point. When asked what he believes in, Allen, having ruled out politics, religion, and science, declares: ‘I believe in sex and death — two experiences that come once in a lifetime.’ . . . To live for the moment is the prevailing passion — to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.”

If there were any questions about the spiritual health of this country, the loss of hope, the rejection of religion, history, and science, and the abandoned expectations of viable political solutions provide clear answers.  We do seem to be a vapid people, collecting our toys and worrying about how to pay for them, wandering lost in a maze of our own making, ignoring the serious problems around us as we follow our own personal agendas — and remaining ignorant of the history lessons that might well show us the way to a more promising future.

Violent Christians

The current issue of Sports Illustrated has a most interesting article on the topic of Christianity in football, focusing on such groups as “Athletes In Action” and “Fellowship of Christian Athletes.” The article nicely sums up the dilemma faced by players and coaches who profess adherence to a religious doctrine that preaches peace and brotherly love while at the same time their game measures success by wins and emphasizes violence on the playing field.

The article quotes Les Steckel whom Vikings fans remember as one of the worst coaches that team ever had and who is now President of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Steckel ran the Vikings training camp like it was a Marine Corps boot camp and used to teach his players to “cut-block” opponents — a ferocious block aimed at the knees of the opponent and one that could easily leave the opponent crippled. Steckel defends his tactics, even today, with the bromide “God loves us just the way we are.” Many readers will recognize this as a variation on the self-esteem mantra that drills into the heads of young children the conviction that they can do no wrong: it’s a sign of our cultural narcissism. I have expressed my disdain for this nonsense a number of times and will continue to cling to my conviction that we all show considerable room for improvement and self-esteem should come after accomplishments, not before. But I dare say, this would be lost on people like Les Steckel who are “true believers” if there ever were any.

And the world of professional footballers is filled with true believers as well — namely those players who are committed to playing a violent sport for millions of dollars while they thump their chests and point to the sky after a routine play and kneel every now and again to pay homage to a God who loves them “just the way they are” — and apparently wants them to win a game and buy jewelry, a large home, and a new Cadillac Escalade. Or two.

But what intrigued me most about the article was the way football, like our approach to business as usual, has co-opted Christianity, changing Christianity into a twisted version of the doctrine set forth in the New Testament in order to accommodate it to modern taste. Don McLanen, founder of FCA, was said to have “noticed in the newspaer that professional athletes were endorsing a product, and he felt if they endorse a product, why not a way of life?” The article then goes on to note that “Evangelicals gave up trying to transform the [football] culture and decided instead to use it.” Indeed. My guess is that this is the only way a religion like Christianity that demands sacrifice and stresses the need to love others can survive in a culture like ours that not only worships at the football stadium of a Sunday, but also embraces free-enterprise capitalism which rewards those who selfishly maximize profits at all cost. If Christianity is to survive, it must change — even if it becomes something quite different in the process from what its Founder envisaged.

The article concludes with a comment from Tim Hightower, a former professional football player, who notes that “A lot of the Christian thing is putting the you before the I, and in football you’re sometimes taught to be selfish, to do what you have to do to get ahead by any means necessary. You have to stop and ask yourself: Am I a football player who is a Christian, or a Christian who is a football player?” I don’t doubt the sincerity of many of these men. The question is how on earth they reconcile two doctrines that are diametrically opposed to one another. I think it is done with mirrors.

More Madness

When I was seven years old we moved from Baltimore, Maryland to Dodgingtown, Connecticut — midway between Bethel and Newtown. My sister and I went to Sandy Hook Elementary School. I was a member of Troop 70 Boy Scouts in Newtown, caddied at the Newtown golf course, walked with a friend of mine every Saturday afternoon to the movie house in Newtown to watch the latest cowboy thriller, and my mother ran a shop in Newtown called “Presents Unlimited.” Newtown, Connecticut is a place I once knew very well.

So when I read about the latest shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, I was touched on a very deep level. I have so many childhood memories of that region. Now those memories are mixed with mayhem. It leaves the stomach unsettled and the mind in a whirl.

The President of the United States fought back tears as he pledged to rise above politics and make sure something is done to stop this carnage. He has said this before, but this time he seems to mean it. Easier said than done: the NRA will be geared up for battle and they are one of the most powerful and effective lobbying groups in Washington. We can expect little in the way of serious gun control to come out of this Congress. But gun control is not the whole answer. To be sure, it is a step in the right direction, but it is not sufficient to stop the craziness that seems to be growing in our population. We need to probe for deeper causes.

Let’s take a close look at the youth in this culture who spend hours each day playing violent games on their Xboxes and watch even more hours of violence on TV and in the movies (which make my cowboy thrillers look like Sunday School stories). Humans are animals and young animals learn from imitation. There can be no question the constant immersion in violence plants seeds in the young. Add to this a weakening reality principle, a thin thread separating these kids from the fantasy world of their games where they rule and the real world where (as things now stand) they also rule: they are told they can do no wrong and they are entitled to accolades and applause for every breath they take. Their sense of self grows as their sense of the world they live in shrinks. They crave fame and glory, like the heroes they play in their games. They learn to expect applause for their every effort no matter how impotent. Their ability to connect with other humans weakens as they become more and more isolated.

These speculations are not far-fetched; they are based on solid data, studies that show our culture is becoming increasingly narcissistic and self-absorbed. Combine these factors with the ready availability of guns and one can easily imagine a young Adam Lanza strapping on a bullet-proof vest, grabbing his automatic weapons, and storming into a school pulling the triggers on both weapons as he shoots his “enemies” and emerges a “hero” to the applause of thousands.

Granted, this scenario is a bit of a stretch, but what I say is based on solid evidence and there is a disturbing sense of truth to what I have supposed here. How else do we explain this madness? How else do we explain how a young man can shoot innocent children and their teachers? Only in a world where people get cut off from reality, where the thin thread connecting them to the real world suddenly snaps and their fantasy world takes over. What happened in Newtown, Connecticut cannot be real: it must be a video game — except it isn’t.

Our Obsession

I knew it was bad; I didn’t know how bad. I am speaking about our obsession with “stuff,” our rampant materialism. We have all heard that 1% of the people in this country control most of the wealth. But a closer look gets even uglier. 80% of the people in this country control only 7% of the wealth. The remaining 73% of the wealth is controlled by the very wealthy and the almost-as-wealthy. The top 1% own 43% of the wealth (Think about that: 1% of the people in this country own nearly half of the wealth. Staggering!). The next 4% own 29% of the wealth. Another 15% own 21%, which leaves 7% for the rest of us. So when we complain about being part of the 99% the vast majority of us are really complaining about being part of the 80% of the people in this country who control a lousy 7% of the wealth.

And the really sobering thought is that the have-nots want more than anything to be just like the haves. Consumer debt in this country has risen an average of 7.5% every year since 1997, almost twice the rate of change in the previous 10 years. Average credit card debt now exceeds $11,000, triple what it was in 1990, and most people carry several credit cards. This adds to a total debt load for Americans of $2.5 trillion. Of this almost $1 trillion is revolving debt, such as credit cards, which is usually considered “bad debt” — i.e., debt that may never be collected and for which there was no collateral “up front.”  The average person under 35 years of age spends 16% more money than he or she earns. And this is doubly disturbing.

Most of us elderly folks had high hopes that the younger generation, the “Gen-Ys” or the millenialists whom we believed are more centered, who care more about others and their planet, were going to clean up the mess we are leaving behind. But this is not the case. Not in the least. Research shows that the millenialists are even more self-absorbed and materialistic than their parents or grandparents. Indeed, “affluenza” as it has been called, is a disease that spreads like a cancer and it is deep in the bones of the young who are not only spending their money faster than they earn it, they dream only of becoming wealthy and famous. As it happens the vast majority of them care very little about other people or about the planet.

And the cost to the planet of our materialism is very high as a moment’s glance will show. It drives us to want larger homes than we need, which waste energy; larger cars and trucks than we need, which leave huge carbon footprints; and to eat more than we should, which takes energy to produce at a time when climate change is threatening weather disasters like Hurricane Sandy and a continuation of the drought that is seriously affecting 65% of this country. We appear to be on a collision course with disaster.

One of my favorite jokes involves an ant colony that foolishly made its home in a sand trap on a golf course. A golfer hits his ball into the trap and after killing all but two of the ants with repeated, wild swings at the ball, one ant turns to the other and says, “we had better get on the ball of we will never make it out of here alive.”

Surely, we can agree that the global situation deserves our immediate and focused attention. We need to get on the ball and start thinking about others and about the planet upon which we depend totally. It might start with cutting up the credit cards; driving more economical vehicles (or using public transportation, car-pooling, or even walking and biking); turning off the TVs and spending time with our families talking and sharing experiences; saving more of our money and spending less; and learning to say “no” not only to our kids but also to our own fancies. Admittedly, this would require a radically altered mind-set and it may be much more difficult than it sounds, but it is a matter of extreme urgency given the fact that the golfer is about to take another swing.

Poor Mom And Dad!

I am struck by the irony that behavioral psychologists are now writing books to remedy some of the problems triggered by their own colleagues years ago. This is especially true in the realm of parenting where parents have been told by “pop-phychologists” how to raise their kids for many years now. I referred recently to a book by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell that deals with the narcissism they are convinced stems from the “self-esteem” movement that has taken over the schools –and our homes. Like the teachers, parents have bought into the notion that their kids need more self-esteem and the way to achieve that goal is to keep telling them they can walk on water. As Twenge and Campbell point out in their book “Thinking that you’re great when you actually stink is a recipe for narcissism, yet this is what many parents and teachers encourage in children every day in the name of self-esteem.”

Twenge and Campbell admit that a part of the problem, at least, stems from some of the books their colleagues wrote back in the 60s and 70s — books such as PET: Parent Effectiveness Training written in the early 70s which told parents to be less authoritarian and that they need to be “pals” with their kids, insisting that “saying adults know more [than their kids]. . .is akin to the belief that some racial groups are superior to others.” Seriously! In a word, parents shouldn’t be telling their kids what to do, they should ask the kids what they want and go from there. The roles of parents and kids soon began to reverse, according to Twenge and Campbell, as parents became kids and kids became parents — telling their parents what they wanted and even what they should be doing.

My sense of things is that this movement dovetailed with the growing need felt by parents in the 70s and 80s for both Mom and Dad to work in order to provide their families with the material goods our commodified culture insists will guarantee them “the good life,” a life that was repeatedly paraded before them on their television sets. This trend has continued and, if the parents are not separated or divorced, they spend less time with their kids, are tired when they get home from work (feeling a bit guilty) and they take the path of least resistance which is simply to let the kids have their heads. “Yes” is easier to say than “No.”

All of this is coupled with the growing self-esteem movement to translate into a doctrine that turned the homes and schools upside down: parents and teachers now want to be friends with the kids and center their lives and teaching around what the kids want. In the schools this movement was carried along by the student-centered educational theories of John Dewey and his colleagues at the University of Chicago initiated in the early part of the twentieth century resulting in a strange blend of common sense (the child matters) with nonsense (the child rules).

In any event, psychologists like Twenge and Campbell are now back-peddling frantically as they try to make parents realize that it was all a terrible mistake: by putting the child at the center of the family’s universe, he or she becomes the center of their own universe. The chickens are coming home to roost. The self-esteem movement has resulted in kids who turn into dictatorial, narcissistic adults (as mentioned in a previous blog) who are convinced that they are entitled to be handed the controls of their lives and the lives of those around them (including their parents and teachers), creating growing numbers of adults who live in a self-centered, fantasy universe, talking, singing, and writing about themselves — the only interesting people they know. These are character flaws that cannot be easily altered.  The tiny snowball the pop-psychologists started down the mountain in the 60s and 70s has now become an avalanche.

The solution to this cultural malady is for the parents and teachers to simply resume control of the homes and schools. They need to teach the kids the meaning of the word “no” and mean it when they say it. I would also add that we need to pay more attention to what kids need and less attention to what they say they want. Kids need structure and discipline: it helps bring them back to reality from the fantasy world they have come to believe is real and it centers their lives. As things now stand they are becoming increasingly self-absorbed, conceited, aggressive, and convinced that they are entitled to wear the crown that rightfully belongs to the adults who used to rule the world and who now sit at their feet nervously waiting to be told what to do.