2020.06.03 Protesting the Murder of George Floyd, Washington, DC USA 155 50204
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The mostly peaceful uprising sweeping America and the world, sparked by George Floyd's brutal murder by a Minneapolis cop, may signal a profound shift in the zeitgeist. Yes, the civic revolt is ostensibly about the racist oppression of the black community by an economic, political, and cultural apparatus biased against it. An oppression enforced under the iron boot of our prison-industrial complex: what Michele Alexander aptly calls the New Jim Crow. This must be kept at the forefront of the protest, with radical reform of the police department a major, non-negotiable ask.
But what if, to quote a 1967 Buffalo Springfield song, something else is "happening here?"
By reaffirming the awesome power of community and collective action, the protests may also be signaling the death throes of narcissism, a shallow, self-centered way of being often attributed to the Me Generation of the 1970s. Since Donald Trump is himself the poster child of narcissism, let's analyze the social, cultural and historic forces that shaped his consciousness. I'll begin with the cultural turning point of the mid-70s, when the social movements of the sixties were abating. When the hippies were becoming yuppies.
You might call Donald Trump the first yuppie. While his socially engaged peers went to Woodstock, marched against the Vietnam War, and majored in the humanities (studying real subjects like philosophy, literature, and history) Trump studied business and dreamed not about changing the world, but of "conquering New York real estate." With the election of that great anti-protester and status quo enforcer Ronald Reagan in 1980, who believed if we only cut taxes on the wealthy, everything would be OK, the "greed is good" ethos embodied by Trump--and reflected in movies like Wall Street and shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous--became a steam roller flattening society.
In his 1991 book The Ethics of Authenticity, philosopher Charles Taylor likens the culture of narcissism to "the spread of an outlook that makes self-fulfilment the major value in life and that seems to recognize few moral demands or serious commitments to others." In other words, narcissism is deeply hostile to community. Neither does it care much for history, religion, nature, or the public good. At the heart of narcissism, there is but one lonely, selfish question. It's the same question James Spader's character asks Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox in Wall Street, seeking inside info for a stock deal:
"What's in it for moi?"
I was born in 1963, which makes me an actual child of the sixties. One of my most treasured artifacts is a Polaroid photo my parents took of me, age five, dressed up like a hippie wearing a blonde wig and colored beads. When the Me Decade (as Tom Wolfe put it) arrived in 1970, I was a seven-year-old tot. Too young to have a political consciousness, still, my memories of the time are colored by feelings of boredom, lassitude, and meaninglessness. Might these feelings have, at least in part, a political causation? Along with the scent of patchouli, a civic depression seemed to waft through the air. Jimmy Carter nailed it with his famous "malaise" speech. With no great causes to fight for, an empty solipsism ruled the day. The community withered. Books like I'm OK, You're OK were best sellers. Christopher Lasch diagnosed this erosion of personality as the "Minimal Self."
It was in this vacuum of higher ideals that Donald Trump, a Machiavellian proto-fascist, rose to power. As the 70s drifted into the 80s and 90s, the utopian idealism of the sixties was replaced by a toxic worshipping of wealth and celebrity. Entertainment culture went along with this make-a-buck flow, selling its soul for box office receipts, dumbing down the population with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise movies. Young people shunned the humanities for degrees in marketing. Consumerism was in, thinking was out. Going for your "dream" meant having a lucrative career, not exactly what Martin Luther King had in mind. "Telling your story" became a selfish, cliched branding opportunity in the service of mere entrepreneurship-not world saving activism.
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