Tuesday, June 13

Changing the message

Thirty-nine years ago I published my first piece in Eugene's Willamette Valley Observer, and while I went on to write many more pieces for that newspaper, this one holds a special place. I've been thinking about it lately, because I've been thinking about narcissism.

The piece, a first venture into opinion writing, was called "The Message is Me," written because for several months I'd been observing a new phenomenon. It may seem strange to readers today, but until the late 70s it was unusual to see people wearing company logos, or tee-shirts identifying stores, companies, events, or ideas. This new thing, clearly a trend, interested me.
"There's a growing compulsion to adorn our chests and backs with notices and free advertising, and people wander the streets like miniature message boards, demanding our attention. Why?"
Looking back on it now, I wonder if it was a first symptom of our national trend toward narcissism—or self-centeredness if you prefer. I'm not suggesting we're all Donald Trumps, but in our actions, our politics, our writing, we now emphasize the individual me far more often than the communal we. 

Consider the increasing number of novels written in first person; a style that was rarely used in the past, when third-person "omniscient" narration dominated. And memoirs—the most me-centered of all writing—are flourishing, with agents and publishers begging for them. Writers and would-be writers across the land are flocking to classes in memoir writing. This genre used to be the preserve of celebrities; now everyone wants to tell their story, and readers are buying. I'm not opposed to this, I've written one myself. I'm just suspicious of the change.

Think about the way our government and society have drawn away from the broad, people-centered programs of the post-war years into the 1960s. Johnson's poverty program and the drive for civil rights capped that period, and beginning in the late 70s and 80s our attitudes began to change. Individual wealth was applauded, while the not-so-fortunate saw government (i.e, communal) support dwindle, and continue to do so. Much of this is associated with President Reagan, 1981–1988.

And now we have elected an undisputed narcissist as our president. The world of I is spread out before us in glaring relief, and it's not pretty. We've heedlessly moved from we to me—my belongings, my job, my looks, my problems—a self focus encouraged by social media.

Our planet is in deep trouble. Our government is unresponsive and corrupt. Our infrastructure can barely be called that. Our schools cry out for attention and tax money.

As an only child I know the attraction of narcissistic behavior. It's a little like having the devil on your shoulder whispering, "It's all right, you do what you want. You're special."

And I am. And so are you. And so is every single life on this planet. And now we can all look into the mirror that Trump is holding up for us, and decide what kind of people we want to be. We can continue down the road we're on, or we can open our eyes and stretch out a hand. We can move from selfishness to empathy. But we have to choose, and soon.

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