Can we ever stop the hemorrhaging?

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America is sliding backwards in almost every way imaginable.   Like it or not, as a country we have become far more superstitious, fearful, intolerant, and tribal than we were twenty, forty, or even sixty years ago.   Such a worldview is incredibly dangerous to any real progress and the sustainability of democracy.

The following article will provide a background of why this happened, its historical roots, how our situation compares with the rest of the world, and what, if anything, we can do to reverse our destiny and restore democracy as we used to know it.

The Middle Ages.

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Hundreds of years ago, tribalism and irrational fear of the “Other” was the norm in the West. During the Middle Ages, the only form of government was basically a theocracy with “one party rule” by the medieval Catholic Church.  Feudal lords ruled over the serfs with an iron hand, with meager benefits, such as a small patch of land for a family to subsist on, handed out in return for loyalty and backbreaking labor.   There was very little to no chance of a common peasant or serf escaping their grim reality, or ever rising to the merchant class and certainly not the nobility (the oligarchs of those times).   For almost all who weren’t part of the nobility or merchant class,  life was “brutal and short.”  Harsh punishments were meted out liberally against those who dared question the regime or their overlords.  It was a life not much better than slavery.   Science was considered heresy and education was discouraged.  Higher education was limited to the clergy and the nobility, and even that was primarily religious education.

During these “dark ages,” which lasted approximately a thousand years following the fall of the Roman Empire, there was little to no progress, scientifically or otherwise.  Each generation lived pretty much the same way as the one that came before, and people did not live very long.   Daily life revolved around religion and the church and people were very superstitious.  Women were considered the property of men, their only role (besides backbreaking labor alongside the men) was producing as many children as possible as quickly as possible.  Most of those children died of illness before the age of 5 or so.   In fact, infant mortality was so common that medieval women didn’t bother to name a child until he or she was several years old, and more likely to survive.   Not naming a new child made it possible to not get too attached to the child and enabled the mother to take its death in stride without undue grief.

Modern feudalism and third world countries.

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Today, there are such societies. But they are not in the West. You can find feudal-like living conditions under harsh dictatorships and theocracies in third world countries in South America, Africa, and other parts of the undeveloped world.   Unlike advanced western democracies, these developing countries have not advanced in any discernible way, and do not contribute knowledge to the rest of the world. The vast majority of their people live much as Europeans did in medieval times.  The rulers and kings of these impoverished nations may themselves be very wealthy, but they keep their wealth for themselves at the expense of the populace, who have no chance to ever live a good life within their own countries.  These regimes are rife with corruption, oppression, sexism, and violence.  They are societies where hatred, fear, tribalism, and often religious superstition take the place of rational and enlightened thought and higher values such as inclusiveness and empathy for others.

Random violence and harsh and unforgiving laws are common in these societies, and people live in fear of their own government, who care nothing for them and treat them as vermin or at best, as inconvenient burdens.  Some people have been fortunate and able to escape from these regimes.  Many of those refugees emigratred to America for what they believed would be a better life, and for the most part, they have not been disappointed.

Tyranny outside the third world. 

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Islamic theocracies in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran are slightly better as far as quality of life than impoverished third world countries (most people have access to modern technology and generally have at least the basic necessities for survival), but are still rigidly authoritarian states that tolerate no dissent from the national religion and Sharia law. These regimes especially fear feminine power — a power which draws from the higher human values of empathy, altruism, and inclusiveness — and so women have been oppressed and denied a voice.    The rulers of such nations are always men, and they rule with an iron fist.   Toxic masculinity, where power, wealth, violence, and complete control are lauded as virtues, ensures that the “feminine” is kept silenced and where qualities associated with the feminine are dismissed or even considered evil (in medieval times, these qualities were usually associated with witchcraft).   Keeping women in line and obedient safeguards against the risk that the power of the feminine could ever threaten the hypermasculine regime’s control.

The Enlightenment.

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While these harsh conditions used to exist in the West during medieval times, since the Renaissance and Enlightenment they have gradually been discarded.   Since then, the West has come to embrace rational thought and democratic, humane values over superstition and religious intolerance — and has changed their beliefs and laws in keeping with that.   The recognition that science (over religious dogma) is about truth and secular and higher education is valid and desirable, coupled with the idea that different kinds of people can and should learn from each other — and that difference is not something to be feared but something to be celebrated — paved the way for western countries to establish new policies that greatly enhanced the quality of life for all their citizens.  Policies that recognize that each human being is intrinsically valuable and worthy (instead of valued only for what they own or the power they wield) and should therefore be nurtured and encouraged to develop their full potential instead of punished and controlled for attempting to assert that potential has led to greater happiness, prosperity, and longevity for almost all people who live in those societies.  This recognition by the west that the “feminine” is as important (or more important) to the advancement of humanity as the “masculine” is the foundation for democracy, the most spiritually advanced and humane form of government that currently exists.

“Manifest destiny” and the roots of American tyranny.

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America was, unfortunately, founded at least partly through the invasion and oppression of the native people who lived peacefully and sustainably on this continent for thousands of years.  This unpleasant reality has always hindered us as far as advancing in democratic values as easily as other western countries have been able to do. There has always been that undercurrent of violence and intolerance of the “other” that has darkened our path to true progress — even though our Founding Fathers did everything they could when writing up the Constitution to protect against tyranny, whether religious tyranny or some other form of it.

Since the Enlightenment, this reality has been concealed, even to ourselves.  We have convinced ourselves America is the most advanced, prosperous, and humanitarian democracy that ever existed, a concept known as “manifest destiny.”   We have long believed we are the one shining example of morality, liberty, and prosperity to the rest of the world — and that they should follow our example (even if by force at times).  But the reality is, while we lurched toward democracy with the rest of the west,  we were never a true democracy.   We have always been more hubristic and narcissistic than other countries, believing ourselves to be morally and in every other way better than anyone else, but it’s proven to be a slippery slope that has led to the serious problems we are facing right now.    In fact, our narcissism and belief in “manifest destiny” is causing us to slide back into a more medieval, almost feudal, type of society.   We are being sucked into a moral vacuum that was formed by our fear of the “other” and the feminine strengths that, for at least a while, forced us to face those fears and attempt to toss them on the ash heap of history.   The Roman Empire fell for the same reasons we are now.   In fact, America’s system of government was based on ancient Rome, and just as the ancient Romans did, we are eating ourselves alive with our wrongheaded belief that we are the rightful Masters of the Universe and should be treated as such by the rest of the world.

True democracy cannot exist when there is a moral vacuum where feminine qualities and higher human values that recognize all humans are intrinsically valuable are dismissed, ignored, or oppressed.   Toxic masculinity and “strongman” policies are, ironically, born in a crucible of fear.  Fear leads to nationalism and tribalism, which leads to hatred, which inevitably results in violence, oppression, and even tyranny.  The undercurrent of terror and superstition that has always existed in America is poisoning our fragile democracy, which never had a chance to fully flourish and become what it could have been.  Other western countries are far ahead of us in this sense, and now we are falling even farther behind.   We can no longer even pretend to be the “shining light on the hill” to the rest of the world, and to do so would only make us even more laughable to the developed world than we already are.

For over 240 years, in spite of our issues with narcissism, we were still able to make much progress — but we never let go of our need to regard ourselves as superior and make others treat us that way.  And because of our prosperity, our enviable technology, and our comfort with great power and wealth, other countries  did in fact look up to us as the rightful leaders of the free world.   Yet most of this was their perception — that being nothing more than an acknowledgement of the glorified image we wanted to project — not the actual reality of things.    No other western country ever had any concept of themselves comparable to “manifest destiny.”   The erroneous belief that we are “best” and should be admired and emulated by the entire world has kept us from developing sufficient humility to be able to empathize and take care of each other, never mind those “foreigners.”  Humility — the opposite of hubris — is necessary for the development of the feminine and the humane in any society, and that is why other western countries have had a much easier time adapting to true “social” democracy and the concept that good governance means “we’re all in this together” and not “I’ve got mine, screw you.”   Power and wealth has become more important in America than compassion and inclusiveness, and probably always was, if truth be told.  Democracy and unbridled, unregulated power cannot coexist. Since the days of Reagan, the idea that deregulated power and unlimited wealth trumps compassion, inclusion, and humanity (demonized by the right as “socialism”) has increased exponentially.

Our experiment with democracy.

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“Spirit of America” by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978).

For a relatively short time — from sometime in the 1940s through the late 1970s — we experimented with social democracy.   Following FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, American life and prosperity improved immensely for most (though racism and sexism were still issues, no one anywhere had really recognized those things as problems yet — reform was to come later).   The middle class grew and poverty diminished greatly, though it was never completely eradicated (and probably can’t be anyway).  Still, the uniquely American concept that some people were “better” or more “deserving” than others by virtue of their wealth, social status, or what they owned were still the true measures of human worth, even though this remained hidden or denied during those decades where we experimented with real democracy.  The truth is, we were never entirely comfortable with democracy.  Reaganism came as a relief to many people who feared the kinds of changes democracy could bring about.   Reaganism also began the slow unraveling of our developing, but still fragile and easily derailed, progress toward a more fair and humane society.  Forty years later, we are confronted with the terrifying spectre a near- fascist regime whose moral bankruptcy, brutality, ruthlessness, and lack of any semblance of conscience and empathy seems to have no limits.

We all know (or should know) how Reaganism eventually morphed into Trumpism, so I won’t detail the whole story of how that happened here.  Trump is not really the problem, nor would his immediate removal stop the hemorrhaging.   Trump is merely a symptom of a very deep and pervasive problem we have always had and that has become cancerous in the past four decades.   Other western democracies don’t have this problem, at least not to the extent America does. Because humility and “feminine” values (seen by tyrants as “weakness”) are not anathema to them, and narcissism and hubris hasn’t taken over their concept of themselves, they have always been more immune than we are to backsliding into tyranny.  That doesn’t mean it can’t happen in other countries, but it is less likely and their far right factions wield less power.  Our own fear and narcissism is destroying us from within.  We are regressing.

America is no longer a first world country.

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We have arrived at a point where we are not far ahead of places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Russia. While these are not third world countries in the strict sense, they are second world theocracies or dictatorships where the common people have no freedom (though they may be told they do and believe they do), lies are passed as the truth, history is rewritten, the free press is replaced by state propaganda,  and fair elections are either outlawed or a sham, dissent is punished, journalists are jailed, and the “different” are ostracized or even eliminated.   Such regimes have a number of things in common: oppression of women, criminalizing perceived “immorality” (homosexuality is an almost universal example in all these regimes), general intolerance for outsiders, an emphasis placed on buildup of the military,  police states, suppression of the arts and humanities, disdain or hatred for scientific thought, silencing the free press, revisionist history, the merging of religion and state, and state propaganda (whether religious or not) that passes itself off as “education” (in Communist regimes, atheism is treated as the state “religion”).

Lies are their currency; truth is always the enemy. Compassion is seen as weak and toxic masculinity (violence, controlling others, harsh punishment) is seen as “strong.” Higher human values — gentleness, inclusiveness, empathy — are not just regarded as weak, but sometimes as outright evil.   Such regimes are prone to constant wars and violence. Poverty is a given.  The wealthy few rule.  There is no middle class and it is not possible for a person to move upward from one class to another.  The “values” that are rewarded — wealth, power, total control — are often aided and abetted by authoritarian religion whose beliefs dovetail with the regime’s hypermasculine values.  American evangelical right-wing Christianity has much in common with radical Islam and organizations like ISIS.  In theocracies, whether the state-sanctioned religion is Islam, Christianity (so far, we have managed to avoid a religious theocracy here, but it existed during the Middle Ages and in Puritan times), or something else, there is no separation between religion and state and the leaders rule over the masses with an iron fist.  Any deviation is not tolerated.   As I mentioned earlier, this was par for the course during medieval times, but this form of governance was discarded by Europe hundreds of years ago when rational thought supplanted superstition, tribalism, and fear.  America, though denying it, was never able to completely let go of it.

Looking in the mirror.     

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Trump did not cause our decline, but through his hyper-masculine “strongman” words, actions, and tweets, has emboldened those who have always secretly wished for a return to authoritarian, medieval-like conditions and have never been comfortable with democratic values because such values demand we accept those who are different or more vulnerable than we are.  It also demands we embrace so-called feminine values, and that we recognize that every human being is intrinsically valuable. To be able to recognize the value in all people requires empathy, a quality that may be lacking in many Trump supporters, or seen as a “weakness” by people — usually men — who cannot accept any feminine softness within themselves.

But the proverbial phoenix rises from the ashes.  Fortunately, those of us who believe in true democracy and embrace higher human values over base ones like wealth and power greatly outnumber those who do not.   Trump, as bad as he may be, has done one very good thing:  he has provided a mirror for us to see ourselves as we really are, and how sick a nation we have become.   Sometimes the cure for cancer is painful, sometimes more painful than the disease.  Trump has  woken us up from our complacency and our apathy — which, had they continued, would have allowed the incipient authoritarian regime to take full control.   Though unwittingly, he gave us a window of opportunity to recognize the truth and finally take action against the horror that faced us.   Had Clinton or someone else been elected, we might have missed the opportunity.   There would have been no Resistance movement, we would have continued to sit home during elections,  and the thoroughly corrupted new Republican party would have continued to consolidate power and increase their stranglehold on our democracy without us ever realizing it until it was too late.    The cancer America is battling would have metastasized to the point that our destruction was inevitable.   Yes, Trump is extremely dangerous and yes, we could still self destruct just like the Roman Empire did, but I think with things having happened as they did, such an outcome is actually less likely, even as close as we are to destruction now.

The future. 

 leavingthefog

We have a long and difficult journey ahead, if we are ever to liberate our country from the jaws of fascism and return to the democratic, humanitarian values that leaders during the WWII and postwar years recognized were necessary for us to thrive and become a real inspiration to the rest of the world, instead of a flashy sham of one.

There may be war. It’s inevitable people will die.  No revolution ever occurred without bloodshed and great sacrifice. We can’t be cowards and just wait for things to change, because they won’t on their own.   Inaction is death.   America’s soul is in the balance: do we want democracy or tyranny? The choice is ours.

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How did narcissism get so “popular”? (part one of two)

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When I was compiling my lists of songs about narcissism, it didn’t pass my notice how few songs there were prior to the 1980s that focused on it. Oh sure, there have always been a few here and there (Carly Simon’s 1972 hit “You’re So Vain” immediately comes to mind) and there were always those “you/he/she done me wrong” love songs, but songs specifically about narcissism were pretty rare.

I think the reason for this is because it wasn’t until the 1980s that narcissism became so dominant in western (especially American) culture that it became a new virtue–something to aspire to if you wanted to be financially and professionally successful. And it wasn’t until the 1990s that narcissism became recognized as a real problem and websites, blogs and forums about narcissistic abuse began to spring up all over the Internet.

But I think the problem really started long before that, back in the post-WWII days when the Baby Boomers started being born. Of course there are exceptions, but as a generation, the Boomer generation was raised to be grandiose, entitled and lack a collective sense of empathy for others. As the Boomers aged, their collective sense of entitlement bled over into everything they touched–politics, business, and the culture at large. Today this narcissism affects all living generations, but generations older than the Boomers generally frowned on it.

1950s.

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After our WWII victory, America became very hubristic. We had become a superpower to be reckoned with the world over, and American life never seemed better. Life was very different than it had been even a decade earlier, and most newlyweds now had TVs, new kitchens with modern appliances that made a wife’s job much easier and left her more time to spend with her children, and often two cars. Employment was high and jobs paid well compared to the cost of living at the time. Young husbands were able to afford to buy tract homes and new cars on the GI bill, and could afford to support a wife and children. Of course, these were very conformist times too, and “keeping up with the Joneses” was a thing.

Enter the victory babies born in this national mood of optimism following the war: the Baby Boomers. Raised according to Dr. Benjamin Spock’s indulgent philosophy of “feeding on demand” and “Johnny will clean up his room when he feels like cleaning up his room,” Boomer infants and toddlers were pampered, indulged, and trained to be entitled. They were given anything they wanted and discipline tended to be light and consist of trying to “reason” with children. There was an endless array of new toys and snacks marketed to children, and mothers were made to feel like bad parents if they refused to comply with what advertisers told them to buy. The kids caught onto this attitude of entitlement, and if Sally got the new Barbie doll or Eric got the new battery operated toy truck, then Debbie and Paul had to have them too. The culture at the time was child-centered. It was a given that a child’s needs and wants always came before the parents’ and children were constantly told how “special” they were.

As they entered school, young Boomers’ attitude of entitlement and specialness carried over into the classroom. As a generation, they expected to be treated as little gods and goddesses, just as their parents had treated them.

1960s.

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As the Boomers entered their teens, they began to rebel against the parents who had showered attention and material comforts on them. I believe this rebellion was due to a collective fear of engulfment by overindulgent parents. They were attempting to break away by reacting against the very lifestyle that had given them so much. Of course not every child had overindulgent parents, but teenagers always try to emulate what’s popular or cool. Rebelling against “the Establishment” or the Vietnam War (which also represented the values of their parents) became hip and cool. Adolescent Boomers, having been raised to believe they were unique and special (and most of those middle class and above were able to attend college and were often the first in their family to be able to do so) embraced causes that were anathema to the values of “the old fogies” and at first, really believed their causes were superior to those of their parents. They tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. They experimented with marijuana and LSD. They dressed in hippie clothing and wore their hair long, which horrified “The Establishment.” They listened to rock music, the louder and harder and more offensive to the older generation, the better. They protested the war, attended “love ins” and participated in campus sit-ins, and eventually riots. Young Boomers believed their values were exactly what the world needed, but their attitude was based on entitlement rather than realism. They were idealists who believed the world could be changed by smoking pot and listening to the right sort of music.

Due to the sheer size of the Boomer generation, anything they did got a lot of national attention. Besides the many disapproving and negative news stories about the Vietnam protests, communal living, and recreational drug use, others were also beginning to emulate them. The next-older generation (The Silents), who had been largely ignored as they came of age, tried to seem younger by emulating the Boomers in their dress, tastes, and general lifestyle. The Boomers were never short on collective narcissistic supply (both negative and positive), and this continued to feed their attention-getting behavior.

Parents wondered where they had gone wrong, and why the children they had raised so lovingly had turned so rebellious and so insistent on “doing their own thing.” They wondered why this new generation seemed to hate them so much.

By the end of the 1960s, the “hippie lifestyle,” like everything else the Boomers would ever start, had become a lucrative market. But by the time The Establishment caught on, the Boomers were beginning to move on to other things, including embracing what they had rejected.

The power was still in the hands of the older generation of course, so narcissism had not yet become a noticeable part of the culture (although hubris and conformity definitely still was). By the 1970s, the first signs of a growing narcissistic culture would begin to make themselves felt.

1970s.

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Boomers, now entering their 20s, had by now largely abandoned their earlier hippie incarnation for a more subdued “back to the land” movement, in which they opted for whole foods, fresh air, and healthy living. Others began to infiltrate the job market, often with degrees in esoteric subjects. Having children was something to be avoided, as Boomers wanted to prolong their adolescence or make a mark on the world. The Pill and newly legal abortion made all this possible. Around the same time, women began to demand equal rights in society and the workplace. The 70s wave of feminism was very anti-child and pro-career. If you preferred to marry and raise children, you were looked upon as a throwback to the 1950s.

Around the same time, various forms of non-traditional, humanist psychotherapies (EST, Esalen, etc.), grassroots religions, and cults became popular. Collectively known as “the human potential movement,” self-improvement and self-development became a priority for Boomers. Putting your own needs before those of others was not only normal, it was considered healthy. New York Magazine dubbed the 1970s “The Me Decade” for this reason. Couples opted to cohabitate rather than marry(because it was easier to break a commitment), and divorce was becoming very common. Children raised during this time (Generation X) found themselves ignored, treated as second class citizens, or sometimes even abandoned by their self-involved Boomer parents who seemed to put their own needs ahead of theirs.

Around the middle of the 1970s, a new kind of music (disco) became associated with materialism, hedonism, and over the top sexuality. By now, Boomers had done a 180 from their emergence during the 1960s as hippies, and now embraced the crass materialism they had once rejected. They were ready for a President who would encourage their pursuit of luxury and material success.

At the same time, fundamentalist Christianity, which had been “rediscovered” by some Boomers as an outgrowth of the Jesus movement of the 1960s, was becoming increasingly popular, and the new conservatism was using it as a way to attract newly saved Christian voters.

The new narcissism wasn’t lost on Christopher Lasch, who published his book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” in 1979.

1980s.

yuppies

Ronald Reagan popularized trickle-down (or “supply side” economics), which basically meant allowing people to pay less taxes and keep more of what they earned. This played right into the hands of financially successful, entitled Boomers, who didn’t want to share their newfound wealth. The hippies had become the Yuppies–young urban professionals who had to “dress for success,” live to impress, and have the best of everything. Clothing wasn’t acceptable unless it had a designer’s logo on it. Housewares weren’t acceptable unless they were handmade in Outer Mongolia by native women. Food wasn’t acceptable unless it was “nouvelle cuisine.”

Having the perfect body was a priority, and Boomers started going to the gym or even personal trainers to tone and sculpt their bodies, sometimes to the point of unhealthy obsession. Boomers, mostly in their 30s by now, were finally deciding to have families, but children themselves became a status symbol, and getting your child into the “right” preschool or having the “right” designer clothing, or the “right” dance instructor became all-important. It was common for Boomer parents to watch other people’s children closely, to find out what they needed to do to “one up” each other as parents.

In 1987, a popular movie called “Wall Street” was released, in which its most famous quip, “greed is good,” became a national meme. While it was intended as a joke at first, “greed is good” quickly became a new philosophy of life, in which greed was not only good but became a virtue. Greed may have been one of the seven deadly sins, but even Christians made an exception for it, and we even had a Christian president who encouraged as much of it as possible. After all, it was the American way and America was a Christian nation, right?

Please continue reading Part Two of this article. 

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For further reading, see my articles:
1. Are Millennials Really the Most Narcissistic Generation Ever?
2. Why is Narcissism so Hot These Days?