The Nation's Pulse

The Land of Narcissus

What Arnold Toynbee and Charles Murray understood about a society in disintegration.

By 7.6.09

She was complaining in print about the fact that 437 "friends" were following her on Facebook or MySpace as she described her eventful walk to the refrigerator to make a sandwich. Her complaint was that these people were not really friends, but faceless voyeurs with only a glancing interest in the important details of her daily life. It reminded one of those Hollywood celebrities who rail against the paparazzi, but crave their attention. 

Welcome to the Me-Myself-and-I Generation. It is not made entirely of teenagers desperate to be in constant contact with their friends. It's them, but also many who glide into young adulthood addicted to "texting," Twitter messages and the aforementioned "social network" web sites. These are people who think the world--or at least their acquaintances-- is itching to know the quotidian aspects of their lives. Perusing MySpace and Facebook one wonders how anyone could be interested in this stuff. Apparently, though, millions are. 

There is even a new online service that let's users tell their friends exactly where they are. The user can peg this global tracking to the moment of transmission or keep it active for hours. So, one's adoring "friends" may keep one in their sights for extended periods. Just the ticket for those Hollywood celebrates.

Columnist Cheryl Wetzstein says that all this self-absorption emanates from the generation born to the "Me Generation" of the 1970s. She worries that too many teenagers and young adults try to emulate the faux celebrities who till our television screens and YouTube snippets, people obsessed with their bodies, sexuality, drugs and outrageous behavior. 

Granted the celebrities seem to care only for themselves, like the legendary Narcissus who spurned all advances because he had fallen in love with a reflection in a pool--his own. Now, they seem to have millions of mimics.

To be self-absorbed is to care little for others, even to exploit them. Certainly more than a few are addicted to social networks and seek self-reinforcement by collecting large numbers of "friends" who will admire whatever it is they describe or any photos they may post to glorify themselves. They also rattle off their tastes in this or that.

Along with all this craving for attention from others is a short attention span. Short, monosyllabic text messages on cell phones take the place of conversations or letters. Running comments on one's social networking slot are stream-of-consciousness, not requiring advance thought or writing in coherent sentences and paragraphs.

Is rampant self-absorption related to the ongoing coarsening of the culture? Social scientists will have to decide that. Some already have. In 2001, Charles Murray, in an article in the Wall Street Journal, mused on Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History (1961) in which he said that a healthy civilization is led by a creative minority, setting society's behavioral standards. Conversely, in a "disintegrating" society, Murray says, "the upper levels degenerate and abandon the role of leadership...This leads to a behavioral code that rejects the values of being 'brave, loyal and true'--one that rejects acceptance of responsibility and blame, when that rejects beings modest and gracious in victory and a good sport in defeat...Many of the accepted 'rules' collapse and are viewed as old-fashioned, out of touch...Peer pressure expands exponentially to enforce strict adherence to 'political correctness.'"

Murray summarizes Toynbee's conclusion of 48 years ago this way: "To recognize a disintegrating society, look for a culture that is in the process of being shattered, riven, torn apart. Those who sound wake-up calls of alarm and try to invoke the 'old norms' are shouted down, ridiculed, marginalized and censured."

Sound familiar?

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About the Author

Peter Hannaford, who died on September 5,  was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. His most recent book, Washington Merry-Go-Round: The Drew Pearson Diaries, 1960-69, of which he is editor, has just been published.