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Cultural Narcissism is not a generational phenomenon.

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International and Interdisciplinary Conference of Human Rights, Individualism and Globalization. Sponsored by the Center for Spirituality, Ethics and Global Awareness Bethany College School of Arts and Sciences (April 10, 11, 12, 2008) Narcissism has been around for a long time, and although each generation may have expressed it differently, it is a prevailing attitude. Perhaps Thomas Goodnight, a public sphere scholar, said it best, 'In 19th Century America, the grounding of arguments made to the poor and about the poor were grounded in the private sphere' (Goodnight p.221). At that time, the public felt that the poor should help themselves and have more self-reliance. The condition of being poor was a private matter and not a shared societal matter. He writes about the creation of disagreements where matters of personal dispute can take on a public character. According to Goodnight, 'Help was cajoled from the rich only as a gesture of Christian charity' (Goodnight 221). Goodnight claims that 'Grounds of argument may be altered' (Goodnight 221).

Two centuries later, the public is returning to the belief that poverty is a private matter and not a public or societal matter. Goodnight says, 'Denial of the public sphere is accompanied by celebration of personal lifestyle, producing what one critic has called the 'me generation' and another, 'the culture of narcissism' (Goodnight 224). I argue that there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between demagoguery in poverty rhetoric and narcissism. Studying communication practices is a useful way to uncover prevailing expressions of human conditions, but first I need to describe the illusion of saliency.

The Illusion of Saliency

The illusion of saliency is 'the impression conveyed by polls that something is important to the public when actually it is not' (Ginsberg and Lowi 243). This controversy perpetuates the illusion of saliency that we must overcome this menace of narcissistic behaviuor. I see this illusion in poverty rhetoric and investigate the origins of welfare liberalism which caused narcissism as a denial of the public sphere to be our prevailing attitude.

First, there are the views of historian and social critic, Christopher Lasch, (1979) and Jurgen Habermas (1999). Their views are similar when they discuss problems created from the erosion of the bourgeois patriarchal family, the problems created from welfare liberalism in the new Social-Welfare state, and the problems created from cultural consumption which caused unhealthy self-interest and an erosion of individual duty and responsibility. (This paragraph is copied as it is in the abstract).

What are narcissistic behaviours and attitudes?

To understand why narcissistic behaviuor has been around since at least the 19th Century, one first has to understand the personality type of the narcissist. The 'all people against all people' approach of competitive individualism is closely related to narcissism. Christopher Lasch emphasises Sigmund Freud's concept of narcissism and he pays particular attention to how narcissism is 'a defense against aggressive impulses rather than self-love' (Lasch 73).

Lasch does not equate narcissism with selfishness. He explains narcissism as a coping mechanism used for social conditions during the late 1970s. Lasch considers society to be 'war like' which he feels produces anti-social people who distrust others. Lasch points out that the consumer is perpetually unsatisfied, restless, anxious and bored. He describes a preoccupation with the self that remains unsatisfied, indifferent, and empty. Lasch emphasises the secondary characteristics of narcissism, 'pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, nervous, self-deprecatory humor' (Lasch 75). But why does he only see this self-interest phenomenon developing in the 1970s?

In my opinion, Jurgen Habermas also looks at the history of narcissism. Can we pinpoint a historical period that launched the preoccupation with the 'self?' Lasch believed that the 'Economic man himself has given way to the psychological man of our times' (Lasch 22). Habermas, however, may have found the starting point of self-analysis. According to Habermas, 'The diary became a letter addressed to the sender, and the first-person narrative became a conversation with one's self addressed to another person. He says England in 1750 is when the bourgeois strata began 'communicating with itself, attained clarity about itself (Habermas 51). I argue here that the narcissistic behaviuor of self reflection became increasingly important in the 1800s and remains so now.

Problems created from the erosion of the patriarchal family lead to a narcissistic prevailing attitude. Habermas tells how the exchange relationships of bourgeoisie society caused the family to lose its role of providing education, protection and care. He says, 'In a certain fashion even the family, this private vestige, was deprivatised by the public guarantees of its status.'

On the other hand, the family now evolved even more into a consumer of income and leisure time, into the recipient of publicly guaranteed compensations and support services' (Habermas 155, 156). Habermas believes that paternal authority was dismantled and the family was released from economic and protective functions.

This erosion is similar to Lasch's idea of new paternalism. In my opinion, narcissistic behaviour as a denial of the public sphere developed from the effects of welfare liberalism. In Lasch's 'welfare liberalism,' he absolves individuals of moral responsibility and treats them as victims of social circumstance. He describes how a new ruling class has elaborated new patterns of dependence (Lasch 369, 370). There is no character building or work ethic. The old liberal model of control is replaced by leisure, hedonism, permissiveness, and entitlement. This has reorganised how the ruling class uses symbolically mediated information.

Lasch and Habermas discuss cultural consumption which caused everyone to want to be in a higher social class because of their exposure to manipulative publicity and mass culture. Habermas writes that 'the public sphere in the world of letters was replaced by the pseudo-public or sham-private world of culture consumption' (Habermas 160).

He stated three reasons for the collapse of the public sphere??:

1. People were turning away from reading and writing literature

2. People were turning away from stimulating group activities involving reason and debate

3. People were moving toward personal indulgence and relaxation

Lasch's and Habermas's interpretations frame the welfare liberalism controversy. It absolves both wealthy and poor individuals of moral responsibility and allows a retreat from the public sphere.

Last Century

In the 20th Century, the Progressives shifted poverty arguments by using propaganda. Richard Hofstadter wrote about Progressives in his article, "The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R.", that 'We can see throughout history that these figures have sought to persuade their audiences to some course of action through speeches.' Speakers may also persuade people to accept the poverty issue as everybody's issue. Progressives became flattering, exaggerating, partisan demagogues.

The foundation of Progressive thought is contained in the book, Progress and Poverty (1880) by Henry George, a printer and journalist from California. He wrote that the 'cause of poverty lay in limited land ownership and proposed a "single tax" to redistribute wealth' (Cull and Culbert 411). His book sold over 2 million copies. This book, along with the book, How the Other Half Lives (1890) written by muckraker journalist, Jacob Riis, are examples of propaganda that shifted poverty arguments into the public sphere.

Riis photographed and wrote about the poor conditions of New York slums. His book contains numerous tropes, especially hyperbole, to of the Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia 1500 to the Present, explains, 'If propaganda is to be a useful concept, it has to be divested of its pejorative connotation' (Cull and Culbert 411). Cull also says documentary photography played a significant role in the New Deal propaganda. Identification can be seen in these examples because the authors are trying to get the public sphere to see things as they do. The propaganda relies on the receiver's willingness to accept the authenticity of the source and the content of the message. Consubstantiation through partisan appeals can be seen in the examples of Henry George and Jacob Riis. This propaganda was not useful because it negates productive public argument because the pejorative associations are untrue, half true or exaggerated. The public develops salient or strong opinions about morality of certain social classes of the public. Henry George and Jacob Riis used poverty demagoguery to shape public opinion that society should help the poor.

Their use of partisan appeals caused controversy in the public sphere and removed the controversy from the personal and technical spheres. Their audience identified with their argument but public concern became public disgust because the rich and poor felt guilt, hate and victimisation toward one another.

Radio has always been a powerful medium for demagogues. Huey Pierce Long, Jr. was the first politician to reach a large national audience on radio, according to Paul Gaske who wrote about him in the book, American Orators of the Twentieth Century Critical Stories and Sources. 'Share Our Wealth' societies was the topic of Long's radio broadcasts. Long purchased airtime from the National Broadcasting Company in order to speak in support of his senatorial bills with a large audience. Five days after President Roosevelt's first fireside chat, Huey Long was provided free time by NBC and delivered the first of eleven national radio broadcasts. By looking at Long's speeches, we can see the grounding of arguments about poverty shifting from the private sphere back to the public sphere.

Gaske says, 'Long's speeches typically followed a particular motivational pattern of action described in Kenneth Burke's book, Permanence and Change: a procession from guilt to victimization to redemption to salvation.' He says, 'Long's radio broadcasts typically began with the creation of guilt in his audience: guilt for being impotent and ill equipped to deal with their own problems, guilt for being poor and denying their children basic necessities. This guilt would then be transferred to a 'sacrificial offering'-an enemy-in the persona of the conspiratorial wealthy and the individual ultimately responsible for decisions affecting the poor, Franklin Roosevelt. The victimisation process would include not only the identification of the enemy but its demonic and sinister features, the extent and threat of its power, and the justifiable and necessary retribution that must be taken against it' (Gaske 294).

These broadcasts created the illusion that narcissistic behaviours like leisure, hedonism, permissiveness, and entitlement are a menace to society. This argument was brought into the public sphere. Long talked about the effects of cultural consumption, unhealthy self-interest and the erosion of duty and responsibility for individuals.

Use of Language

Demagogues create saliency in public opinion as they move arguments about poverty by using figures and tropes. Figures and tropes 'are not just ornaments applied after an argument is constructed, but that they themselves have the argumentative function of strengthening or weakening presence, that is, the salience of an idea or topic' (Van Eemeren et al. 207). Hyperbole is a common trope used by demagogues in controversy. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton uses personification when she says, 'It takes a Village to Raise a Child.' She uses demagoguery to transform the parents' responsibility of raising a child to an inanimate object with human qualities. Sometimes demagogues use metaphors like when Long used light/dark metaphors to drive home the sinister image of the conspiratorial wealthy. President Clinton also used simplistic partisan appeal to create controversy about people's character flaws. His speech is an example of demagoguery. In his Announcement Speech at the Old State House, Little Rock, Arkansas October 3, 1991, he said:
   Nearly half a century ago, I was born not far from here in Hope,
   Arkansas. My mother had been widowed three months before I was
   born. I was raised for four years by my grandparents, while she
   went back to nursing school. They didn't have much money. I spent a
   lot of time with my great-grand-parents. By any standard, they were
   poor. But we didn't blame other people. We took responsibility for
   ourselves and for each other because we knew we could do better. I
   was raised to believe in the American dream, in family values, in
   individual responsibility, and in the obligation of government to
   help people who were doing the best they could.

By looking at this speech, we can see the grounding of arguments about poverty shifting from the public sphere back to the private sphere. When Clinton depicts the 'American Dream', he uses ambiguous public assumptions about family values and tends to accept these 'universal principles' as 'essential' to a democratic society but insists that they be manifested in personal responsibility.

This rhetoric has created the salient illusion that narcissism is a generational phenomenon because President Clinton's use of the 'New Covenant' theme and returning us to being 'Old Fashioned' because we have a 'new choice based on old values.' Now, we should look at actual polling on public opinion.

Pew Center

Goodnight wrote that 'audiences seem to disappear into socially fragmented groups' (Goodnight 224). Pollsters categorise groups of people. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press is a nonpartisan 'fact tank' based in Washington D.C. They provide information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the United States and the world.

A 1995 survey using typology classified voters' nine values and attitudes toward government, environmentalism, business, social welfare, social policy issues, religion, race relations, the military, and feelings of political alienation.

Morality and welfare reform had high presence in public opinion. It is my opinion that Clinton's demagoguery brought the menace of welfare liberalism as a moral society breakdown to the forefront of our consciousness. Higher taxes, the moral crisis, the size of government, a declining educational system, the need for welfare reform, and the budget deficit round out the long list of reasons that make Americans unhappy with conditions in the country' (Pew 2). The Pew Research Center goes on to say, 'if anything, dealing with the moral breakdown in the country is the one recurring theme that runs across the political spectrum' (Pew 3). While I am unable to cover all of the reports findings, there is one public that shows how rhetoric perpetuates a prevailing attitude that narcissism is a menace.

The 'Divided Right' public is made up of three categories of people that are all against social welfare:

1. Enterprisers (13% of adult population): Affluent, well-educated, and predominantly white.

2. Moralists (16%): Middle-aged, middle-income, predominantly white, religious (more than half are Evangelicals).

3. Libertarians (8%): Highly-educated, affluent, predominately white male. This group has Republican lineage but is uncomfortable with today's GOP, particularly its religious right.

The study also discussed another category called the 'Partisan Poor' which was the only group who thought President Clinton was making progress in dealing with the country's problems. Clinton encouraged the 'Partisan Poor' group to be self sufficient and their public opinion

of him is at a high level. The report said Clinton escapes blame from all the other publics because he encourages the poor to be responsible for their selves.

The relationships between these contextualised categories of publics reveal the ways in which demagogues can package salient issues about poverty. The salient issue that is revealed in polling public opinion is the moral breakdown of our country that I argue is this perceived menace of the narcissistic personality that celebrates the personal lifestyle over civic responsibility. The erosion of morality appears to be important to the public so poverty demagoguery flourishes in both centuries teetering between the personal and public spheres. Figures and tropes strengthen the dialogue of victimisation and shame causing controversy.


The origins of welfare liberalism which caused narcissism to be our prevailing attitude are historically captured in Lasch and Habermas' cultural criticisms. Poverty demagoguery absolves individuals of moral responsibility and treats them as victims of social circumstance. That, in turn, negates productive societal participation in a public sphere. Narcissistic behaviour can be menacing but when arguments are made that being poor is a private matter and not a shared societal matter (in the private sphere), poverty demagoguery moves argument in and out of private and public spheres. Public concern becomes public disgust at unhealthy self-interest and an erosion of duty and responsibility for individuals. Theories of distributive justice may be the antidote for our prevailing malaise known as narcissism.

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The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 'Energizing Democrats Backing Clinton: Voter Anxiety Dividing GOP'. Nov. 14, 1995

Riis, Jacob A. How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907. Questia. 1 Apr. 2007 ( a=o&d=106184793).

Tyler, I. (2007) 'From 'The Me Decade' to 'The Me Millenium': The Cultural History of Narcissism.' International Journal of Cultural Studies Vol. 10, pp.343-363.

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Shane Gunderson

Florida Atlantic University

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Author:Gunderson, Shane
Publication:Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences
Article Type:Report
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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