Source: The Economist
How to get from narcissism to thoughtfulness
The Road to Character. By David Brooks. Random House; 300 pages; $28. Allen Lane; £17.99. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
PEOPLE are too full of themselves, says David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times. Joe Namath, a star quarterback of the 1960s, once shouted to his bathroom mirror: “Joe! Joe! You’re the most beautiful thing in the world!”—with a reporter watching. But it is not just celebrities who puff themselves up, and the evidence is not just anecdotal. The proportion of American teenagers who believe themselves to be “very important” jumped from 12% in 1950 to 80% in 2005. On a test that asks subjects to agree or disagree with statements such as “I like to look at my body” and “Somebody should write a biography about me”, 93% of young Americans emerge as being more narcissistic than the average of 20 years ago.
With the rise in self-regard has come an unprecedented yearning for fame. In a survey in 1976, people ranked being famous 15th out of 16 possible life goals. By 2007, 51% of young people said it was one of their principal ambitions. On a recent multiple-choice quiz, nearly twice as many middle-school girls said they would rather be a celebrity’s personal assistant than the president of Harvard University.
In “The Road to Character” Mr Brooks charts the change in popular culture that made this possible. This involves digesting troughs full of tripe such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love”, a bestseller that tells women that “God dwells within you as yourself, exactly the way you are.” (Mr Brooks claims to be “the only man ever to finish this book”.)
Not everyone these days is a self-loving birdbrain, he admits. Some are meritocratic materialists who have “streamlined [their] inner humanity to make [their] ascent more aerodynamic”. Mr Brooks offers an alternative—and more austere—set of values to live by. People need to rediscover that “the ultimate joys are moral joys”, he says. He offers a series of chapter-length biographies to illustrate this idea.
He tells the story of Frances Perkins, who rather than looking inside herself to find a purpose in life asked what the world was calling her to do. After she saw workers hurling themselves from windows to their deaths to avoid the great fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911, she devoted herself to campaigning for better working conditions. She rose to become Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labour, and was instrumental in the creation of Social Security (public pensions) in America.
The ultimate sin, for the Oprah generation, is to be repressed. Nonsense, says Mr Brooks. Dwight Eisenhower spent his life repressing his inner self, and it helped the Allies win the second world war. He “spent the nights staring at the ceiling, racked by insomnia and anxiety, drinking and smoking”. Yet “he put on a false front of confident ease and farm-boy garrulousness” to raise the troops’ morale. He was splendidly inauthentic. Later on, as president, he was willing to appear tongue-tied if it would help conceal his designs. Indeed, he was happy to let people think him stupid, which “is how we know he was not a New Yorker”.
This is not a reactionary book. Mr Brooks acknowledges that earlier generations pointlessly abstained from certain pleasures and cruelly disregarded the rights of women, non-whites and sexual minorities. His heroes are both ancient (St Augustine) and modern (Bayard Rustin). He stresses that all were flawed (Eisenhower took a mistress, whom he treated icily, for example) and some were often miserable (Samuel Johnson, author of the first English dictionary, lived in terror of hellfire). If you want to be reassured that you are special, you will hate this book. But if you like thoughtful polemics, it is worth logging off Facebook to read it.