U.S. Intellectual History Blog

David Brooks’ Short History Of Humility And Narcissism: What’s Missing?

A September 15 New York Times op-ed by David Brooks, titled “High-Five Nation,” explores the notion of humility since World War II. Set off, no doubt, by the recent outburst of South Carolina’s Republican congressman Joe Wilson—who is mentioned in the article—Brooks looks backward for the roots of incivility and narcissism in the United States. [Thanks to John Fea for bringing the op-ed to my attention.]

Brooks’s piece is an extended compare-and-contrast between 1945 and today. He looks closely at Western democratic humility at the close of World War II, as opposed to the pomposity of fascism, and then quickly brings the narrative to the present with only brief notes of Muhammad Ali and Norman Mailer’s self-promoting personas. The present includes citations of Joe Wilson, Kanye West, and Michael Jordan. The only thing missing at the end was Tucker Max. But I admire Brooks’s restrained conclusion: “This isn’t the death of civilization. It’s just the culture in which we live.” It isn’t worth it to get riled up over people like Mr. Max; indeed, if you do, you’re feeding the beast.

Christopher Lasch’s name isn’t mentioned, but his thinking is all over Brooks’s op-ed. The article is clearly a extension, a brief updating, of Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism. I’ve read around this book for ten years, but have somehow avoided a close study. Given my sympathies I’m surprised by my own neglect.

But I don’t need to Lasch to tell me about how things have developed—and how Brooks’s op-ed is short-sighted in its hindsight. By stopping at World War II—an event that interrupted a great many trends in U.S. history—Brooks ignores the means by which we are assaulted on a daily basis with excess personality, incivility, crass behavior, rudeness, and the constant stream of self-promotion. Of course I’m talking about newspapers, television, film, radio, and now the internet. Because the barrier of literacy is missing with the middle three media, they become the culprits of quickening. Those media incessantly broadcast the beams of narcissism. But even a focus on media is somewhat myopic.

The real culprit is the desire for fame and riches—the desire to be a star. Film enabled the star system paradigm and star worship, but the desire to be a star, of any kind seemingly, has become part of the so-called American Dream since the 1920s. The star system, in sum, is part and parcel with the advent of American Modernity after World War I and the rise of the film system. Today everyone seemingly wants to be “in pictures”—no matter the level of nastiness or crudeness it takes to get there. I’m not denying a link to narcissism or Lasch, who I believe is feeding Brooks’s thinking. It’s just that the roots of the problem run deeper than WWII.

So rather than high-five Brooks for his piece, I’d give him the more subdued Obama fist bump. The op-ed is on the right track, it just stops a few years short of the most relevant historical touchstones. – TL