A South Carolina congressman calls the President of the United States “a liar” from the floor of the House of Representatives as the President delivers a speech before a joint session of Congress. A rapper interrupts an award show to announce that the 19-year-old country singer who just won an award does not deserve it. A world champion tennis player threatens an official in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. The greatest basketball player to ever live gives an egomaniacal speech at his induction into the Hall of Fame.
What is happening to our culture? Why are so many people losing control? Does it all add up to the end of civilization? As Kathleen Parker notes in today’s Washington Post: “civilization is a fragile and delicate idea, held together by a few mere threads, bound together by little more than a wisp of mutual consent.” These recent examples of misbehavior is evidence that the thread is “fraying.”
David Brooks blames this kind of behavior on “expressive individualism,” a kind of narcissism that was largely unknown among the generation of our grandparents. They watched shows like “Command Performance” where celebrities like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Dinah Shore used their talents in the service of their country. Today, however, things are different. Brooks writes:
When you look from today back to 1945, you are looking into a different cultural epoch, across a sort of narcissism line. Humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else, was a large part of the culture then.
But that humility came under attack in the ensuing decades. Self-effacement became identified with conformity and self-repression. A different ethos came to the fore, which the sociologists call “expressive individualism.” Instead of being humble before God and history, moral salvation could be found through intimate contact with oneself and by exposing the beauty, the power and the divinity within.
I will give Brooks the last word here, largely because I find myself in agreement with him:
This isn’t the death of civilization. It’s just the culture in which we live. And from this vantage point, a display of mass modesty, like the kind represented on the V-J Day “Command Performance,” comes as something of a refreshing shock, a glimpse into another world. It’s funny how the nation’s mood was at its most humble when its actual achievements were at their most extraordinary.