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Welcome to the Age of Narcissism

Do we really know better?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’ve recently seen some things that worry me immensely. Our self-jeopardizing behavior is menacing multiple aspects of our lives from our national security to our economic security to the very glue that holds the world together. These various ills find their common source in a sort of insecure arrogance; an inability to look further than ourselves that defines so much of our present discourse.

Our moment in time seems to be fueled by intense self-interest, ego, a sense of entitlement, rampant emotional immaturity, and a sure-fire belief in the “correctness” of one’s own convictions. This is all regardless of what level of knowledge a person possesses that might guide, form, and temper those convictions. Welcome to the age of narcissism.

This is the age of the comments sections in online forums, an age when huge masses of uninformed and impulsive opinions can emanate with matchless vitriol and speed from behind the security of Twitter handles. The venom and reactiveness of this nature of discourse is often only topped by the sureness of the holders opinion.

This is the epoch of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning, who, by making unilateral decisions that they “knew what was best” for society and the world, released classified documents and information that have imperiled untold numbers of people across the globe. For their efforts, their likenesses stood in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz sculpted in bronze by an artist who depicted them as a trinity of courage and truth.

A man addresses a crowd next to a life-sized bronze sculpture featuring former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and former U.S. soldier Chelsea Manning convicted of violations of the Espionage Act, at Alexanderplatz square in Berlin. Image by Tobias Schwarz /Getty Images, © All Rights Reserved.

And the self-congratulatory creation of a narrative where we lionize them continues despite the fact that their actions endangered many real heroes: people who work behind the scenes of the diplomatic and military establishments of nations across the world not as tools of an imaginary “evil establishment” but in the genuine and pragmatic service on behalf of the good of their people. But the trinity knew better. The system was broken as far as they were concerned. They had to circumvent it.

But the truth is that the system works.

Despite the proliferation of reactionary, parochial movements that have brought out the worst forms of populism across the Western world, it is “the system” that is currently piecing together the puzzle of global governance. And that is the reason why we are in a far better position in terms of security and economics than we could be.

Daniel Drezner’s elegantly argued economics over some 200 tempered pages in his book titled The System Worked: How the World Stopped Another Great Depression did not matter to the emotionally-driven voters who were compelled to take Britain back (from whom?) by voting in favor of Brexit. I’d wager that the vast majority of them didn’t read the pages. They didn’t need to. Once again, they knew better.

Vote Leave supporters battle with the wind as they travel on the battle bus of UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Image by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images, © All Rights Reserved.

Nigel Farage, who championed Brexit in the U.K., is now heading to the U.S. to attend the Republican National Convention. At that venue in America, he will be delighted to find that a familiar self-assured arrogance is poisoning the body politic of our nation with greater bombast than anywhere else.

To be clear, this is not the “normal” Republican Party that we knew from before the Tea Party and the Tea Party gone off the rails. This is a Republican Party that has offered its platform to a candidate who is not only a racist bigot, but who has actively run a racist and bigoted campaign. In doing so, it has not legitimized that candidate, but rather delegitimized itself. Our leading figures have spoken out in unprecedented ways against the actions and words of the GOP and its nominee. But that won’t matter to Trump’s cadre of supporters. They’re emotionally driven, and they know better.

Even the most esteemed of our credentialed press, too, in their well-intentioned drive to maintain a “fair and balanced” approach to reporting the news, have neurotically veered in a direction that has often shied away from representing the fascism and bigotry of Trump’s rhetoric in its full, technicolor glory. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent criticism of Donald Trump provoked a response from press, who almost universally asked if she had gone “too far.” But when a Supreme Court Justice takes the rare step of inviting journalists into her chambers to offer scathing political words, the question of whether or not she “crossed a line” is not the question that we should be asking.

It’s clear to everyone, most of all the justice in question, that her step was an unorthodox one. Despite what the Republicans might claim in their long-standing drive to paint Hillary Clinton as some sort of conspiratorial, latter-day Richard Nixon, it is not unprecedented. Sitting justices have been inserting themselves into politics (even as presidential candidates) since the days of John Jay. But it is rare. So the question we should be asking is why a Supreme Court justice with over two decades of honorable service in the highest court in the land would feel the need to take such a step, knowing all the risks involved. Perhaps it’s a special signal that we should listen carefully to her words. Or do we know better?

Perhaps Justice Ginsburg is observing a candidate who has not only repeatedly incited violence and faction, but who has also taken on points of view that contravene the Constitution of the United States and this country’s founding documents. This is the candidate who, in attempting to declare his purported reverence for the Constitution during a recent closed-door meeting with fellow Republicans, said that he would support “not just Article I, but Article XII as well.”

Justice Ginsburg knows, as many of us know, that there is no Article XII in the U.S. Constitution. We also all know that the prime and most solemn oath of an incoming president is to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” In order to do that with any seriousness of purpose, you have to know what’s in the document itself to begin with. Perhaps Justice Ginsburg has concerns that are serious enough to warrant her dramatic actions. Perhaps we should listen.

Donald Trump greets supporters in Harrington, Delaware. Image by Alex Wong/Getty Images, © All Rights Reserved.

“I do wish Donald Trump would listen to other people once in a while,” said Hillary Clinton in Illinois. “He might actually learn something. But he’s made it clear — that’s not his thing. As he has said, he only listens to himself.” And if we look into a portion of the electorate, it might become vividly clear that there are millions of mirror images of this prototype. They don’t need to listen or learn. They know better.

Anger at “the system” is not entirely misplaced. Systems are not perfect because the world is not perfect. We can choose to work constructively to refine and strengthen our social structures, or we can arrogantly take the approach of burning the house down to cure its flaws. If we are to accept that we, as a nation, are going to deal with right-wing politics, and also accept that we are going to allow the destructive language of its nominee to continue unmuzzled through November, then we must ask ourselves how much of our precious political, economic, and social currency we are willing to spend as a nation on senseless, ego-driven bloviation.

We have seen social strife and blood spilled on the streets of our cities, goaded on by an insistence on the part of Republicans to continue to provide an angry population with the unholy combination of both guns and the rhetoric of hate. We have seen America’s hard-won credibility and leadership fall spectacularly in the eyes of the global community. We have even seen the ministries of foreign affairs in countries — such as Ireland, the Bahamas, and the United Arab Emirates (all U.S. allies) — issue well-founded travel advisories to their citizens traveling in the United States. For the record, the group of nations that gets travel advisories regularly issued on them is not a club that one generally wants to belong to. How much currency are we willing to spend for the sake of arrogance?

Our Secretary of State, John Kerry, offered these words:

“Everywhere I go, every leader I meet, they ask about what is happening in America. They cannot believe it. I think it is fair to say that they’re shocked. They don’t know where it’s taking the United States of America. And to some degree, I must say to you, some of the questions, the way they’re posed to me, it’s clear to me that what’s happening is an embarrassment to our country. These [stances] upset people’s sense of equilibrium about America’s steadiness, about our reliability.”

These words are from an elder statesman with decades of stellar and diligent service to the nation. Should we hear him out. Or do we know better?

Protesters demonstrate in support of Chelsea Manning on August 21, 2013 in front of the White House in Washington, DC. Image by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images, © All Rights Reserved.

The price of arrogance is high, and working within the systems of our societies is often more difficult than calling for an easy shattering of court and state. There is, to be sure, a place and precedent for rebellion as an tactic for social change but its limits must be drawn when harm is done to others, to society or to ourselves. After all, we have to share our societies with one another.

Even Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army soldier who released over 700,000 classified diplomatic and military documents to WikiLeaks in 2010, had a moment of humility in reflecting on her actions before the court following her conviction::

“I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I’m sorry that I hurt the United States… In retrospect I should have worked more aggressively inside the system, as we discussed during the statement, I had options and I should have used these options.”

Just look at the example of Senator Bernie Sanders who, after a lifetime of service, worked within the system and rallied millions of people to his cause. He didn’t go out of his way to insult anyone or defy the principles of the Constitution — now his ideas have gained more currency than he ever thought possible. He is also in a unique position to work with Secretary Clinton, his colleague of 25 years, to put many of his ideas into motion. His endorsement of Clinton required humility, but humility is, after all, a vital ingredient in what makes all democratic society work.

Donald Trump supporters listen to Trump speak in San Diego, California. Image by Spencer Platt/Getty Images, © All Rights Reserved.

I still believe that we can weave dreams and realize our untold social potential. Exercise humility. Listen. Take the time to read or meditate before sending out a tweet or publishing a comment. I still believe in the potential of reimagining our societies in ever-greater images of ourselves by rejecting cynicism and partaking in contrapuntal communities.

The hazards of arrogance, of knowing better, are real. The price we pay for indulging in a culture of narcissism is too great for us and for the generations that will follow us. Instead, we must engender a culture of nurturing and hope. That takes more perseverance, intelligence, temperance, and certainly patience than acting on the impulse to burn down this house. It takes the optimism of a culture where each and every one of us believes in something larger than ourselves.

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