The paradox of the individualistic society is that it can only exist if individuals embrace virtues that are greater than their own needs and whims. A society where each individual acts as a little tyrant, pursuing his desires with total selfishness at the expense of everyone else becomes collectivist as the little tyrants turn to a series of big tyrants to get what they want no matter who gets hurt by it.
Social compacts are the alternative to big government. Communities built around unwritten laws in which people do the right thing keep government at bay better than a million laws ever could. No Constitution can protect a people that does not know or care about what it says. Laws embody ideas about what a society can be. But only the people can actually live out those ideas in their lives.
As individual virtues and social compacts break down, selfish squabbles escalate. Tribalism turns into legal civil war. Laws become the means by which one group imposes its will on the other and by which one man seizes the property of another. The people come to view the system with contempt. All virtues and principles are abandoned as neighbor turns on neighbor in resentment and hatred.
Our society has cultivated narcissism as its highest virtue. Even liberalism has become condensed to an identity politics of narcissism in which each victim gets to talk about their feelings for fifteen minutes before crybullying for someone’s head. Political discourse has become an exchange of feelings. And unlike contradictory ideas, clashing feelings of entitlement cannot be resolved.
Ideas can exist objectively. Feelings only exist subjectively. Identity politics resolves this problem by treating the objective response to feelings as privilege. But even subjective empathy can never truly approach the subjective experience of the crybully. Even a member of that same identity group will differ in some way from the multiple intersectional identities of the crybully. And that difference is its own privilege. This isn’t really politics. It’s self-help narcissism crossbred with stale Marxism.
Marxism pretended to be a science. Its idiot inheritors use the same highly specialized vocabulary to describe their imaginary science of feelings to decide whose feelings get hurt microscopically worse.
But that’s the only kind of politics that narcissists can be expected to embrace. The left has personalized the political as much as it has politicized the personal. Its politics is purely personal. Its ideas can be condensed to “X upsets Y”. With the corollary that in the future X will not be allowed to upset Y because Y will be in charge of everything and stupid people like X will all die off so that history is on the side of Y and not X. This is a seven year old’s politics with better vocabulary.
But narcissism of the kind that our society has cultivated is a formula for perpetual childishness. Adulthood means doing things you don’t want to do and discovering that they can make you the person you want to be. That’s how virtue is born. Perpetual childhood prevents virtue from ever forming. Instead public life is cluttered with oversized children who have the language skills, resources, and political power of adults, but none of the virtues that come with maturity.
They blame everyone else for their failures. Nothing is ever their fault. Everything is unfair. They can never admit they were wrong. Every failure adds more grievances and enemies to be blamed. They are incapable of acknowledging simple facts. Instead they lash out when they are shown why they cannot have what they want. The immature mind treats reality as a personal attack. It does not care what the truth is. It only wants its feelings validated by blaming someone, anyone else.
A childish society is an “I Want” society in which everyone wants everything and no one wants to do the hard work of getting it. The clamor of demands is negotiated through the childish hierarchies of bullying, shame, braggadocio, tears, outbursts, violence, and deceit. Any social compacts or laws that interfere with “I Want” are always unfair. Anyone who doesn’t agree is the enemy.
Denying a narcissist anything hurts their feelings. And so they lash out in retribution. They are immune to facts or explanations. They know what they want and they know that society isn’t fair because it isn’t oriented around their feelings, but they think it will be once they get their way.
Democracy can’t exist under these conditions. No civil society can. Without common virtues, there can be no enduring common ground. One side makes concessions while the other celebrates its successful bullying until the first side finds its own bully. Without a consensus, winning becomes everything, and the winners are those who break the most rules while complaining the hardest.
And refusing to live by any rules while playing the victim is what narcissists are so good at.
Ideas, virtues, and principles are the enemies of narcissism because they imply that there are greater and more important things than its feelings. To the perpetually immature, everything is personal. The attempt to move from the subjective to the objective is treated as devaluing the importance of its feelings. The narcissistic refrain of crybullies in campus debates is, “Stop talking and listen to me”.
The safe space represents the total rejection of all dialogue. It is also the ideal metaphor for the politics of an immature mind. It extends the entitlement of the crybully from its mind into the physical space with the ultimate goal of expanding that physical embodiment of its entitlement to the entire world.
All rights become condensed to self-esteem. Individual virtue is reduced to a lack of shame. Narcissists are always fighting battles of personal self-expression against “haters” who make them feel bad about themselves. Freedom of speech, and any other freedom, can’t exist in this space of emotional tribalism where negotiating the validation of your identity is the only thing that matters.
And yet it’s ideas that resolve personal conflicts. They allow us to set limits of mutual respect. These principles make it possible for us to exist as individuals without big government to watch over us. Principles check our entitlement. They tell us that there are things which matter more than what we want or the anger we feel. They tell us that we are not entitled to steal from someone just because we really want to. They remind us of the price we end up paying for winning at any cost.
These are the things that set apart society from savagery, and human beings from animals.
A narcissistic society only empowers individuals to destroy their individual freedoms and the society that made it possible. The self-centered logic of narcissism can justify anything as long as it feels right. Principles are abandoned, virtues are mocked, and morality is meaningless. The longer this goes on, the worse society becomes since the very worst way of finding happiness is perpetual immaturity.
Narcissists who can’t win their own battles turn to bigger narcissists. Little tyrants become big tyrants. Anything is justified, and the very idea of a truth apart from feelings dies away. All that’s left is a brutish scramble to find the power proportionate to the feelings of everyone in Youmerica.
And these days we all live in a Youmerica where feelings matter more than facts, where narcissism is the only politics, where the only way to win is to hate and cry harder, and where the future is a government as big as the ego of its rulers. Youmerica is our culture, our government, and our creed.
Youmerica is the nightmare of the Founding Fathers come to life. “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion,” John Adams warned. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The same is true of all the rest of it.
We have no government capable of contending with human passions unbound by any code. The only government that will serve is tyranny. We can have a virtuous society of free men and women. Or we can have what we have now, and that is only a taste of what is still to come in the dying days of an empire whose people are busy trading their virtues for pottage without counting the cost.
Without virtues, all politics are reduced to their basic roots of tribal emotion and personal greed.
Without personal responsibility and truth, the cycle of decline will never be broken. Instead, it will intensify. There will be scapegoats and circuses, massacres in the forum, and fires in the night. There will be a new tyrant on the balcony every week, and a new mob in the streets calling for blood.
And the country we once had will never return. There will be no America. Only Youmerica.
The country that we once had was not merely documents or buildings or territory. It was people. They were not a perfect people. Far from it. Like all of us, they were deeply flawed. But they believed in things. And as flawed as these things were, many were willing to live and die by them. They were willing to seek truth even if where it led did not please them. They made mistakes, but they grew up and became the men and women who tamed a land, built a nation, and saved the world.
If we are to deserve the inheritance they left us, we must become better than we are. All of us.
We have been betrayed, undermined, misused, lied to, and exploited. But in the end only we are capable of that final betrayal of our dreams and our heritage. We can choose to rebuild a social compact, a moral society that can undo the damage that has been done. Or we can let it all go.
[Editor’s note: this article first appeared at Sultan Knish.]