When was the last time you felt patriotic joy about America?
I don’t mean a specific appreciation of the Founding Fathers, although that’s always a good thing and an essential part of loving America. I mean a moment where you just looked around and found yourself loving what America is, from its genius political system to its staggering physical beauty, and thanked God for the opportunity to live here.
Between Obama’s crippled economy, Bloombergian buzzkills who want to tell us what we can eat and drink, global warming panic, and liberals wailing that if one person is hungry the USA is a concentration camp, it’s difficult to experience much happiness or pride in our home. It’s even infected pop music, which is supposed to be, although not always, an uplifting art. Miley Cyrus’ desperate, pathetic, and now legendary twerking workout at the MTV Awards proved that. For all its supposed eroticism, it was a painfully joyless thing to watch. It was a long way from Chuck Berry doing the duck walk.
America has always been a place of business and striving, but the country once also had a deep mysticism and humor about it, things that elicited love from both radicals and Republicans. We accepted limits and celebrated the great things about the country. Of course this feeling was very strong during World War II, but it also held on for a couple decades after that. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is like a prayer to the sheer physical beauty of America. John F. Kennedy’s wit and self-confidence provided buoyancy to the entire nation — and his one-liners had none of the self-pitying resentment of Obama. The early hits of Motown constitute a kind of pop music Louvre of joyful exuberance.
There was still a lot of this happiness in the 1980s, when I came of age. Reagan slapped us back to life after the Carter malaise. And no matter what liberal propaganda says, Reagan’s patriotism, his joy about his country, was not some hollow and manipulative effort to simply win votes. Reagan had lived through the Great Depression and World War II. He had read Witness by Whittaker Chambers and subscribed to National Review. His love of America was deep and reasoned, and it radiated out to the rest of the country. Movies like “Back to the Future” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” celebrated American ingenuity and humor. Most of the rap, from De La Soul to Heavy D, was a party that invited everyone to dance. Even “The Breakfast Club,” a film that was considered serious and even edgy at the time of its release, now looks like a model of the concept of a melting pot where diverse personalities find their common humanity, unlike the balkanized grievance groups thriving today.
Even though the 1990s were a good economic time, something during that time soured in the culture. To me the era signaled the full flowering of the culture of narcissism. This idea was first explored in the 1970s by historian Christopher Lasch, who in his books The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self revealed how the narcissistic person, “the personality of our time,” was hollow and damaged from a lack of proper upbringing and healthy limits. The person with narcissistic personality disorder is constantly seeking legitimacy and an identity, and is incapable of genuine intimacy or real joy. This kind of thing has always been rampant in celebrity culture, which is notoriously without limits. But unlike fifty years ago, disturbed celebrities are now our heroes and role models. How sad it is that our country has become a place that elevates to the status of rebel and groundbreaker – noble terms that once applied to people like Kerouac and Nina Simone – to people who are not just famous, but suffering from a personality disorder.
In The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch argues that the breakdown of the family and traditional forms of authority had created a society of people with no inner core who are desperate to create an authentic personality to receive approbation from others — like Barack Obama the well-fed Hawaiian becoming a civil rights activist with street cred. While this phenomenon was active since the 1970s, when Lasch wrote his book, it really entered the popular culture with devastating force in the 1990s. Rock and roll always had dark and dangerous side to it — it’s part of what makes it great — but with the explosion of Nirvana and grunge in the early 1990s, suddenly any kind of pop music that was upbeat was suspect. The fun of old school rap was replaced by gangsta rap. Madonna’s sexual antics, which were usually pretty innocent, and even brilliant in her “Like a Prayer” video, were replaced by artless booty-shaking. For the narcissist to be authentic, she had to be vile, joyless, illiterate, and raunchy.
Which brings us to Miley Cyrus. Watching her catastrophe, I was reminded of something the great historian James Hitchcock once observed: that since the 1960s protesting has become not a way to address very real needs and problems in the country, which are dealt with in the political realm, but rather “organized and public forms of psychotherapy.” But the thing about narcissism and liberalism is that there are no limits. Al Sharpton and the grim faces on MSNBC will be angry the rest of their lives, so matter how much social progress is made, because in order to feel like virtuous people, they have created identities for themselves as truth speakers and activists. Take that away and they have nothing. All they can do is increase the volume in the hopes of filling the void within. Gangsta rap doesn’t deliver the same charge, so you have to ratchet up the outrage. It’s not enough give give a wink and shake a leg — you have to perform sexual gymnastics on stage. Ironically, by being loosed from any and all limits, these are people, as Lasch put it, who “have lost the ability to feel.” Miley’s manic acting out on stage was a desperate attempt at legitimacy and feeling. How tragic that she and her country have lost the ability to experience real joy.