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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
17.3 (Summer 2017)
Attention-Deficit Narcissism: A Crippling Malaise of the Socio-Economic Elite
John Harris, Peter Singleton, and “Pancratistes”
Western society’s socio-economic elite appears to be suffering from a paradoxical kind of self-absorption (or narcissism) that finds expression in elaborate displays of concern about the less fortunate, none of which bestows any real-world benefit upon the victims.
The time has come to recognize the existence of a major postmodern psychological pathology: Attention-Deficit Narcissism. ADN is a species of exhibitionist behavior. The sufferer is so consumed with his own image that the rest of the world might as well not exist—or it only exists, we might say, to the extent that he can project himself into it, always in the very favorable light of a merciful, compassionate, enlightened person or the very poignant light of a cruelly martyred victim. One of the most unnerving and high-risk characteristics of Attention-Deficit Narcissism is this: unlike a more conventional narcissist, the sufferer has a shifting, sketchy, very volatile sense of self (probably thanks in large part to social media). As a result, he or she he must be forever projecting new images on top of old ones, often without any regard whatever for the coherence of the whole package. Such unstable fantasy-making renders the afflicted wholly inept as students, writers, scholars, leaders, lovers, or friends. They are emotional powderkegs that ignite without rhyme or reason.
The chase after the golden mantle of cultural diversity, which has turned the Western world upside-down, is little more than an epidemic of Attention-Deficit Narcissism. Without the slightest real understanding of the group which they effusively (and briefly) patronize, the ADN-delirious rush in like the crazed followers of Dionysus, sporting sombreros or turbans or headdresses, and eat chili peppers or dolmades or toasted locusts for fifteen minutes. They create an image and move on. The elite strata of society, especially, teem with restless waifs who are thus inebriated. Why the connection to the socio-economic upper crust? Probably a) because the pampered class is most immersed in advanced technology’s various artifices which are beginning to insulate us all from other warm-bodied human beings, and b) because the elite are also most protected from the real-life consequences of misjudging a particularly dangerous group (e.g., the wealthy have private jets waiting at the airport, and any movie theater they enter is likely built into a palatial home). One might hazard a third, less documentable reason for the social elite’s susceptibility to ADN: the lives of its members, especially those “to the manner born” who have never actually worked to build a fortune, are thickly enveloped in fantasy and hence must rank as among the most meaningless known to our species.
A resplendent example of ADN-induced lunacy was on display recently at Clemson University. Administrators at this once-august institution collaborated in publishing a grotesquely and genuinely racist announcement that students of African descent may not be penalized for showing up late to class. In the ever guilty and ever bored minds of the elite, punctuality nestles in Caucasian DNA and otherwise has no objective basis in human activity. So zealous were the deranged souls who issued this decree to display their superior moral consciousness to the world that they failed to reflect upon the centuries-old racial stereotype projecting black people as, precisely, unpunctual. The time-honored slur held that possessors of African DNA were helplessly, hopelessly tardy and sluggish. Case in point: the character of Lightnin’ on the Amos ’n Andy TV show of Fifties vintage (originally created for radio in 1928). Shuffling along and pushing his janitorial mop none too urgently, the brim of his baseball cap flipped up in the opposite of a “bear down” position, this unambitious young man couldn’t deliver the simplest message to Andy or the Kingfish without drawling a single sentence into half a minute, usually forgetting its beginning by the time he reached its end.
Instructors at Clemson are now under official directive to be “sensitive” to the brethren of Lightnin’ in their midst—which apparently means any person of color. This is the fruit of the “superior consciousness” observable in advanced cases of ADN. Keen insult of the most flagrant sort is not even perceived by the perpetrator, so absorbed is he or she in broadcasting an “enlightened” behavior for a moment or a day in an isolated situation.
A less offensive example—but probably much more costly, in terms of squandered opportunity to do real good—might be found in the campaign (eagerly endorsed by then-First Lady Michelle Obama) to recover three hundred schoolgirls kidnapped by the brutal terrorist organization Boko Haram. The strategy? Create and circulate the hashtag, “Bring Back Our Girls”. Signing onto this venture no doubt made its participants feel engagé and virtuous for one more day. Yet to the extent that they truly perceived themselves as “doing something” in this sterile exhibition of concern, these members of North American society’s most influential class distracted themselves from whatever option might have improved the lot of the victims in the real world. The miseries that these latter had to endure were horrendous. Despite all the “solidarity” shown them by the rich and powerful of the US, no actual help arrived while many were being bestially raped, sold in to sexual slavery, or forcibly “married” to swine whose Satanic religious beliefs promote such practices. No matter. For the extreme sufferers of ADN, relief had been found. The bored, desperate housewives of the Beltway could collect their morning Starbuck’s knowing that they had fulfilled some kind of lofty mission in Never Never Land.
A more prosaic—and infinitely less tragic, more comical—case crossed our path earlier this spring. An office-memo in an academic setting (where else?) exhorted faculty and staff to wear denim “in solidarity” (words appearing in 75% of ADN cases) with “an important women’s issue”. It appears that an Italian court had lately convicted a man of rape and then given him a slap on the wrist because his victim had been wearing tight-fitting jeans—so tight that her cooperation would have been needed in removing them. Therefore, a day would be devoted to wearing jeans, and rapists everywhere would presumably be cowed by the enormity of public sentiment mobilized against them. (It was not specified that the jeans needed to fit with uncomfortable snugness.)
Yet another case (also in a somewhat localized academic setting) involved skipping lunch to “show solidarity” with the poor. Apparently no one in this instance made the suggestion that the unspent lunch money be dedicated actually to buying canned foods for the Salvation Army until one suspiciously common-sensical professor launched the effort, pushing back against the reigning idiocy. The original objective wasn’t to do anything practical or useful: it was to make the participants feel good about themselves during the few minutes of their day when they impersonated someone significantly less fortunate than they.
Though our discussion has been somewhat tongue-in-cheek (including the plea for a new entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), these examples indict a psychological pathology of some sort that we would sincerely do well to investigate. Are we not so immersed now in a virtual reality that it has become our default reality? Have we not so many ciphers and so much shorthand—avatars, selfies, Twitter names—to signal our fleeting electronic presence that a stable concept of self has grown a thing of the past? Why, we may not even be male or female for two days in a row! We may look Caucasian… but Caucasians are racists, so we “identify black”. It’s brutal and abusive (“it feels like rape,” in current parlance) to be forced into a group just because Mother Nature has put you there. Mother Nature, that great rapist, seems to have no regard for the purity of our hearts that wars with our disgraceful genes.
And so we are hunger victims for half an hour. We are not helpers of hunger victims—we are those victims. We are the rape victim in tight jeans for a day. We are the parents of kidnapped children. We don’t do any of the sufferers the least practical good, or even extend a shred of real moral support… but that isn’t our intent. We are not in search of solutions or means of offering comfort: we’re in search of drama and anguish that designate us as among the world’s wrongfully abused, its “owed-somethings”. We’re “owed something”. That is the essence of our restless, protean, electronic self. We should be more noticed and more admired—and we’re just not getting that notice and admiration. The world, the great damned world, doesn’t see us in all our worthiness and high virtue.
If we were actually to help the suffering, that would mean that we had the power and resources to do so; and if we had power and resources, that would mean that we numbered among the privileged. But no—we must not be considered privileged! Privilege is evil! We are the suffering! We are not receiving our due! We cannot give, because we need!
It does seem more than a little likely, given the overt lunacy of such public displays as have become commonplace in this century, that our slippery, shifting sense of self is the precise cause of our feeling constantly disparaged and ignored. For how can something receive notice and admiration which is always turning into something else? We would be narcissists if we could only focus better on our own person; but with us, it’s as if Narcissus has been distracted from his handsome reflection in the pool by a dragonfly, a goldfish, a falling leaf that creates a ripple. Our center-of-the-universe image keeps fading from view. Where did it go? Where are we now?
How can this be characterized as anything other than a mental illness?
Two of the contributors to this piece are too close to retirement to care about possible fallout for denouncing PC lunacy. The third, whose career remains a work in progress, prefers to conceal his identity–a decision which itself speaks volumes about the state of the Ivory Tower.