Sed Contra: The End of Narcissism

NOVEMBER 1, 2001
DEAL W. HUDSON

September 11 was the beginning of a sea change in American life. It’s not the end of the pursuit of happiness, as Christopher​ Hitchens called it in the Evening Standard, but the end of narcissism.

You can see it on the faces of President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—a return to a stoic style of self-control in political leadership. Gone is the catch-in-the-throat, teary-eyed emotionalism that Americans have grown to expect. Resolve has trumped empathy.

The late sociologist Christopher Lasch aptly described post–World War II America as a culture of self-absorbed individuals, a culture lost in its own reflection, like the mythological Narcissus. The preoccupation with emotional temperature-taking may be the most obvious symptom of narcissism, but the assumption that only tearfulness provides proof of authenticity is its most dangerous.

Some, like columnist Tom Shales in the Washington Post, have already complained about the lack of an overt display of emotion by our nation’s leaders in the wake of the terrorist attacks. This complaint comes from a generation that has been softened up by the artificial paroxysms of television and radio talk shows and the noxious confusion of leadership with celebrity.

So far we have succeeded in focusing our attention on the tragedy of the victims, their families, and their friends. Surprisingly, most of the media, who usually pump people for tears, have exercised restraint. Could it be that the magnitude of this tragedy will end our navel-gazing?

For the first time in years, when a reporter asks, “How do you feel about this?” the question sounds as insipid as it should have sounded all along.

Since the release of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the character of the World War II generation has been extolled for its courage and aplomb. What we see in the slow-burn quality of Bush’s messages to the nation is a return to the emotional tone of that “greatest” generation.

The nation’s reaction to his leadership will put the present nostalgia for World War II heroes to the test: Do we extol them from an easy distance, or do we actually wish for the return of their kind?

My mother once told me that during World War II—when my father, her future husband, was flying bombers over Germany—her job was to live her life as normally as she could. This was her way of fighting the war. Americans are now at war, and we must fight by putting our feet on the ground every morning and approaching each day without the fear or intimidation that the terrorists died trying to instill in us.

As Pope John Paul II has said over and over, we must not be afraid. It is especially important, in light of the pope’s ecumenical efforts, not to be afraid of Muslims in general or the religion of Islam. Times like these expose the noxious strains of prejudice that may lie close to the surface of the most pious faith.

Since the Vietnam War, Americans have grown more out of touch, and out of sympathy, with the military traditions and institutions that have defended our country’s freedom. As a friend of mine said, “Perhaps this tragedy will get us over our Vietnam-phobia.”

In the days ahead, American military personnel will be risking their lives to bring terrorists to justice. We can only hope—indeed we must insist—that all Americans send these soldiers into battle with every encouragement and gesture of support. And when they return, it is an opportunity for this country once again to welcome its military men and women home.

Habits don’t change easily. But habits can change when the trauma is great enough. That is why I believe this country will change for the better as it recovers from September 11.

In his speech at the National Cathedral, Rev. Billy Graham called September 11 “a day of victory.” It was a brave moment, which few spiritual leaders would have risked, much less pulled off. In uttering such a perilous thought, the old evangelist touched the deepest chord of all, reminding us that through our present suffering God’s hand is mysteriously present, guiding each of us, and our whole nation, toward Himself.

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