Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Our American Narcissism

About ten years ago I wanted to write an article or book directed toward Baby Boomers with the pithy (I believed at the time) title, Boomer: Do You Know Who You Are? The main idea of the piece was to address a number of the life issues I believed boomers were dealing with including, feelings of superficiality and fakiness, having to play games; creeping deadness, lack of enthusiasm for life, work, etc.; aimlessness, lack of direction; weakness, helplessness to change situation, powerlessness; growing cynicism due to awareness that we are not changing the world, our lack of social impact.

The chief aim was to remind fellow Boomers of our tattered ideals and help them become once more the authentic, passionate, motivated, enthusiastic, purposeful, powerful, socially conscious people they were meant to be. In other words, "remember your roots and draw strength from who you are."

One of the major problems with this project, however, is that it seems to simultaneously perpetuate one of the great problems of this generation: our pervasive American Narcissism. The very act of writing such a book feels, at least for the moment, like a doomed building on a baseless foundation. I'll try to touch the core of that thought via this route.

When a Major League baseball team wins the World Series, we love calling it the World championship, even though it is only the U.S. and two Canadian cities involved. How different this is from the World Cup in soccer, which is truly a global competition.

Is our Hollywood celebrity worship something that could have originated elsewhere? I actually do not know the extent to which many of our practices extend beyond our borders. Do our celebrities really hate the intrusive behavior of the papparazzi, or do they actually feel injured if the papparazzi fail to show up when they are out and about? How did we get so grandiose about our heroes?

We call our parents' generation the "greatest generation" but we have always acted as if everything was, is and will be all about us.

I was talking with someone last week who had been to China on a business trip. He went there with the idea in his head that he was going to see exploited masses of people in a backward country making things with their hands. He did not expect to see factories with modern robotics. Or cities with five million people that he never heard of because they were the smaller cities there. He was especially struck by the quantity of construction cranes that were constructing ever more buildings to keep pace with the economic boom China has been experiencing as it rushes forward into the future.

What does it mean to be a Boomer actually? The term is itself an American term. Just like Gen X, which our media used to describe our following American generation. We have a new wave of young people whom journalists compete to define, but it is only American young people they are defining because at the end of the story it's like, "Oh, you mean the Gen Xers in other parts of the world, like Italy and Bulgaria and Brazil and Zimbabwe aren't like our Gen Xers?" As if such things could be remotely possible with their various contexts and experiences so different from our own.

In short, the whole Boomer construct is a Pop Culture construct, a product of our tendency toward superficial Pop world views. Isn't it? So how can I write a "serious" book about Boomers, for Boomers, and market it through the very Pop channels that I am deriding?

I dunno. Maybe I'm making too much of this today. But to put things in perspective, what will people be saying about Boomers a thousand years from now? "What were Boomers?" For all I know the international trade language will be Chinese and their historians will be trying to figure out why English used to be the most global language at the beginning of the third millennium. What do you think?


Christella said...

I think you can do the book if you do it tongue in cheek. Sometimes the only way to get people into action is to stir things up. Good luck.

ENNYMAN said...

That's an interesting approach and food for thought.
Right now am working on other projects, but life is long and I will never run out of projects. Maybe a Boomer will solve the riddle of death and we'll all live forever... I can get enough time to follow through on all my ideas.