How can I be Me? Let Me count the ways . . .
In 1976 New York published a lengthy essay, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” by the reporter and novelist Tom Wolfe, who died last year, aged 88. Wolfe argued that mass prosperity in the postwar era had erased the historical American proletariat and replaced it with a lower-middle class whose members, exaggeratedly aware of their status as individuals, formed a national culture centered on the quest for self-development and self-perfection. Christopher Lasch in his book The Culture of Narcissism credited Wolfe with having “inadvertently [provided] evidence that undermines a religious interpretation of the consciousness movement.” (Reviewing Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, the collection of essays in which “The ‘Me’ Decade” was reprinted, for National Review I attempted to write the notice in the author’s own style and thought myself it was a rave. Tom obviously disagreed, because he refused to speak with me after its appearance and even severed his relationship with Bill Buckley. It was only many years later, when I looked into a volume by the 20th century French novelist Céline, whose work had a major influence on Wolfe, that I understood the reason for his anger. Céline’s style, like Tom Wolfe’s, is one of the ways you write when you don’t really have a style, and I had unintentionally demonstrated that fact.) Thirty-one years later Jean Twenge, in Generation Me, described the Baby Boomers’ children (Generation X) as equally narcissistic and self-regarding as their parents, though in somewhat different ways. Their successors seem no less so. Meanwhile a new identitarian culture was developing within, and parallel to, the narcissistic one that was essentially a multicultural variant of “Me.” The combination of the two has resonated at the personal, social, and political levels of 21st century American society with unfortunate effects.
Societies are weakened by decadent inclinations among their members to an extent proportionate to the number of citizens who have succumbed to them. Still, the self-involved, self-approving, and self-centered culture of the 1970’s was more passive than aggressive—or, what is worse still, passive-aggressive. Members of the Cult of Me typically had little ambition in regard to the world of public affairs. Their idea of a political demonstration was an updated equivalent of the neo-Raphaelite poet Reginald Bunthorne’s in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience: a walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in their very modern hands. Such people were (and are) effete and ineffectual, but they are not usually dangerous—not, at least, in any immediate sense, though in the long run, and taken collectively, they may produce real damage. What is worrisome is the potential ever-expanding concepts of “Me” have to advance from self-indulgence and self-celebration to self-assertion and self-imposition by insisting on “Me” at the expense of others, and finally on “Me” against all other “Me’s.” Indeed, the transition has been occurring in America since the 1970’s. The result is what to the simple and simplistic leftist mind is “fascism,” which explains why leftists identify a dozen new manifestations of fascism every year. For the left, fascism is not a fused political-economic system with nationalistic overtones. It is simply one particular social group asserting its “Me” against the “Me’s” of rival social groups, sometimes to the point of physical violence, forcible social and political subjugation, and even liquidation.
We had a preview of what hard “Me-ism” can be, and very often is, in the late 1960’s: the Black Panthers, the gun-toting radical feminists who acted as “evolved” Betty Friedans by bombing townhouses and shooting police guards dead, the revolutionary students smashing and burning things and assaulting police officers. (“Student” was in those days another category of “Me,” also. It still is in the 21st century, though the student “Me” of today is a somewhat different thing from what it was in the 1960’s.) Partly on account of the retreat from the Vietnam War, “Me-ism” in the 70’s devolved into the soft “Me-ism” as it was described and analyzed by Tom Wolfe. And for the most part it remained that way into the 1990’s, often in the form of multiculturalism, which began as an academic phenomenon: a scourge of the campuses even as it stealthily extended its influence to “high” American culture (publishing and literature, the performing arts, the fine arts) by a process of subtle, and finally not-so-subtle, cultural aggression that increasingly took territory across the intellectual landscape without anyone beyond it being much aware of what was happening. Perhaps it was the election of President Obama that completed the job of transforming multiculturalism into identitarianism by encouraging resentful members of minority groups of every sort to imagine that they could remake America into a radically different country (“Sí, se puede!”) by weaponizing the legal and political opportunities postmodern liberalism offered them. Then, reacting against the overweening arrogance, hauteur, and subtle defiance of the first black President of the United States, the American electorate accomplished the impossible by electing Donald Trump over the Democratic Valkyrie: the fat lady who in the course of a long political career had heroically brandished her sword and shield while growing fatter and fatter without ever singing a note (the high C’s and D’s especially) that failed to pierce the human ear drum. Thus a new identitarian awareness was born on the “populist” right, eager now and determined to counter its identitarian equivalents on both the mainstream and the populist left; so that battle was engaged at last between the two—really the several, or many—sides. Whether this can properly be called a “Great Awakening” on the part of the various opposing parties is doubtful. Certainly there is nothing religious about it, save in the sense that it concerns the clash of a multitude of secular religions within the boundaries of a single country. Whichever one of the multifarious “Me’s” we are speaking about, it is always a “Me” focused outwardly on the enemy as well as on the pleased self-conscious and wholly self-involved self. It is an aggressive “Me,” not a passive one. Or—to be more accurate—it is a passive-aggressive “Me,” in the manner of all “Me’s” and groups of “Me’s” angrily asserting victimhood against the wicked oppressor. In this sense, “Me-ism” today is a textbook case of the pathology of passive aggression, or aggressive passivity.
How can I be “Me?” Let “Me” count the ways . . .
To make a start: “Me” as a woman. “Me” as woman who thinks she’s a man. “Me” as a man who thinks he’s a woman. “Me” as a human who thinks he’s a hippopotamus. “Me” as a person who is certain he (ze?) can be anything at all if he (ze) wants to be and “feels” he (ze) is: now, an hour from now, or tomorrow. “Me” as a young person. “Me” as a senior citizen. “Me” as a member of a race, an ethnic group, or a tribe, usually a persecuted one, always a proud one. “Me” as the professor of a faith, or a member of a church, also usually a victim. “Me” as a Democrat, a Republican, a socialist, or an anarchist. “Me” as a native-born citizen, a legal immigrant, or an “undocumented” one. “Me” as a patriot or a citizen of the world. “Me” as white collar, or blue collar. “Me” as a Ph.D. or “Me” as someone with a high-school education. “Me” as a rustic, or “Me” as a cosmopolite. “Me” as a football fan or “Me” as an opera-goer. “Me” as a cocaine sniffer, or “Me” as an opioid abuser. “Me” as a member of the 99 percent or “Me” of the One Percent . . .
All these identities can be mixed and matched, in the lingo of the clothing designers, and each is compatible in one way or another with certain of the others, though each is also both total and all-consuming when considered separately and at a given moment or in an immediate situation. Much of this is owed to categories established (or invented) by sociologists, pollsters, advertisers, political activists and campaigners, and by the media who present them in ways most convenient for the categorists and most productive for the people who employ them for persuasive purposes, most of these more or less nefarious. Many of our identities are obvious to ourselves; we feel them and we know them. Others are imposed on us by dictation, assignment, and auto-suggestion. Everything in the modern world invites, encourages, or orders us, first to consider ourselves in terms of self-identity, and second to make the demands on others that self-identity demands we make—or betray ourself and our group by refusing to make them.
Strangely though, the more people who discover their inner “Me” in terms of one identity or another, and “Me’s” absolute value and uniqueness, the more people there appear to be who think and speak alike, so that true individuality becomes increasingly rare and genuine eccentricity almost unheard of. This, of course, is paradoxical. But paradox, as Chesterton understood, is something we should expect and recognize in a world that makes increasingly less sense, for the very good reason that people have learned to make no sense of it for themselves.