Narcissism as Politics

Not far from Stafford there's a thousand-year-old tree, once slated for destruction, that will now live on for centuries. Except for a pitifully small “buffer zone,” the primeval forest surrounding it will vanish while this supreme specimen endures. Its promise of everlasting life was secured by a young woman who spent two years perched on a branch 180 feet in the air and decreed that this colossal redwood be known, henceforth, as “Luna.”

Since her descent back to the realm of mortals, Julia “Butterfly” Hill has attained the status of eco-savior. Greeted with unrestrained praise at her appearances before the cultural left, she is a channel by which our collective outrage over the ecological horrors of capitalism can be flushed out. According to Harper-Collins, publisher of her book, The Legacy of Luna, Julia Hill is nothing less than the Rosa Parks of the environmental movement. For refusing to flutter off her branch, she has ignited a loyal following and restored a sense of the sacred to the ancient forest.

Yet, to save her tree, Julia obligated herself to remain silent about the rape-and-pillage tactics of Pacific Lumber. Its owner, Charles Hurwitz, gets to keep destroying wilderness (except Luna) and she can't say a word about it in public. She gets to steal the spotlight but can't use the resulting attention to make the case against Pacific Lumber. She can talk about general issues of capitalism and the media, but when she gets specific, the topic is liable to shift to her own “enlightenment.” On the cover of her book, she's hugging a tree, thereby reinforcing, with each copy sold, the popular conception of environmentalists as wacky, neo-pagan narcissists.

The lesson of her tree-sit is that the movement is all about personalities. Forget about meetings and lawsuits and money-raising. Just buy Julia's book, and you've saved the forest!

To seal the deal, she and her backer, a land trust known as Sanctuary Forest, agreed to pay Hurwitz $50,000, which he would then donate to a forestry and fisheries research program at Humboldt State. Removing any possible doubt as to what was happening, PL spokesperson Mary Bullwinkle noted, “She will be buying the tree and the buffer zone.” Thus did Butterfly literally buy into the notion that property owners deserve market-value compensation for their high-minded willingness to refrain from “developing” their natural resources. It's bad enough if the public has to pay $50,000 for each remaining giant redwood on private land. But it's even worse if the trees have to be purchased privately, as Julia has done. Unlike Headwaters, the person equating nature with money is not some distant, bureaucratic environmentalist or a low-life politician like Diane Feinstein but one of our own — a child of nature — a barefooted earth-spirit come to bring us all the good news of the goddess.

Though the actual effect of her action is to misdirect the environmental movement while strengthening the notion of property rights over natural rights, the image wedded to her name is the one Sequoia she did save. The tree that bears the rotted fruit of her labors is not as tangible as Luna. Though Luna casts a great shadow, we generally don't see what's dark and depthless, particularly in contrast to the dazzling and delightful.

Julia Hill's sell-out is the story of America in a nutshell. The “New World” is not so much an actual place as the transformation of reality into realty. While the United States is a physical and cultural entity that consumes the world's wealth and metabolizes it into toxic garbage, “America” is the Dream by which its true identity is cloaked. The mainstream culture and the counterculture are like a pair of schizophrenics in a mental ward, both of whom see perfectly clearly that the other is crazy but cannot attain the same degree of insight about themselves.

What we have here is an ego problem. As Americans, we tend to judge true whatever it is we believe and false whatever it is we've never believed, particularly when it’s what those other people believe. The chief thing we know, on which all our remaining knowledge rests, is that we are the greatest people ever to have walked the earth. The next thing is that being good and pure is sort of a fringe benefit of greatness. Even while occasionally admitting to mistakes (always years after the fact), we never allow the basic idea of ourselves to be altered. We have in our minds a collective self-image which is cemented into place and unalterable by new information or circumstances. Being inflexible, it is therefore diseased.

In the development of the human mind, the ego is the kernel around which intellect and language are formed. It's the organizing principle of desire and fear and revulsion, of all things emotional. When it goes bad, the result is insanity. Whether or not the disorder spills over into outright psychosis, it places one irrevocably at odds with the world as it actually is. When the intellect functions at the service of self-enhancing prejudice, and emotions go wildly out of whack at the least little disturbance to one's precious set of self-deceptions, then the subject is deranged. In the great American scheme of things, insanity falls somewhere between apple pie and baseball. It's so deeply embedded in our society that we perceive its absence as insanity. Against the shared, cultural background of pathological narcissism, those who assert obvious and bizarre distortions seem quite normal, while those who point up the truth are dismissed as cranks.

All humans have an ego, and all human cultures are narcissistic to a degree. But in our nation, as well as many others throughout history, the ego has been unleashed from its natural restraints to become the dominant force within the mind. Instead of perceiving reality, we project it on the basis of our desires and fears. The disturbed ego is a sort of practiced unconsciousness by which awareness of the gap between reality and belief is systematically blocked. Instead of shedding light on the situation, it sheds darkness. It's the original pretender, dethroning consciousness and imprisoning it in the funhouse of fantasy and horror.

American narcissism has always carried a religious sensibility. It's no accident that this weird nation of ours was founded by Protestants. In most religions, you have to prove your worthiness before God, but in Protestantism (as originally formulated) it's already been ordained. You've either been selected by God, at birth, to ascend to heaven when you die, or, having been passed up at the crucial moment, there's nothing you can do about your fate. It's not through good works that you earn your ticket to heaven but simply your innate specialness that endows you with a free pass through the pearly gates. The best way to demonstrate to others your glorious self-nature, ironically, is through self-denial. If you sacrifice yourself, clearly you're among God's chosen. At one time, this would have meant death. But these days we're a little more liberal. Instead of having yourself nailed to a tree, you could just sacrifice a couple years up in a tree house.

Julia Hill, daughter of an itinerant preacher, understands this, if not consciously, then osteoptically. Through her self-denial, she was able to save her beloved Luna. In exchange, Luna breathed life into Julia, transforming a simple ego disorder into a cult of ego. No longer “Julia Hill,” her public act of self-sacrifice changed her into “Butterfly.” With Luna as the living symbol of her metamorphosis, she's now the focus of a countercultural permutation of the same old evangelistic song-and-dance. That's why it doesn't matter whether the rest of the Stafford forest is saved. In fact, cutting down the remaining woods is ideal, for it draws attention to Luna, as Luna draws attention to Butterfly. The same goes for the people who supported her during her two-year tree sit. For a time they were helpful, but now they'd only be in the way. What's important is not the complex issues involved with forest survival or the strengthening of a group of activists but the supreme wonder that is Butterfly.

It's due to this Butterfly effect that she finds it necessary to mention repeatedly, at her appearances before her fans, that she's really just like us, just a normal person who happened to do something extraordinary. You get the feeling that something bigger than her — something with a life of its own — is working over her followers, working their minds, preparing the ground before she walks on it.

Julia has stumbled onto a basic principle, so fundamental that it's the guiding postulate of American politics: The basis of power is lunacy. What a tree has done for Butterfly, the White House has done for William Jefferson Clinton. Like Julia Hill, the President seems to wield a magic spell over the crowd. He could be sworn by an oath of blood to serve plutocracy till the day he dies, but because he's “The President,” he therefore believes in democracy, freedom, peace, human rights, and justice.

For example, in his boundless compassion, he feels obligated to offer protection to Middle Eastern nations from Saddam Hussein's “weapons of mass destruction.” Though upwards of a million Iraqis — mostly children — have been killed from these sanctions, it's worth the price, because, as we know, weapons of mass destruction can kill a lot of people.

Then there's his steadfast support for the people of Russia in their painful transition from communism to democracy. Clinton's backing of Boris Yeltsin was particularly crucial when the Russian Parliament failed to ratify measures opening up the country to “free markets.” As it happened, the Parliament had been elected when the country was still part of the Soviet Union. So, when Yeltsin launched artillery at the parliament building, he was assaulting, not democracy, but the last vestige of communism. Clinton doesn't even have to concoct this ridiculous excuse himself. We're more than happy to do it for him.

In his final days in office, President Clinton has taken the drug war to the jungles of Colombia. The target of our military assistance is leftist guerrillas, who are no more implicated in the drug trade than the paramilitary units that can only benefit from our presence. Add to that the fact that drug treatment is 23 times more effective than eradication in the source country, and it appears that this little adventure has nothing to do with drugs and everything to do with repressing resistance to a violent, authoritarian state. But we know Clinton is doing the right thing, because he went down to Colombia and proclaimed that the effort was all about supporting democracy while fighting drugs. Case closed.

Though the corporate media do their part to ensure that only the correct interpretation of events is presented to the people, the real blame has to go to all those “educated” Americans who insist on a press that reflects our selfless benevolence. This society is information-saturated, and the unpleasant facts do occasionally get around. Perhaps we've heard that America has more prisoners and sells more arms than any other country. But we know it never really matters, that despite our mistakes and occasional taint of corruption, we're still a well-meaning country with a regular, friendly guy working the helm. Any large-scale media outlet which fails to feed us healthy portions of our preferred “truth” soon loses its audience.

Of course, we realize our president is only human. He felt terrible about not living up to his obligation to authorize UN troops to stop the genocide in Rwanda, but he made up for it by stopping the genocide in Yugoslavia before it even happened! What he did with Monica cast a black cloud over this otherwise morally blameless nation, but he apologized for that “terrible mistake I made.” What's really admirable about him is the way he almost seems to enjoy confessing his sins in public. “I had to come to terms with a lot of things about the fundamental importance of character and integrity.” See how he recognizes the error of his way and grows as a human being?

Not so for his opponents. The Republicans truly believed that the Lewinsky matter was a crime worthy of impeachment. Though the '98 midterm elections demonstrated that the American people did not back them in their contention, they pursued the impeachment proceedings until the bitter end. Though twice defeated, still they couldn't see this as a losing issue. For in the final months of the presidential campaign of 2000 they've thrown it up before the public once more, as if such a strategy, based on a fanatical pseudo-morality, could somehow damage Gore rather than backfiring yet again. But self-defeating delusion is just as powerful on the other side. Witness the inability of progressives to recognize that Clinton is simply not one of them.

To help elect him in the first place is somewhat understandable. Far less understandable is how any of these people could have voted to re-elect him. And then to support Gore according to the same old lesser-of-two-evils argument — it's just incomprehensible.

St. Clair & Cockburn have amply filled us in on this topic. I’ll just point to one example. Katha Pollitt believes we must vote for Gore so as to protect the right to abortion. Well, for starters, Gore has a record of voting against abortion rights wherever possible, while Bush Jr., by pragmatic necessity, has distanced himself from the anti-choice crowd. Pollitt fears Bush Jr. would appoint right-wing conservatives to the Supreme Court, who would overturn Roe vs. Wade. Yet as governor of Texas, Bush has a record of steering clear of extremists in his judicial appointments. And even if the Supreme Court did overturn Roe vs. Wade, that would just send the issue back to the states, very few of which would actually make abortion illegal. Beyond that, there's the extreme selfishness in Pollitt's position. Of all the things Gore will do to spread misery in the world — the militarism, the environmental destruction, the free hand given to global corporate plunder — none of it means anything compared to the right of American women to abort their fetuses!

What's amazing is that she's one of the finest columnists in this country, an excellent political analyst. Clearly, she has succumbed to the cult of the presidency.

To some extent, the two sides of delusion — liberal and conservative — feed on each other symbiotically. We believe Clinton must be on our side when we see the rabid dementia of right-wingers who think he's the Antichrist. They hold this view, not because he represents any threat to their precious “values,” but simply because he beat them out of their White House, which they had previously held for twelve years. When the White House is “ours,” we worship the occupant; when it's “theirs,” we despise him.

Power mesmerizes. The one who wields it can hypnotize the commoners, who, in turn, reinforce the magic spell as they reflect it back on the leader. It's impossible to say whether the public is caught in the delusion of the President or vice versa.

In 1943 army psychologist Walter Langer was assigned the task of assessing the mental health of Hitler. In the resulting study, published after the war as The Mind of Adolf Hitler, Langer argued that a “reciprocal relationship exists between the Fuehrer and the people and that the madness of the one stimulates and flows into the other and vice versa. It was not only Hitler, the madman, who created German madness, but German madness that created Hitler.”

The genius of liberal democracy is the way it preserves the underlying insanity of society without ever letting it boil over into self-immolating psychosis. We develop mutually reinforcing relationships with our great leader for a few years, but before it goes too far, election time rolls around, and we start all over again, always renewing ourselves with fresh blood.

If the United States were an individual instead of a country, and this person — feeling a little blue — went to see a psychiatrist, the diagnosis would surely come back as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This means that what began in youth as a character defect has hardened into a self-perpetuating disturbance of the ego.

To be diagnosed with this illness, the subject must meet certain criteria. The first is a grandiose sense of self-importance. America, as we all know, is savior of freedom and beacon of light unto all nations. The second criterion is a preoccupation with fantasies of success, power, brilliance, beauty, etc. The fact that many of our fantasies have actually come true (nicely summed up in the phrase, “America's Century”) doesn't mean they won't still persist long after the reality has worn off. And, of course, one of our fantasies — moral righteousness — has never had a grain of truth to it. The third criterion is that the subject believes he or she is “special” and cannot be understood except by other “special” people. Just read “people” as “nations.” It's only among the Group of Seven economic powers, or the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, or the select members of NATO, that we feel at home among equals.

Americans love to be admired (criterion #4). We love to imagine that everyone thinks we’re really cool. Those foreigners just can't get enough of our music, our movies, our Cokes, our Big Macs. Naturally, they all want nothing more than to be just like us.

Given our innate goodness, there's no reason why anyone should resist complying with our wishes (criterion #5). International law, after all, is for bad countries. When we take action, it's always for the best, and any good country will recognize this and refrain from pointing out minor inconsistencies between our action and, for instance, the Nuremberg Code or the UN Charter.

Yes, we take advantage of the weakness of others (criterion #6), but it's all in the name of free enterprise! We strip the resources of poor countries and obliterate or purchase their domestic industries, but that's only because they don't know how to make all those wonderful appliances! We're just creating miniature middle classes the world over, bequeathing to the natives the marvels of modern living.

Perhaps the most important criterion is #7: Total lack of empathy. We know how terrible life can be. We've all experienced the dread that sets in with nausea and sickness. But do we care that we're subjecting millions of others to malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, and death? It's not just Iraq, where we've destroyed sewage treatment plants and invoked sanctions so as to prevent their reconstruction. It's everywhere “free trade” policies force people off the land into horrible conditions at the outskirts of overcrowded cities. How could we fail to see the connection between our fabulous wealth and their humiliating poverty? How can we swallow our coffee or eat our bananas without considering the debilitating pesticide exposure of the Central Americans who do the work of bringing us these pleasures? Yet the connection simply doesn't compute in the American imagination. It's always their problem. Is it our fault they're not US?

The narcissist loves to imagine that others envy him (criterion #8). It never occurs to us that maybe the reason some of those people out there despise us is not because they only want what we've got, but because America is despicable.

Finally, there's the arrogance, the haughtiness (criterion #9). How we love to throw our weight around and tell everyone how it's going to be. See how our troops openly flaunt the local customs of our subject nations, as if daring them to try and throw us out. Notice the American tourists, notorious the world over for their smug pride. The people we like are the ones who smile when we walk all over them. And if they don't smile, we'll just teach 'em how!

To be diagnosed with pathological narcissism, you only have to conform to five of these criteria. Amazingly, the USA hits a home run every single inning.

What could this possibly mean?

Very few Americans suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. While it's not known exactly how many true narcissists there are (since they virtually never seek treatment — being perfect and all) it's probably not much more than 1% of the population. So how could the country as a whole act as if all its citizens were ego-impaired? Is it just the big-shots — the politicians and capitalists — who reveal the disorder? The prevalence may actually be higher among the “social ruling class” that comprises about half of one percent of the population, but it would still be very low.

In our highly individualized society, we have trouble with the fact that a group can have an ego. When you go to the football game, you identify with the home team and perceive the opposing team as the “other.” Though attending the game at the stadium enhances the effect, it still applies even at home watching on TV. The ego envelopes whatever we identify with. It doesn't have to be something personal, like our bodies and possessions. We also identify with families and towns and the army or a church or whatever it is we happen to belong to. Most importantly, we identify with our nation.

Just as the individual ego can be disturbed, so too can that of the group. It's possible that the existence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder at the individual level serves as a magnet that draws the pathological group into the set of characteristics peculiar to NPD, but more likely than not, it's the other way around.

During the millennia of our prehistory, “self” was equivalent to “tribe.” Ego began at the level of the group and branched out, over time, into individuals, carrying with it the characteristics of tribes, a healthy degree of narcissism being foremost. Today, we're so far from our roots that we have trouble recognizing how much the group continues to dominate our minds. It's not simply a matter of conforming to what the next guy does. The group is inside our minds. To the extent that we identify with it, the group inhabits our cognition, our emotion, and our behavior. When the home team scores a touchdown, you don't stand up and yell because everyone else is doing it. The impulse arises from within each of us, and we act (and think and feel) as one.

Let's say you're a typical American. Mostly, you just want to get along with people. You want others to be happy. But you also identify with the United States of America. Since you’re generally considerate and helpful and well-liked, etc., how could the country you identify with be this raging monster bent on global apocalypse? It doesn't make sense. The insanity must be collective.

But things haven't always been like this. There was a day when America knew what it stood for, when there was relatively little schism between individual consciousness and collective unconsciousness. European colonists knew perfectly well that they terrorized the natives and stole their lands. We, the good white people, kept generations of black people imprisoned on plantations. No politically correct terminology for us: They were slaves. We, the white men, kept the women under our thumbs. We, the white men of property, kept the government working nice and smooth as long as the rabble were excluded from the voting booth. After the continent was conquered, when it was time to build a navy and snatch up territories across the sea, we were proud to call ourselves, “imperialists.”

In a word, we were evil.

Fortunately, we came to recognize the error in our way. Today, we honor Native Americans, African Americans, and Ms. Americans. Just look at Clinton's recent apology for slavery or the contrite words from the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs regarding the war against the original inhabitants of this land. We've learned to respect the earth. We've expanded the franchise to the point where every citizen who reaches the age of eighteen can partake of our wondrous democracy. No longer seizing nations for our own private property, we respect all the peoples of the world within a universal framework of international law.

What's really changed, though, is in our minds. Clinton advocates the continued mass imprisonment of black youth. The BIA still persecutes native peoples (demonstrated yet again by the refusal to recognize the recent election of new leaders at Round Valley). Property still trumps nature. Women are still beaten by their own husbands and excluded from positions of power. As the franchise expanded, our democracy yielded to plutocracy, leaving us with a class of rulers even more narrow than it was 200 years ago. That we call it “globalism” now, instead of imperialism, doesn't change the fact that it's still all about conquest and plunder.

We're still evil, but now — on top of that — we're also insane. Is this really an improvement? Abandoning conscious racism, we've built an elaborate mechanism by which it's perpetuated systematically and without guilt. We've been split off from our true nature, so that, animal-like, it can kill and feed without restraint.

One might say that our leaders are less deluded than the ordinary citizen. After all, the big boys know perfectly well that the presidential campaigns are all about avoiding the real issues, like intellectual property rights and corporate welfare posing as military defense and the loss of topsoil alongside poisoning of food and water for the sake of agribusiness profits, and so on. Most people honestly know better, but the cult of the presidency keeps them in thrall to the well-crafted spectacle. Gore and Bush, as well as their armies of handlers, are above the spectacle. But that only means they're subject to a more subtle form of delusion. It's like the difference between the criminal who convinces himself he's really doing nothing wrong and the one who realizes it's wrong but sees the world as being divided between predator and prey, so you might as well be a predator. It's just the delusion of the peasant versus the delusion of the warrior. One is crude, the other refined. In the end, it doesn't matter. Both are nuts, and neither is fully responsible for the corruption of our society. Both play a role in maintaining the group ego disturbance.

The key to insanity, whatever its form, is the yielding of reality to image. Upset about the School of the Americas? Fret not, for it exists no longer. Of course, now they've got a little something called the Defense Institute of Hemispheric Security Cooperation, and it occupies the same fort and does the same thing the previous institution did, but the “School of the Assassins” has been done away with!

If you claim that the atom bomb was detonated over Japan in the name of peace (as opposed to intimidation) then, indeed, it was done with good will. If you claim America is fundamentally opposed to communism, then indeed, that's how it is. Back when the agriculture sector in the Soviet Union was still private, the state provided tremendous subsidies to publicly-owned industry as a way of preventing counter-revolution in the provinces. Of course, the United States has done the same thing for years, subsidizing the big guys to prevent the little guys from banding together and restoring democracy. It's the same strategy exactly. Yet we could believe with absolute conviction that their way was wrong, and ours was right.

What's creepy about it is the way reality gets perfectly reversed. It's far easier to spot a lie that's only halfway opposed to reality than one that inverts the truth altogether. Since any doubt whatsoever would open the doors to rational skepticism, we must allow no room for soul-searching. Our certainty must be total. Whatever our opponent says about us must be completely wrong, implying that our opponent, not us, is the lunatic. Our opponent, not us, is the liar. Our opponent, not us, is the thief.

We weren't destroying Vietnam — we were saving it. We weren't the aggressor in the nuclear arms buildup — we were defending the free world from communism. Black people consigned to our ghettos aren't victims of racism but their own lack of character. Though we kidnapped them and brought them to the New World in slave ships, they're the ones who are morally inferior. Since we can't simply eliminate the reality of our depravity, we must superimpose it onto our victim. First we deprive the ghetto of the proper material foundations of modern existence, and then we blame the resulting array of vices on its inhabitants.

Though Julia Hill is leaching energy away from any kind of coherent, effective struggle for environmental integrity, those who identify with her see her as a champion of the movement to save nature. America, for those who persist in identifying with it, is not the great destroyer of cultural and natural diversity — oppressor of peoples the world over — it's the greatest country on earth, not just today, but of all time!

We will never comprehend the crushing stupidity and mindless evil of this society except according to the model of mental illness. The nemesis is our own extended ego, which shares with us as individuals none of our best qualities while exacerbating all the unseemly traits bubbling up from below. But how can such a thing exist? Where is this group-based ego? The problem with the idea of collective insanity is that we don't have a collective brain. As Edward O. Wilson puts it, “The mind is the brain at work.” So where is this continent-spanning cerebrum that grounds our national madness? According to the wisdom of modern science, we are singular, and the collective is only an agglomeration of parts, not a thing in itself.

We'll simply have to throw our hands in the air and concede that if there's large-scale lunacy in this society, it must be all those crazies on the left. Each one of them must be individually insane, for it cannot be the whole of the nation. If the left is right — and America is nuts — then science has gotten it all wrong. Until such a claim can be confidently argued, there's not much point in developing this topic further.

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