Archive for the ‘Pop Culture’ Category
New research reveals the roots of inflated egos — and why they’re dangerous
Mary Elizabeth Williams
Of course your kids are the smartest, most talented people in the world. But could you please do them – and those of us who have to live in the world with them – a favor and don’t raise them to think that they’re the smartest, most talented people in the world?
New research this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that children whose parents describe them as “more special than other children” and “deserving something extra in life” were – shocker – more likely to score higher on tests of narcissism than children whose parents described them differently. The year and a half long Netherlands-based study looked at 565 children aged between seven and twelve, and their parents. And as Ohio State University communications and psychology professor Brad Bushman explains, the danger in raising kids to believe they’re more special and deserving is that there’s a strong correlation between narcissism and bad behavior. “Empathy involves putting yourselves in other people’s shoes, but narcissists have a very difficult time putting themselves in other people’s shoes. Whenever people have this sense of superiority,” he says, “then they lash out at others in an aggressive way.” In an interview last year, he expanded on the idea, saying, “The most harmful belief that a person can have is that they’re superior to others. ‘Men are better than women, my race is better than your race, my religion is superior to your religion.’ When people believe they’re better than other people, they act accordingly.” And while yes, some people are born with bigger egos, if you’re a 20 year-old screaming on an airplane about having to fly with a bunch of “peasants,” that attitude probably didn’t come out of nowhere.
This idea of innate exceptionalism, whether on a national or individual level, is, as Jean Twenge, author of “The Narcissism Epidemic” puts it, “toxic.” In addition to leading to a higher probability of the entitled, potentially dangerous behavior, Twenge says it also hurts the narcissist himself. “In the long term it tends to lead to failure,” she says.
When my elder daughter was in preschool, I took her to see the movie “The Incredibles.” My favorite moment was and still is when Dash scorns his mother’s assertion that “Everyone’s special,” retorting, “Which is another way of saying no one is.” At the time, my kid was in a lovely, nurturing preschool that vigorously applauded every child for every act of coat buttoning and finger painting as if it were a unique achievement. Over a decade later, I sometimes wonder if that parenting and educational philosophy is a factor in why so many kids now seem to be such obnoxious little twerps.
In my own family, I want my children to grow into confident, secure young women while not becoming insufferable adults. So while I’m happy to applaud for them in school plays and tell them they’re beautiful, I try to stress encouraging them for the things they do instead of the things they are. I try to recognize when they’re compassionate and unselfish, and to tell that I’m proud of them then. And I hope I can instill in them the good sportsmanship to be gracious when someone else does better at something than they do. Because if you always think you’re the best, who’s left to inspire you? As Bushman says, “Self-esteem basically means you’re a person of worth equal with other people. Narcissism means you think you’re better than other people.”
We live in a wildly narcissistic culture, and it’s not just parents who lay on the “World’s Greatest” hype. But we do seem to instill in our children a particular sense that braggadocio is a desirable quality from the time they’re born. A quick perusal of toddler t-shirts currently for sale from The Children’s Place includes ones that say “I’m the Genius of the Family,” “Future Rock Star” and “The Princess Has Arrived.” Explain to me how a kid who grows up literally walking around inside of messages like that isn’t picking up some helpful tips on how to be an arrogant jerk later on.
So even if you know in your heart your kid’s the greatest, go for a subtler approach. “Just say ‘I love you,’ “ says Twenge. “It’s what you mean, and it’s a much better message.”
The U.S. is being overrun by a wave of anti-science, anti-intellectual thinking. Has the most powerful nation on Earth lost its mind?
May 15, 2014
Larry Bartels, the co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University, says he doubts that the spreading ignorance is a uniquely American phenomenon. Facing complex choices, uncertain about the consequences of the alternatives, and tasked with balancing the demands of jobs, family and the things that truly interest them with boring policy debates, people either cast their ballots reflexively, or not at all. The larger question might be whether engagement really matters. “If your vision of democracy is one in which elections provide solemn opportunities for voters to set the course of public policy and hold leaders accountable, yes,” Bartels wrote in an email to Maclean’s. “If you take the less ambitious view that elections provide a convenient, non-violent way for a society to agree on who is in charge at any given time, perhaps not.”
A study by two Princeton University researchers, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, released last month, tracked 1,800 U.S. policy changes between 1981 and 2002, and compared the outcome with the expressed preferences of median-income Americans, the affluent, business interests and powerful lobbies. They concluded that average citizens “have little or no independent influence” on policy in the U.S., while the rich and their hired mouthpieces routinely get their way. “The majority does not rule,” they wrote.
Sorry, Ayn Rand. Your fiction has been exposed as, well, fiction.
April 27, 2014 |
Libertarians have always been flummoxed by inequality, tending either to deny that it’s a problem or pretend that the invisible hand of the market will wave a magic wand to cure it. Then everybody gets properly rewarded for what he or she does with brains and effort, and things are peachy keen.
Except that they aren’t, as exhaustively demonstrated by French economist Thomas Piketty, whose 700-page treatise on the long-term trends in inequality, Capital In the 21st Century, has blown up libertarian fantasies one by one.
To understand the libertarian view of inequality, let’s turn to Milton Friedman, one of America’s most famous and influential makers of free market mythology. Friedman decreed that economic policy should focus on freedom, and not equality.
If we could do that, he promised, we’d not only get freedom and efficiency, but more equality as a natural byproduct. Libertarians who took the lessons from his books, like Capitalism and Freedom (1962) and Free to Choose (1980), bought into the notion that capitalism naturally led to less inequality.
Basically, the lessons boiled down to this: Some degree of inequality is both unavoidable and desirable in a free market, and income inequality in the U.S. isn’t very pronounced, anyway. Libertarians starting with these ideas tend to reject any government intervention meant to decrease inequality, claiming that such plans make people lazy and that they don’t work, anyway. Things like progressive income taxes, minimum wage laws and social safety nets make most libertarians very unhappy.
Uncle Milty put it like this:
“A society that puts equality—in the sense of equality of outcome—ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom.… On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality.”
Well, that turns out to be spectacularly, jaw-droppingly, head-scratchingly wrong. The U.S. is now a stunningly unequal society, with wealth piling up at the top so fast that an entire movement, Occupy Wall Street, sprung up to decry it with the catchphrase “We are the 99%.”
How did libertarians get it all so backwards? Well, as Piketty points out, people like Milton Friedman were writing at a time when inequality was indeed less pronounced in the U.S. than it had been in previous eras. But they mistook this happy state of affairs as the magic of capitalism. Actually, it wasn’t the magic of capitalism that reduced inequality during a brief, halcyon period after the New Deal and WWII. It was the forces of various economic shocks plus policies our government put in place to respond to them that changed America from a top-heavy society in the Gilded Age to something more egalitarian in the post-war years.
As you’ll recall, if you watched the movie Titanic, the U.S. had a class of rentiers (rich people who live off property and investments) in the early part of the 20th century who hailed from places like Boston, New York and Philadelphia. They were just as nasty and rapacious as their European counterparts, only there weren’t quite so many of them and their wealth was not quite as concentrated (the Southern rentiers had been wiped out by the Civil War).
The fortunes of these rentiers were not shock-proof: If you remember Hockney, the baddie in James Cameron’s film, he survives the Titanic but not the Great Crash of ’29, when he loses his money and offs himself. The Great Depression got rid of some of the extreme wealth concentration in America, and later the wealthy got hit with substantial tax shocks imposed by the federal government in the 1930s and ’40s. The American rentier class wasn’t really vaporized the way it was in Europe, where the effects of the two world wars were much more pronounced, but it took a hit. That opened up the playing field and gave people more of a chance to rise on the rungs of the economic ladder through talent and work.
If Rand were still alive she would probably say, “Thank you for smoking.”
By Adam Lee
April 23, 2014 |
Over the past year, I’ve been reading and reviewing Ayn Rand’s massive paean to capitalism, Atlas Shrugged. If you’re not familiar with the novel, it depicts a world where corporate CEOs and one-percenters are the selfless heroes upon which our society depends, and basically everyone else — journalists, legislators, government employees, the poor — are the villains trying to drag the rich down out of spite, when we should be kissing their rings in gratitude that they allow us to exist.
Rand’s protagonists are Dagny Taggart, heir to a transcontinental railroad empire, and Hank Rearden, the head of a steel company who’s invented a revolutionary new alloy which he’s modestly named Rearden Metal. Together, they battle against evil government bureaucrats and parasitic socialists to hold civilization together, while all the while powerful industrialists are mysteriously disappearing, leaving behind only the cryptic phrase “Who is John Galt?”
Atlas Shrugged is a work of fiction, but as far as many prominent conservatives are concerned, it’s sacred scripture. Alan Greenspan was a member of Rand’s inner circle, and opposed regulation of financial markets because he believed her dictum that the greed of businessmen was always the public’s best protection. Paul Ryan said that he required his campaign staffers to read the book, while Glenn Beck has announced grandiose plans to build his own real-life “Galt’s Gulch,” the hidden refuge where the book’s capitalist heroes go to watch civilization collapse without them.
Reading Atlas Shrugged is like entering into a strange mirror universe where everything we thought we knew about economics and morality is turned upside down. I’ve already learned some valuable lessons from it.
1. All evil people are unattractive; all good and trustworthy people are handsome.
The first and most important we learn from Atlas Shrugged is that you can tell good and bad people apart at a glance. All the villains — the “looters,” in Rand’s terminology — are rotund, fleshy and sweaty, with receding hairlines, sagging jowls and floppy limbs, while her millionaire industrialist heroes are portraits of steely determination, with sharp chins and angular features like people in a Cubist painting. Nearly all of them are conspicuously Aryan. Here’s a typical example, the steel magnate Hank Rearden:
The glare cut a moment’s wedge across his eyes, which had the color and quality of pale blue ice — then across the black web of the metal column and the ash-blond strands of his hair — then across the belt of his trenchcoat and the pockets where he held his hands. His body was tall and gaunt; he had always been too tall for those around him. His face was cut by prominent cheekbones and by a few sharp lines; they were not the lines of age, he had always had them; this had made him look old at twenty, and young now, at forty-five.
2. The mark of a great businessman is that he sneers at the idea of public safety.
When we meet Dagny Taggart, Rand’s heroic railroad baron, she’s traveling on a cross-country train which gets stuck at a stoplight that may or may not be broken. When the crew frets that they should wait until they’re sure it’s safe, Dagny pulls rank and orders them to drive through the red light. This, in Rand’s world, is the mark of a heroic and decisive capitalist, rather than the kind of person who in the real world would soon be the subject of headlines like “22 Dead in Train Collision Caused by Executive Who Didn’t Want to Be Late For Meeting.”
Dagny makes the decision to rebuild a critical line of the railroad using a new alloy, the aforementioned Rearden Metal, which has never been used in a major industrial project. You might think that before committing to build hundreds of miles of track through mountainous terrain, you’d want to have, say, pilot projects, or feasibility studies. But Dagny brushes those concerns aside; she just knows Rearden Metal is good because she feels it in her gut: “When I see things,” she explains, “I see them.”
And once that line is rebuilt, Dagny’s plan for its maiden voyage involves driving the train at dangerously high speed through towns and populated areas:
David Foster Wallace long ago warned about the cultural snark that now defines popular culture. It’s time to listen
David Foster Wallace was right: Irony is ruining our culture David Foster Wallace (Credit: Hachette Book Group)
Percy Shelley famously wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” For Shelley, great art had the potential to make a new world through the depth of its vision and the properties of its creation. Today, Shelley would be laughed out of the room. Lazy cynicism has replaced thoughtful conviction as the mark of an educated worldview. Indeed, cynicism saturates popular culture, and it has afflicted contemporary art by way of postmodernism and irony. Perhaps no recent figure dealt with this problem more explicitly than David Foster Wallace. One of his central artistic projects remains a vital question for artists today: How does art progress from irony and cynicism to something sincere and redeeming?
Twenty years ago, Wallace wrote about the impact of television on U.S. fiction. He focused on the effects of irony as it transferred from one medium to the other. In the 1960s, writers like Thomas Pynchon had successfully used irony and pop reference to reveal the dark side of war and American culture. Irony laid waste to corruption and hypocrisy. In the aftermath of the ’60s, as Wallace saw it, television adopted a self-deprecating, ironic attitude to make viewers feel smarter than the naïve public, and to flatter them into continued watching. Fiction responded by simply absorbing pop culture to “help create a mood of irony and irreverence, to make us uneasy and so ‘comment’ on the vapidity of U.S. culture, and most important, these days, to be just plain realistic.” But what if irony leads to a sinkhole of relativism and disavowal? For Wallace, regurgitating ironic pop culture is a dead end:
Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It [uses] the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.
So where have we gone from irony? Irony is now fashionable and a widely embraced default setting for social interaction, writing and the visual arts. Irony fosters an affected nihilistic attitude that is no more edgy than a syndicated episode of “Seinfeld.” Today, pop characters directly address the television-watching audience with a wink and nudge. (Shows like “30 Rock” deliver a kind of meta-television-irony irony; the protagonist is a writer for a show that satirizes television, and the character is played by a woman who actually used to write for a show that satirizes television. Each scene comes with an all-inclusive tongue-in-cheek.) And, of course, reality television as a concept is irony incarnate.
For the generation that came of age during Vietnam, irony was the response to a growing distrust toward anything and everything. In the 1980s, academics such as Mark Jefferson attacked sentimentality, and Neo-Expressionists gave sincerity a bad name through their sophomoric attempts at heroic paintings. Irony was becoming a protective carapace, as Wallace pointed out, a defense mechanism against the possibility of seeming naïve. By the 1990s, television had co-opted irony, and the networks were inundated with commercials using “rebel” in the tagline. Take Andre Agassi’s Canon camera endorsement from that period. In the commercial, the hard-hitting, wiseass Agassi smashed tennis balls loaded with paint to advertise Canon’s “Rebel” brand camera. The ad wraps with Agassi standing in front of a Pollockesque canvas saying “Image is everything.” For all the world, it seemed rebellion had been usurped by commercialism.
This environment gave artists few choices: sentimentality, nihilism, or irony. Or, put another way, critical ridicule as experienced by the Neo-Expressionist (see Sandro Chia), critical acceptance through nihilism like Gerhard Richter, or critical abdication through ironic Pop Art such as Jeff Koons. For a while, it seemed no new ideas were possible, progress was an illusion, and success could be measured only by popularity. Hot trends such as painted pornography; fluorescent paint; sculpture with mirrors, spray foam, and yarn were mistaken for art because artists believed blind pleasure-seeking could be made to seem insightful when described ironically.
[Continue to source article: David Foster Wallace was right: Irony is ruining our culture – Salon.com]