David Brooks has a pretty great column in the Times today, in which he compares the nation’s somber celebration of V-J Day in 1945 to the spectacular displays of personal aggrandizement accompanying virtually any achievement in 2009. Props to The Cure for the heads-up; I do not normally read David Brooks, as I find his foppish postures unbefitting the otherwise prestigious Brooks name. Brooks asserts that humility was the defining quality of America’s response to its victory in World War II, and any celebration of the defeat of fascism was dampened by a sense of the mind-boggling human suffering that achievement necessitated. He quotes the war correspondent Ernie Pyle: “We won this war because our men are brave and because of many things — because of Russia, England and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature’s material. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other peoples. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than we are proud.”
That’s a far cry from Mission Accomplished and the nation that declared war in the Middle East on a mandate from god. Ask Tom Brokaw or any prep school history tutor and he’ll tell you that the United States was probably at its peak when it won World War II, and yet—at least according to Brooks’s perspective—our national touchdown celebration was more humble than most, um, local touchdown celebrations. Such assessments are risky, but I think we can safely say that we’ve become a more self-aggrandizing people than we were in 1945. The question is, what changed?
To be fair, the scope of events in 1945 encouraged feelings of individual insignificance. Brooks points out that the war produced “such rivers of blood, that the individual ego seemed petty in comparison.” The man just cannot get through one column without using the phrase “rivers of blood,” can he? He’s like Ezekiel, but I digress. When you’ve seen the sum industrial economies of Europe devote themselves to producing as many tanks, guns and uniforms as possible, then watched those tanks, guns and uniforms slam into one another in France for five years straight, it’s hard to get excited about the time you personally shot a Bulgarian dude out of a tree. The massive clashes and unrelenting horror of World War II occurred on a scale that dwarfed the individual, which probably made celebratory breast-beating feel petty. It’s like if Chad Ochocinco had to play in outer space during a meteor shower.
Still, the modern world is arguably more monstrous and epic than ever before, with no shortage of titanic forces, and that hasn’t rendered the individual ego extinct. You don’t have to be a crotchety grandfather to get the impression that people today are more self-regarding and arrogant than ever, which is pretty amazing when you consider that our sense of “how things used to be” comes from history, a place populated almost entirely by famous people. When you look at pictures from 1893, no one is wearing a shirt that says “Sexy” on it in rhinestones.* Throughout most of American history, those who nominated themselves as exceptional human beings were the object of ridicule, not admiration. One can argue that they still are, but whatever deterrent force kept people from doing it en masse seems to have been overcome.
Brooks suggests that the tipping point came in the late sixties, when a new ethos of personal freedom—what sociologists have dubbed “expressive individualism”—urged people to pursue greatness by looking within. Where previous generations had sought to aggrandize themselves by connecting to larger movements and institutions—an impulse that arguably contributed to the rise of European fascism and the outbreak of WWII in the first place—the postwar counterculture saw achievement as a process of distinguishing oneself from the crowd. Regular Combat! readers know that I am partial to any explanation that blames the sixties, but Brooks’s theory seems more appealing than true. Maybe the World War II generation were particularly inclined to see greatness as following from humble participation in great endeavors, but the Baby Boomers can’t have been the first cadre of Americans to regard self-aggrandizement as a life’s pursuit. There is, for example, Pennsylvania.
A more likely culprit is the self-esteem movement. It seems entirely possible that ours is the first generation of Americans to regard high self-esteem not as an occupational hazard of success, but success’s cause. I am a product of those years of public education during which low self-esteem was blamed for everything from poor study skills to teen pregnancy to bullying, and came of age amid a blizzard of posters, pamphlets and presentations that urged me to feel good about myself. It turns out that bullies tend to have inordinately high self-esteem, and creating a national philosophy that considers everyone special regardless of whether they have achieved anything beyond t-shirt ownership might actually have some cultural ramifications.
David Brooks cites Kanye West’s recent explosion of self-importance at the Video Music Awards as evidence that ours is a culture of expressive individualism run amok, and his commenters point out that Shoutin’ Joe Wilson is of the same ilk. Those are certainly two sad examples of men who overestimate their own importance, but it’s also worth noting that they are a multi-platinum recording artists and a United States Congressman, respectively. Kanye may be a bag of water and vinegar designed for hygiene, but at least he record “Golddigger.” For my money, the most hideous examples of self-esteem culture this summer appeared not on stages or the Senate floor but at town hall meetings. The legions of utterly misinformed Americans who get their news from chain emails and talk radio but still feel more qualified than their senators to run the U.S. government—here is the real and damaging legacy of a generation of expressive individualism. David Brooks is right: this country has an ego problem. He is looking, however, at the wrong end of the achievement scale.
* Probably I’ve trained you not to click on links by now, but did you read the product description for that shirt? And I quote: “This teen tee shirt makes a great gift and says you are one thing, sexy.” Je-sus Christ. If there’s one thing I want my child to be…