Heading into our last few posts on liberalism, it’s time to determine how people of liberal temperament can apply themselves to some of the significant challenges mentioned in earlier posts.
For one thing, how do liberals re-engage with a society a little long in the tooth in its entitlements and wealth – the comfortable? Since the beginnings of liberalism it has been assumed that the more citizens can share in the wealth, the more generous and outward-looking they will become. For a time it was true. The expansion of wealth in liberal states led to the dynamic growth of the middle-class we witnessed for decades.
What many failed to consider was the phenomenal increase of what modern psychologists call “the narcissism problem.” Rather than compelling citizens to turn outward with their empowerment, in many ways the opposite occurred – an infatuation with themselves. A recent NBC public service announcement put it this way: “You may not realize it, but everyone is born with their one true love – themselves. If you like you, everyone else will, too.” We may regard this as an oddity when in fact it’s mainstream.
When I say that Canadian society is turning increasingly narcissistic, it only follows on the heels of numerous conclusions by researchers and modern psychologists affirming that very development. The word narcissism comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus – an good looking young man hoping to find his true love. The beautiful nymph Echo falls in love with him, but she is rejected. Narcissus keeps looking for the perfect mate until one day he catches his own reflection in the water. He falls in love with that image and gazes at it until his death. He ultimately failed to find the true value of people like Echo, and also couldn’t spot the self-absorption with himself.
Historic liberalism failed to spot this reality. In a very real sense, narcissism has become an unintended byproduct of its concentration on the empowerment of the individual. Now at a crossroads, liberalism has to figure out how it will assist a nation more self-absorbed than at any other time in its history and get it moving again.
Psychologists tell us that narcissistic people want more and more things for themselves. They don’t desire just any kind of materialistic thing, but the good stuff – the expensive variety. Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske argue in their book Trading Up, the growing emphasis on perennial shopping has reduced the guilt we once felt for wanting luxury items. The ease of attaining credit not only permitted citizens to spend more effortlessly, it also provided them with the greatest private debt in the world. When the Pew Centre for Research recently asked 18-to 25-year olds about the most important goals of their generation, 81% named becoming rich, more than twice as many as named “helping people who need help,” four times more than named “becoming a leader” in the community, and eight times as many as named becoming more “ethical.” This is the upcoming generation and every day we, by our own lack of the kind of sacrifice and dedication exhibited by our grandparents, have inbred into young minds that acquiring wealth is more important than anything. This is the accidental legacy of liberalism and it plays right into the hands of the current conservative ethos of “me-first.” Only a new kind of liberal philosophy that shifts the emphasis from entitlement to responsibility and accountability will have the dynamic required to speak to a new generation.
Money is important, vital even. It makes us comfortable, healthy, and educated. But it has also made us over-indulgent and entitled. This is something no politician must ever state if they wish to hold on to their career. And yet this is exactly what is required in the new kind of liberal leadership. We are a different people than we were even a few decades ago. We have reached a level of status and wealth that our grandparents could never have dreamed of. Yet somehow we achieved this level without realizing how much sacrifice those that preceded us put into that effort. As economist Robert Frank states in his Luxury Fever, the spending of celebrities and incredibly rich of the world has enticed the present middle-class to such a degree that they are going into massive debt in hopes of achieving the same. His conclusion is timely: “our grandparents would weep.”
This is a remarkably difficult challenge to address because citizens and voters often take to punishing those who broach it. It’s not just citizens or companies, but politicians, civil servants, community leaders – and me. Writing posts such as these has helped me to realize how far short I have fallen in this very area. The reason the gap between the rich and poor is growing, that our international generosity is dropping like a stone, that pay equity for women is now a distant dream, and that our willingness to watch the planet destroyed without addressing the problem, is that we have changed – all of us. We can never be a fair, generous, just or tolerant society as long as our wealth leaves such a legacy. We need the challenge of a generation to retake our country; but it will be painful and it will involve sacrifice.