How low can our country go in ethical degradation? How long can we last if our standards continue to drop?
Even as someone who has seen too much of human evil in war and in peace, I never have thought that my country — a reputed “city upon a hill” — could sink to a point where a former FBI director would liken a sitting president to a “mafia Don” and a sitting president would brand that former FBI director a “slimeball.”
James Comey has written a memoir which, in his mind, is a guide to lead his country toward higher standards of ethics and leadership.
What he has actually done, engaging in an egotistical feud with Trump, is to push us further down the road to systemic dysfunction.
Both Comey and Trump are quintessential men of our times. They are narcissists.
The raging fires of narcissism in contemporary America have been stoked by the culture of celebrity, fueled by all forms of media from movies to television to YouTube and all the rest of social media.
A celebrity culture socializes citizens through their perpetual consumption of entertainment. Ethics melts into peer-directed groupiness in which real ego strength evaporates and everyone fears being different or off-key or “incorrect” — in dress, habits, preferences and opinions.
To be incorrect these days really is to become a nonperson without worth or dignity. Such unbearable ostracism destroys the self, and to avoid it we need to purge ourselves of inner convictions.
Such a pliable person no longer has an inner compass seeking inspirational values, dedication to vocation and harmony with substantial truth.
In his once-famous 1950 book, “The Lonely Crowd,” Harvard sociologist David Riesman forecast the path by which American culture and politics would bring us to this calamity. A mentor of mine when I was an undergraduate, Reisman and his teachings have long been much on my mind.
Riesman drew a sharp distinction between traditional Americans, as being “inner-directed” by robust core values, and a new kind of American arising within the modern era’s white-collar middle class, which he called “other-directed.” This new middle class adapted psychologically and socially to the demands of the post-industrial economic order — to a life of knowledge work in bureaucratic positions in large institutions, both corporate and governmental.
Among “other-directed’ Americans, Riesman said, “contemporaries are the source of direction for the individual.” The process of self-striving for them, he wrote, is the process of paying close attention to the signals from others.
Riesman described other-directed people as slavishly “fashion”-conscious, unwilling to take a stand for themselves on anything autonomous or anything that has its worthiness confirmed by timeless standards. Everything old, anything with a hint of mustiness, is to be thrown out.
As Riesman saw 68 years ago, celebrity and media prominence drive fashion and trends.
Trump perhaps got it exactly right in his notorious Access Hollywood tape: “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything … ”
Riesman intuited that the existential danger to be most feared by other-directed Americans is to be convicted by peers of being “different,” out of step. Adopting what’s new, getting with the latest thing, knowing what’s trending on Twitter, is all.
As Aristophanes put it: “Whirl is king, having driven out Zeus.”
With Donald Trump as president, whirl indeed seems to have taken over our politics. But are not Comey and his star turn also just another artifact of trendiness spinning in the whirl: here today, gone tomorrow?
How can there be ethics, leadership, higher loyalties, in a land where whirl is king?
Let me suggest how other-directedness promotes the narcissism Trump and Comey embody.
The first step on the road to other-directedness is to avoid internalizing deeply-grounded and abiding standards and beliefs. Other-directed Americans reject religion and the study of history, sometimes parents and family, scoffing at leadership role models like Washington or Lincoln, at the idea of unchosen duties and responsibilities, and as much else from the past as they can.
What is left is only the most superficial sense of self that constantly needs to be reassured that it is something. It is a self fixated on giving itself stature in the eyes of others and in the process subordinates itself totally to them.
In the Greek myth of Narcissus, the water in which Narcissus saw the reflection of his face confirmed his reality, his being. He could not turn away from what was in front of him, what was outside of him, which showed him that he was. He lost his true will to live and stared at the reflection until he died.
If we Americans need ethics and leadership, if we are to be loyal to higher things, as Comey urges, then we must abandon other-direction and seek to know reality more deeply.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, a network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.