David Brooks wrote a column last Thursday, July 15, on Mel Gibson (the topic of the week for columnists across the political spectrum, from Brooks to Frank Rich. It must have been that time in mid-July when pundits leave work early for the beach). In an attempt to draw larger lessons on American narcissism from Gibson's abusive tirades at his ex, Brooks quoted research on self-esteem in American children by Jean M. Twenge. The part he pulled out showed that in the 1950s only 12 percent of teenagers agreed with the statement "I am an important person." By the late 1980s, that number had increased to 80 percent.
Whether or not we are raising a generation of Mel Gibson-like narcissists, there was something fishy about Brooks's case.
What really stuck out was that the girls in the study were significantly more likely to describe themselves as "important" than boys.
How does that square with the well -documented drop in self-esteem among schoolgirls as they enter adolescence?
It turns out that the research Brooks cites forms a central part of a fascinating book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. The chapter where Twenge's study appears, titled "How Inequality Gets Under the Skin" gives much more information on Twenge's research, and draws pretty much the opposite conclusion from Brooks, who calls it "national self-esteem inflation.”
Twenge also documented an immense increase in anxiety and depression during the same four and a half decades.
"An important clue to what lies behind the mental health trends comes from evidence that they were accompanied by a surprising rise in what at first was thought to be self-esteem," authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett write.
"So what could have been going on? People becoming much more self-confident doesn't seem to fit with them also becoming much more anxious and depressed. The answer turns out to be a picture of increasing anxieties than about how we are seen and what others think of us, which has in turn, produced a kind of defensive attempt to shore up our confidence in the face of those insecurities. The defense involves a kind of self-promoting, insecure egotism which is easily mistaken for high self-esteem."
It is a particularly American quality, it turns out, to be a boorish self-promoter with an intensely fragile ego.
Anyone who has spent a lot of time in the company of adolescent girls knows that there is a close relationship between obsessive concerns with one's social standing and appearance and low self-worth. Narcissism and real self-esteem are not friends. And this is an important distinction.
For decades, at least since Dr. Spock became a fall guy in the culture wars over Vietnam, conservatives and liberals have battled over pop psychology and child-rearing theories. If liberals think kids should have more self-esteem, conservatives think a strong disciplinarian, preferably a father, should teach them a lesson in civility and self-restraint.
These are broad caricatures that nonetheless have a certain amount of power for people.
But what Wilkinson and Pickett write about is a much deeper critique of American consumer society.
At bottom, it is the inequality of our society that makes us so insecure, anxious, and depressed--and so desperate to maintain a good image of ourselves in the face of this social collapse.
Not just for the poor, who are obvious losers in a highly stratified economy such as ours, but across the whole culture, people suffer ill effects from our national shortage of democracy and fairness.
Wilkinson and Pickett explore the relationship between inequality and a social problems including poor mental and physical health.
"The solution to problems caused by inequality is not mass psychotherapy aimed at making everyone less vulnerable. The best way of responding to the harm done by high levels of inequality would be to reduce inequality itself," they write.
This is a radical suggestion, since consumerism and competitiveness are practically our national religion. Despite the popularity of Dr. Laura and other conservative talk-radio stars, who tend to be proponents of "tough love," it is not enough to tell people to suck it up. We must look more deeply at our skewed values.
Wilkinson and Pickett point to compelling research showing that we are working against our own best interests as we undervalue connectedness and mutuality and overvalue individualism and wealth.
Measures of infant mortality, life expectancy, and other basic statistics on physical well being bear out the theory that living in a poorer but more equal society is just plain better for you. Higher health care spending, doctor pay, and the prevalence of high technology leave the United States shockingly behind in these basic benchmarks than other, less wealthy but more equal countries.
Happier, healthier people live not in the richest (and most unequal) countries, including the United States and the UK, but in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Greece, and Japan--countries that prize greater social equality.
That's bad news for the cowboy capitalism, but an extremely timely message in this summer of environmental catastrophe and derivatives-driven stock market collapse. Time to refocus our priorities and look at pulling together to make a better (and happier) world.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her piece "On Financial Reform, Feingold Still Says No."
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