December 17, 2006

Time's Person of the Year Is Someone Who Doesn't Actually Matter

That would be you.


time person of year


The short version of the Time article is that we as individuals have formed a community on the internet (YouTube, MySpace, Wikipedia, etc), and this community is starting to "build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician... but person to person."

Ok, no.  Wrong, wrong, wrong all over the place.

The author of this piece is Lev Grossman.  Grossman is fairly famous book critic, one of the better ones.   He also wrote a novel that's a nod to Borges.  This isn't bad, it's just context.

The entire problem with Grossman's premise is exemplified by his first paragraph:

The "Great Man" theory of history is usually attributed to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who wrote that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." He believed that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species. That theory took a serious beating this year.

Well, not exactly. Grossman's thesis is that we matter, we can shape our destinies; he puts that in contrast to Carlyle's premise that great men help shape destiny.  But that's not what Carlyle actually says.  Here's the actual quote:

In all epochs of the world's history, we shall find the Great Man to have been the indispensable savior of his epoch;--the lightning, without which the fuel would never have burnt. The History of the world, I said already, was the biography of Great Men.

Carlyle doesn't say great men shape destiny; he says great men, and only great men, cause history. These great men should be given power to run society because only they can be trusted to do it.  Great men actually drive history, not shape it.

Democracy can't be trusted.  Paternalistic socialism, or at least a non-hereditary, anti-capitalist, aristocracy is all that can keep us from the dark of ochlocracy.  Individuals trump ideology-- which sounds like a good motto, except when individuals means Stalin and ideology means liberalism.  Oh, and the last book Hitler read was Carlyle's History of Friedrich of Prussia. 

So Grossman is not really paraphrasing Carlyle correctly.  This is important because Grossman is a book critic with a PhD from Harvard in comparative literature.  Either he simply did not know this about Carlyle, which I have to assume is impossible, or it didn't matter: he commandeered the quote, stripped it of the meaning Carlyle intended and used it the way he needed to use it.  And that exactly describes the problem:  truth and reality aren't important, what's important is you.

Because "You" as Person of the Year is actually quite portentuous.  It's is both representative and symptomatic of the problem of our times: narcissism.  Nowadays we are so alienated and matter so very little to larger society that the only thing that inflames any passion is to be reminded of this.   Consider Bush and Cheney.  Put aside politics for a moment, it is clear that their single-mindedness of purpose ignores each of us as individuals.  Give them the benefit of the doubt, that they are doing what they think is best.  But it's best for society, for America: what we hate is that it isn't for us, for you, for me.  That's what people hate about them, the seeming indifference to our individual worth, to our sense of importance.  Our votes don't count; everything is about religion; "Global War On Terror."  Where in all that is the individual?  We are tools to their "higher cause."  I know people say that they are angry at the cause; but I think it's really anger that we're being used for anything.

Being on YouTube, having a blog, having an iPod, being on MySpace-- all of these things are self-validating, they allow that illusion that is so important to narcissists: that we are the main characters in a movie.  Not that we're the best, or the good guys, but the main characters. That everyone around us is supporting cast; the funny friend, the crazy ex, the neurotic mother, the egotistical date, etc.  That makes reminders of our insignificance even more infuriating.

Take a look at the photos in the Time article: a DJ, a punk rocker, a guy in dredlocks, a kid dancing with headphones, a guy singing into a mic, a hot chick taking a photo of herself-- none of these people could ever be "Person of the Year."  They barely have identities outside of their image.  (And observe how so many are defined through music they listen to.)  They must be defined by something from without, like a tattoo.  But they deserve everything anyone else can have.  It's their right.

I'm not saying each of us as individuals is insignificant. We should, could, matter. But to protect ourselves from an existential implosion,  we decide to define ourselves through images and signs, rather than behaviors; lacking an identity founded in anything real makes us vulnerable to anger, resentment.  But no guilt, ever.  The narcissist never feels guilt.  He feels shame.

It can't last.  If society chooses to make narcissism the default, it's going to have to deal with society-wide narcissistic injuries-- when we suddenly realize that it isn't solely our movie and we're really not the main character.  And no one wants to see this stupid movie anyway.  This inevitably leads to violence: the school shooting, inexplicable knifing over Play Station 3, Andrea Yates, beating the wife because she wore the wrong shoes type of violence.  Oh, they weren't white high heeled pumps?  That bitch! She used to wear them for her old boyfriend.

I'm not sure anyone in psychiatry sees this-- they are too busy documenting Pharma excesses and Lamictal outcomes-- but it is the problem of our times.  The only ones who seem to notice are advertisers, marketers-- they see it.  They don't judge it, they simply profit from it. 

Grossman could morph Carlyle into what he wanted because Carlyle doesn't matter, what matters is what Grossman wanted, what Grossman needed.  Carlyle doesn't exist, or he only exists as we need to use him.  He becomes a tool, another supporting character.  Anyone actually read anything by Carlyle anymore?  Why bother?  We only need a few soundbites for our own use.  Grossman is a clearly a good writer and hardly the problem here. But picking "You" as Person of the Year only reinforces the collective delusion that our individual selves matter more than other person, or a collective good, an ideology, truth, or right and wrong.  It's relativism with a cherry twist.

It won't last.  It absolutely can't.