Our centers of the universe

Jonah Goldberg

8/8/2007 12:01:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

A horrendous national shortage gripped America in the 1970s. The forces of progress rallied the American people to, in a spirit of shared purpose, combat our collective need. The leader of this movement donned a sweater and went on TV to lift the nation from its malaise.

Jimmy Carter and the energy crisis? Feh. That was nothing compared to the more acute scarcity that plagued America in those dark days. I'm referring, of course, to the '70s self-esteem famine, during which cardigan-sporting Fred Rogers heroically served as a Jimmy Carter for the preschool set.

These investments in self-esteem paid off royally, according to a report, "Egos Inflating Over Time." Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and a team of psychologists combed through the answers of 16,475 college students nationwide who took the Narcissistic Personality Inventory survey between 1982 and 2006. Their conclusion: Today's American youth are the most self-absorbed since we've studied the subject. "We need to stop endlessly repeating, You're special,' and having children repeat that back," Twenge told the Associated Press. "Kids are self-centered enough already."

It seems to be a distinctly American problem. Immigrant kids are less likely, for instance, to see good grades and high compliments as a birthright.

Don Chance, a finance professor at Louisiana State University, recently told the Wall Street Journal that Asian-born students don't argue about every bad grade. They respond to such esteem-deflating feedback by working harder.

I suspect that Twenge and Chance are largely right, but the hand-wringing about youth's sense of entitlement can go overboard. Volunteerism is on the rise, not something you would necessarily expect even after discounting for the desire to pad transcripts and resumes. The best of our supposedly pampered young men seem more than able to adjust to the culture of self-sacrifice animating our armed forces.

Nonetheless, what I find fascinating is how our narcissism surplus, to some extent, is the unintended consequence of trying to use psychology as just another branch of public health. Saturday-morning cartoons during my youth were peppered with public service announcements informing kids that, "The most important person in the whole wide world is you." The long-running TV show "Wonderama" became "Kids Are People Too" to reflect a new seriousness of childhood. The burgeoning "children's rights" movement - to which a young Hillary Clinton was connected - saw treating kids as peers to be of a piece with the new egalitarianism. Movies as diverse as "Taxi Driver," "Bugsy Malone" and "Irreconcilable Differences" fixated on treating kids like adults in one way or another.

The result? Large numbers of kids raised to be like adults have concluded that they want to stay kids, or at least teens. People my age hate being called "Mr." or "Mrs." by kids. Grown women read idiotic magazines, obsess over maintaining a teenager's body and follow the exploits of Lindsay Lohan. Grown men have been following professional wrestling and playing video games for 25 years.

I'm part of these trends. Not only do I still enjoy "The Simpsons," but I'm addicted to shows like "House" and "Grey's Anatomy."

Consider that in the old days, Marcus Welby and Ben Casey were the ideal: selfless father figures in surgical garb, dispensing not just medical advice but authoritative life counseling. Modern-day "House," by contrast, is about a defiantly drug-addicted doctor who admits week after week that he doesn't care about his patients, but merely about the personal satisfaction of solving a medical mystery. In "Grey's Anatomy," horribly wounded patients are wheeled through each episode to serve as metaphors for the relationship problems of the residents. Impaled by a steel rod? That reminds me, my boyfriend hasn't told me he loves me today! The patients often die, but at least the doctors learn important life lessons about dating.

Another result is that the generation taught to share and care beyond all precedent has become the most singularly concerned in history with making a buck. A recent UCLA study found that nearly 75 percent of college freshmen think that it's important to be rich, compared with 62.5 percent in 1980 and 42 percent in 1966.

Americans, young and old, are better than these surveys and TV shows would suggest. (Just as you might say they were "worse" than "Marcus Welby, M.D." and "I Love Lucy" suggested.) Even the most arrogant kids learn that they aren't the most important people in the whole wide world and that there's more to life than money. They usually learn these lessons when they have kids of their own. Indeed, one could say we're learning nationally what parents have been learning personally for millenniums. You can't live your kids' lives for them.