Lessons in self-importance

Posted: Dec 25, 2006 12:01 AM
Lessons in self-importance

Donald Trump gave Miss U.S.A. a generous Christmas present. He told Tara she could keep her tiara.

"I've always been a believer in second chances," said the man who made his name firing luckless losers who flubbed a first and only chance. Tara's first chances apparently included underage drinking and public smooching with strangers in bars. Her second chance requires rehab and establishing herself as a "great example for troubled people [who] have problems with alcohol, that have problems for life."

That's a tall order for a girl who just turned 21. Second chances are starting at younger and younger ages. You don't have to be a beauty queen to be beset by temptations before you're an adult, or sponsored by a fatuous billionaire who expects you to be a "role model," to see such superficiality as only skin-deep.

In our highly hyped media culture we focus on the fall of others because it makes us feel better about ourselves. We're not about to learn anything from that. There's a lot of free advice in the media and available on the Internet, but the 21st century is characterized more by admiring self than learning by example. What we take from the media and off the Web is more about self-enhancement than self-perception.

Time magazine was onto something by naming "You" as its "Person of the Year," complete with a mirror on the cover. "See thyself" has replaced "Know thyself" as the adage to live by. But Time's emphasis is all wrong. Spreading the news with raw, unedited data and making image projections on YouTube and MySpace create only a public persona. It may or may not have anything to do with the who of you.

We've moved from the Age of Narcissism to the Age of Self-Importance. When Narcissus saw his face reflected in a pool of water, he leaned to kiss it and drowned. When we look at the mirror on the cover of Time, we celebrate the idea behind the reflected image. Time warns against romanticizing the "You" of "You," but it romanticizes by suggesting that the collective person of the year provides "an opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person."

Say what? Many of the people Time features have the self-insight of a snail. They may have done something with a political impact, such as the deed of the young man who brought down Mark Foley, the Florida congressman, by posting on a website the geeky amorous e-mails received from the congressman 11 years earlier. Now the older but not much wiser man is bitter that he got fired for taking advantage of his company computer to blog about it. He's miffed that no good job offers came of his "15 minutes of fame." Imagine.

One college senior who boasts of acquiring 700 "friends" with her profile posted on Facebook.com can't imagine how anything got done in college before Facebook. "Older people had handwritten letters or called each other or whatever," she says. "I mean, really, we have a much more convenient way of doing things." (Especially since we got rid of "whatever.")

There's no Luddite here. I'm writing this on my Dell desktop with an Athlon dual core 2X processor (whatever that is) after checking out my favorite websites. The Internet has its special uses, and we can't any longer expect letters written with a fine and careful hand. But appreciating technology for its virtues does not require being oblivious to its vices. "You," so celebrated by Time, elevates more than a few mediocre minds and untalented men and women. "You" often fails to separate the chaff on the chip from the substantive wheat of facts that demand the scrutiny of a discriminating editor.

The popular media sets trends, but it's not a thoughtful tastemaker or a careful fact-checker. Brian Williams, anchor for the NBC Nightly News, asks an important question: "The whole notion of 'media' is now much more democratic, but what will be the effect on democracy?"

Walt Whitman was the great poet of our democracy. When he celebrated himself he celebrated everyone. He was hopeful about the ways the culture of democracy shaped the lives of children. "There was a child went forth every day,/ And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became,/ And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,/ Or for many years or stretching cycles of years."

That should give anyone pause, with or without tiara or even a mirror. Merry Christmas, and God bless us everyone.