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Marie Cocco: Narcissism Ascendant

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Posted on Dec 20, 2006

By Marie Cocco

WASHINGTON—There is no accounting for the decision of Time magazine’s editors to declare 2006 the year of “You.’’ It is futile to try.

“Who are these people?’’ the magazine asks. Then it answers: “You,’’ in the editors’ view, is anyone who “actually sits down after a long day at work and says, ‘I’m not going to watch “Lost’’ tonight. I’m going to turn on my computer and make a movie starring my pet iguana.’ ”

This celebration of self-absorption is delivered by a magazine that once used its year-end cover to explore the significance of political heroes and villains, of groundbreaking scientists and social critics, of figures of such historical substance that even an adolescent who spends hours advertising his angst on MySpace could probably name them: Charles Lindbergh, Winston Churchill, Mohandas Gandhi, Pope John Paul II.

Now, the magazine declares, “You can learn more about how Americans live just by looking at the backgrounds of YouTube videos—those rumpled bedrooms and toy-strewn basement rec rooms—than you could from 1,000 hours of network television.” 

Well, you probably could. But why would anyone, let alone the editors of a national magazine that once had a certain stature in millions of those very American homes, decide that this inspires awe?

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No question, an extravagant narcissism marks our cultural age. Google confirms it: The most frequently searched words this year were “Bebo’’—a British social networking site—and “MySpace,” with terms related to online video and streaming audio sites close behind. Still, the decision of supposedly sober editors to elevate this phenomenon to a news story that carries special weight is a symptom of the disorder. It’s more voyeurism than journalism.

While Time was heralding the night of the pet iguana, too many Americans still lead lives of quiet desperation, all too anonymous to those who do not look beyond their computer screens. Are they not suitable candidates for person of the year?

The front-runners would be the often desperate and yet determined residents—and displaced former residents—of New Orleans. They do without, more than a year after a natural disaster for which our government wasn’t prepared and which it still refuses to properly address. The Times-Picayune, which won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the destruction of its city by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, reports that the Lower 9th Ward remains a vacant landscape, with the few homeowners who have returned living on desolate blocks.

“The stream of tourists has dried to a trickle from the torrent that once came by cab or in rented cars,” reporter Gwen Filosa wrote.

“Even the hastily built memorial to the victims of Katrina, which appeared on the North Claiborne Avenue neutral ground at the one-year anniversary of the storm, is built around the image of an empty house. An equally suitable icon for the beleaguered Lower 9th might be the ubiquitous three- and four-step concrete stoops that lead to houses that are no longer there.”

From CNN, we learn that hundreds of teenagers are living on their own in FEMA trailers, determined to return to their schools even though their parents are unable to return to work. Hundreds more families live in squalid trailer encampments outside the city, lacking transportation to jobs or school.

If depictions of human catastrophe are insufficient to shock the conscience, perhaps cold statistics will. The Brookings Institution index of post-Katrina progress reported this month that only about half of New Orleans’ public schools have reopened, a third of its hospitals still are shuttered and only 30 percent of child-care centers that operated before the city was struck are open. But the Rosetta Stone of the diaspora is a utility bill: The Brookings researchers found that the percentage of former gas and electric customers who’ve resumed service hasn’t increased since April; only 41 percent of gas customers and 60 percent of electric consumers are back.

Chronic misery does not lend itself to a YouTube moment. It is too diffuse, too agonizingly long-term to be reduced to a 30-second clip. There were, of course, any number of disturbing images during the hurricane and its immediate aftermath. But they fade from the national memory.

The triumph of egotism that Time promotes did not cause the Katrina disaster. Nor did it lead directly to the incompetence and malfeasance that have marked the government’s response. But it should make us wonder if all this preening will only blind us to the coming of the next horror.
   
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.


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By Perry Lawrence, December 26, 2006 at 7:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The choice made by Time Magazine this year is as ridiculous as the magazine itself.

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By rahrahbert, December 25, 2006 at 9:33 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think everyone misses the whole point. Yes, there are stupid, insipid, and egotistical things occurring on the internet. But there are also inspiring world changing events and movements on the internet. As a liberal and progressive, for years after the Reagan election I thought I was alone and in the minority. But then in March of 2003 through the internet I learned I was not alone. I learned I was part of a vast network of liberals and progressives during the MoveOn Virtual March on Washington against the War in Iraq.  I no longer felt alone. It took a while after that to learn how to really harness the power of the net to make effective change. But I think that the organizing and fund raising that took place in this last election cycle was a huge part of the reason that progressives took back the Congress. Today I no longer feel alone because I am part of this vast network using the internet to hook up with others to do political work of all sorts: sending e-mails to my elected officials on all sorts of issues, reading facts on issues I could not find in newspapers – and instantly I might add, learning about and being able to support progressive candidates anywhere in the nation, donate money to candidates and causes at the click of a button, hooking up with others to make phone calls for progressive candidates or go door to door. The net makes it possible for progressives to mobilize for the common good. I believe that the internet played a key role in the November elections to save my dearly loved democratic republic. Even the gerrymandering of districts by Republicans all over this nation could not withstand the assault of a well organized internet community. To me it is these sort of actions that Time Magazine hails. Yes, the net can be used for a lot of insipid and self-centered trash. But I prefer to look at and honor and focus on the potential of the net to do good. Ms Cocco and others totally ignore this aspect of what the internet can accomplish. If Mr. Bush and his ilk had not been stopped this election cycle, I fear my beloved democratic republic would have been lost forever. I think that part of the progressive victories at the polls this fall was due in no small measure to the fine work of dozens of internet site’s work. Hail the internet and hail to those that used it effectively this last election cycle. The work is not over. It has only just begun. I am reminded of Bobby Kennedy’s words spoken in South Africa about apartheid:  “Each time a [person] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others…..he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” The internet allows simple people like me sitting at home to be a part of it all.

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By GimmeABreak, December 23, 2006 at 10:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Who really cares what some right wing rag puts on the cover of their magazine. Is it going to change the lives of anyone? Hell no! All it will do is stuff the pockets of the ownership with more dollars so they can produce more spin.

How about a cover that depicts the almost 3,000 US military troops who lost their lives. I guess our troops are not as important as some jackasses making a fool of themselves in some ridiculous video posted on youtube. Just goes to show you where American values lie.

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By Dieter, December 22, 2006 at 6:18 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

First, it’s obvious the author has done nothing to investigate the YouTube community and search out the amazing and diverse point of views and issues that populate it.

I have never read a copy of Time magazine (for the sake of my own intelligence), but at the most I would accuse their editorial board of immense hubris in thinking they can even begin to encapsulate under a grotesque “Person of the Year” rubric, the power of the web for individuals the world over.

Equating this fertile soil with egotism and narcissism flies in the face of its true nature of bringing together, unmangled by the machinery of government, MSM and Madison Avenue, people to express their views or if they so choose to entertain or be entertained as superficially as you presume. If anything, close-minded punditry is the ultimate self-absorption. OUT.

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By Bboy, December 21, 2006 at 11:07 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Right on Ed - the realy big egos belong to those in the spotlight, politically and artisticly. The more spotlight they get the more their egos grow for the most part. This Time award does away with the illusions of celebrity and brings us back to an old perspective. Way overdue and welcome.

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By Ed Lounello, December 21, 2006 at 11:39 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think Time is saying that the era of the cult of personality is coming to an end. To be replaced by the era of anyone and everyone can make a contribution rather than the few “great” “leaders” that we all depend on so much. If it ever came to be we would all be better off.

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By anonymous, December 21, 2006 at 11:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

weird

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By Chris Rahe, December 21, 2006 at 7:20 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This article was disappointing. I thought this was going to be a thoughtful look at our self-absorbed culture, but beyond the lead and opening couple of paragraphs it get’s completely sidetracked.

We all need to be reminded of the continuing plight of the Gulf Coast, but what about the thought that was seemingly going to be the theme of this piece?

It’s left completely unexplored.

Unless the cursory treatment of the apparent thesis is a metaphor for the shallowness of modern American culture…

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By Dr. Knowitall, PhD, PhD, December 21, 2006 at 5:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

You know, Marie, I really could not get a very clear image of myself when I peered into that “mirror” on the cover of Time.  I kept trying to adjust the angle, moving it closer and further away and still couldn’t figure who it was.  I think the mirror in which this country looks at itself similarly distorts the image; if it really showed us who we are (Katrina & Iraq, for example) we’d rush for a makeover.

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