It is symptomatic of the underlying tenor of American life that vulgar terms for sexual intercourse also convey the sense of getting the better of someone, working him over, taking him in, imposing your will through guile, deception, or superior force.
– Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism
Back in 1979, social critic Christopher Lasch wasn’t buying the idea that Americans in the sex-drugs-and-disco era were actually having fun.
“This hedonism is a fraud,” he wrote. “The pursuit of pleasure disguises a struggle for power. Americans have not really become more sociable and cooperative… they have merely become more adept at exploiting the conventions of interpersonal relations for their own benefit.”
Lasch’s reasoning traced to the beginning of American society.
The Puritans embraced the idea of getting rich, but “saw personal aggrandizement as incidental to social labor” and “instructed men who prospered not to lord it over neighbors.” Puritans gave way to Yankees and their Protestant work ethic, which imagined prosperity as a reward for hard work, but also for “self-discipline, the training and cultivation of God-given talents, above all the cultivation of reason.”
A century later, the ideal of self-improvement gave way to what Lasch called a “cult of competitive industry,” as people like P.T. Barnum began to evangelize a more brutally self-interested version of the Ben Franklin Yankee ideal. The new idea was to strive for worldly success “without Franklin’s concern for the attainment of wisdom.” Instead of pursuing an abstract goal of discipline and self-denial, American society became more openly organized around competing and beating one another to the top.
In the twentieth century, mass media promoted a new religion of self-care that stressed turning one’s whole self into an engine of such competitive ascent. People gobbled up magazine articles about “the art of conversation,” fashion, and “culture,” as the “management of interpersonal relations came to be seen as the essence of self-advancement.” New stresses on “winning friends and influencing people” now replaced the old ideals of self-discipline and thrift, leading, as Lasch put it, to a stage of history where “the pursuit of wealth lost the few shreds of moral meaning that still clung to it.”
By the sixties and seventies, America became an intrinsically performative society, a vast population that didn’t particularly distinguish between public and private life, and for whom image was as important as inner reality. Even foreign policy was understood as an effort to manipulate how other nations perceived us. One of the creepier revelations of the Pentagon Papers was that we even waged war in places like Vietnam with an eye out for how our actions would be perceived by “relevant audiences,” e.g. the Communists, the South Vietnamese, America’s Western allies, and the American public.
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