There's a new N-word permeating our culture and it has nothing to do with racial epithets.
The warm bath of public narcissism is getting as crowded as the rooftop hot tub at SF's kink.com on a Friday night. Instead of luxuriating in it, or watching a few privileged porn performers sudsing up, we're all jammed in, flailing around and knocking into each other like the Three Stooges with ego bling.
Sarah Palin suffers from "narcissistic personality disorder," testifies Todd Purdum in the latest Palintology obsession in this month's Vanity Fair. That magazine should know about the excesses of vanity since they reflect it lovingly in most of their cover stories. Mr. Purdum himself also said the same thing about Bill Clinton in an earlier profile. And how about John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer? Narcissists, right? Mark Sanford confessed to the psycho-crime himself in fishing around for some behavioral alibi.
Then there's Bernie Madoff, Hollywood celebrities -- especially reality TV stars with more than a couple of kids, and music legends. Check, check, and check. You have to be a narcissist just to want that level of notoriety, never mind achieve and maintain it. This is not news but it helps to put a name to it.
As SpongeBob's Mr. Krabs tells his beloved money, which has been haunted with a desire to be spent instead of hoarded the way he wanted: "You're all selfish and self-absorbed."
But retiring Governor Palin blames "the media" for her problems, as does a whole raftload of self-loving, often-guilty famous people. After all, narcissists always blame others, don't they? And, like paranoids with real enemies, they're right.
We in the media are also narcissists. Just look at Dan Abrams new gossipy website, mediaite.com. Mr. Abrams, who went from one about-me business (politics) into another (cable TV talk show), says about his new deal, "Part of what we're doing is appreciating the celebrity of the media." There we are.
What do you call it when the Washington Post charges $25,000 for a "salon" at the publisher's house where advertisers, lobbyists, and powerful officials could have the privilege of mixing with the newspaper's reporters and editors? I'd say it's a "pattern of grandiosity," one of the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" descriptions of narcissism, according to Todd Purdum's Palin article.
The New York Times, of course, maintaining its own grandiose position, couldn't allow a media rival to go unpunished for such hubris. In a ritual of journalistic noogies, the Times ran a huge section front photo of offending Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, along with a big headline noting her "Stumble" and "Concerns about [the Post's] Integrity." Because the Times is infallible, as we all know, and must be first and without equals. Can you say the N-word?
Where was the Nixon Attorney General, John Mitchell, who famously warned Ms. Weymouth's iconic predecessor, the heroic Katharine Graham, not to get too big for her britches over Watergate reporting or she'd get certain private parts "in a wringer"? (Mrs. Graham had the journalistic goods; she didn't need ego.)
Then there was the annual bigwig retreat Herb Allen throws in Sun Valley. You don't get more master/mistress-of-the universe than that. The hot topic this year: media.
So we have the media and the people they cover (including themselves) nicely simmering in a narcissism stew. What's missing?
Well, why is it the media and President Obama have had such a nice pajama party together? And how come, now that the masterful ceremonies at the STAPLES Center are all wrapped up, our long national apology the last week to Michael Jackson for rubbernecking his entire life is not over and done with?
Because it sells. Meaning the public wants to buy it. The popular cultural stool can't stand without its critical third leg: regular people -- consumers -- who aren't celebrities and/or in the media. Sorry NPR, it's not all about "important" stories, though the Jackson media freight train steamed pretty deftly from shock and adulation, to Michael's dark side, to MJ as a brilliant representative of the fluid musical, racial, and aesthetic mixing of boundaries in our society.
Sometimes it just has to be Ab News on Fox. I swear last Sunday I saw this: a tiny box in the corner of the TV screen with an anchor giving the news, while the big picture was Courtney Friel doing stomach crunches.
But, particularly with the ubiquity of social media, there really are no more gawkers simply visiting narcissists in the public media zoo. We're all N-word people, whether you're the performer, the messenger, or the consumer. That's the line that really has blurred.
There's good news in that, though good news doesn't sell as well as the other kinds. Mass egocentricity may be a self-canceling phrase. Can you be a narcissist and part of a group at the same time?
Maybe not. Let's ask Mr. Purdum and all the other diagnosticians to retire the N-word.