09/15/2010 12:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Narcissism and Politics

It's the 21st century American disease, on view both right and left of the political spectrum: narcissism. We are all so infatuated with the importance and righteousness of our own opinion that we can see no further than the end of our own nose. We're so busy being indignant and pointing fingers at the other side that nothing changes, nothing gets done. We're stuck in this endless paralysis of self-important rectitude.

I hate to keep harping on about this after my last post, but I shudder, frankly, when I hear, as I have done too often recently from those who pride themselves on their liberal or progressive views -- and I'm a socialist, for God's sake, born and bred on the other side of the pond! -- that the Democrats deserve to lose in November; and that maybe then the Republicans will bring us all so low that we'll eventually hit bottom.

Shall we burn the village in order to save it? Remember how we mocked that absurdity, back in the 1960s?

And if so, then what? Dare we suppose that once we reach the nadir, the eyes of all right-thinking Americans will finally be opened to the wisdom of our liberal doctrines and the need for progressive change? I fear not. We'll simply swing back the other way again with a smaller, even more timid arc, as we have done for the past half-century -- and so on until we reach a dead stop. We have only to look at the pattern we have established, with eyes open not just to our ideology but to the real world that surrounds us.

It's all very well for me to agree with those many indignant voices to the left. In most respects, I do. But this is not a 12-step program we're engaged in. It's not about personal salvation or the achievement of personal ideals. We need to concern ourselves with the future of an entire nation -- indeed, of an entire world. Unless we learn to look with honesty -- and, yes, a measure of humility -- at what works, rather at than the way we want it, we will almost certainly condemn ourselves and the country to the trashcan of human history. Are we not already headed that way?

I heard just a brief snippet of an interview on NPR with the novelist Jonathan Franzen about his new book, Freedom. If I paraphrase him rightly, he said the book was about learning to grow up into the world of adults, and the difficulty we as Americans have had in making that transition. That's what I'm taking about. How could we have chosen to be governed by a Peter Pan president in the first decade of the 21st century? I hate to risk sounding pompous, but we all need to grow up from the narcissistic world of childhood into the adult world of shared responsibility and collaborative effort. Short of the revolution we all wished for in the 1960s -- which when came from the opposite direction in the end! -- this has to be an incremental process. No one is going to wave a wand and sprinkle fairy dust.