American culture is bathed in a pathologically high level of ambient narcissism. It’s really quite alarming and disgusting if you think about it. We are conditioned to celebrate other people’s narcissism, or at least to meekly tolerate it, and celebrate it we do. Oftentimes we do this on the reasoning that “thank you for being you” is a convenient precedent for “thank me for being me.” Many of us would love to slide down this slippery slope in the hope of joining Donald Trump and company in the pit. There’s potentially something in it for number one in assenting to the overbearing, bumptious rudeness of the Donald. You have to be in it to win it.
That’s the charitable explanation, the one that concedes something other than abject servility and narcosis. A lot of people assent to the Donald because that is simply what one does.
In this context, subcultures that scrupulously reject narcissism in favor of self-effacement are dismissed as bizarre throwbacks. The Amish, for example, are widely regarded as bafflingly weird for their steadfast opposition to photographic portraiture on the basis that it constitutes a “graven image.” I don’t share this belief with the Amish, but less and less can I blame them for adhering to it. A number of Amish positions that can be construed as artifacts of biblical obscurantism are better understood as manifestations of the caution that the Amish feel they need to survive in a wider world that is hostile to their values. Biblical obscurantism may be the means, but the real end of these austere, archconservative policies is to sustain an honest agrarian community in the face of a dominant English culture that so highly esteems fraud.
Amish opposition to photography is a lot easier to understand after a walk through the book section at FedEx Office. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take this walk of shame at the FedEx Office store in downtown Eugene while I waited for a clerk to seat me for a set of passport photos. The shame was the authors’, not mine, but it led to a sense of vicarious shame for my nation. It was obviously Americans, my people, who were buying this shit.
Every book I came across had a picture of its author on the cover. This is just abnormal. So is the audience: it takes a pathological tolerance for other people’s narcissism to seek out literature by authors who are willing to use their own likenesses to sell books in such a crude fashion. No, it takes worse than mere tolerance. The readers of these books seek communion with the bumptious narcissism of their self-help gurus. Just as one might receive the Eucharist in order to bring Jesus’ body into one’s own, these readers construe the full-size cover photo of Zig Ziglar as the sacrament showing them that reading that good book will infuse Zig Ziglar into their souls.
Who in the bloody fuck is Zig Ziglar? I only vaguely know, and I don’t really care. What matters is that FedEx Office customers have faith in him. If his books weren’t selling, they’d be at Goodwill by now. I’d love to be wrong about this, but I’d be surprised if FedEx Office managers leave bullshit on the shelves when it doesn’t sell. Anyway, this Ziglar dude is pictured striding around a stage in a suit, expounding on some shit or other. He looks like he could be another Jim Jones. Statistically, he’s probably more into “excellence” than Kool-Aid, and he’d probably rather scam a motherfucker than force hemlock down his throat as a show of terminal fealty, so consider him C. S. Lewis-approved, but none of this means that there isn’t something deeply wrong with people who buy his book after taking a look at his picture on the cover. They’re willing to follow a man like him, in spite of the Chuck “Get Your Balls Clipped” Diederich vibe emanating from him. Nay, because of it. They want to follow Zig Ziglar because they want to be Zig Ziglar. They want to be that bumptious creep.
I have yet to come across an Amishman who does business under the name of Stolzi Stolzfus. Maybe this is because doing so wouldn’t help him differentiate himself from any of the other four guys named Ezekiel Stolzfus in his township. I have the feeling, though, that it’s also a matter of decorum, a desire not to use tacky false modesty for marketing purposes. It’s about living in truth.
Or, as the Insurance Schmuck’s boss put it, “If you want to be quality, surround yourself with quality.” What he meant by “quality” was “rich,” so the crux of the advice was to insinuate oneself among the wealthy in order to incrementally talk them out of their money. If the noxious rentier- and managerial-class wealthy would do this exclusively to one another, the rest of us could attend decently to our own affairs while they bleed to death from mutual parasitism. Alas, they see the rest of us as useful hosts, too. This is roughly why the Insurance Schmuck asked me to nominate him for a young alumni achievement award despite knowing full well that I want absolutely nothing to do with our alma mater as an institution on account of its openly poor ethics.
The Insurance Schmuck is a good example of the target audience for shitty self-help books by self-aggrandizing dipshits who use disingenuously chummy nicknames professionally. This demographic is sometimes described as the Aspirational 14%. The scary prospect is that maybe this is a lowball estimate. If this 14% is actually 20%, we’ve officially tripped a Pareto Principle threshold of doom. These are not meek people. It’d be bad enough at 8%, the percent that is ostensibly responsible for 64% of the nonsense.
Another way to look at it: these are the people who decide whether or not to hire you. They’re high on the goodness of their own entrepreneurship, and you’re probably an insolent little shit, so that’s why you aren’t part of the full-time employed Elect.
The low-creep-factor books at FedEx Office aren’t that much better. I came across one by an MD who is apparently the Dr. Oz to Rachel Ray’s Oprah. I didn’t take note of his name, and no way on hell am I looking it up. There he is, decked out in scrubs next to a blurb about how he “helped America lose over six million pounds.” The United States has a population of about 315 million, so that’s a lot of fractional pounds per American. Almost two hundredths, in fact. This guy helped America lose, like, twenty thousand millionth pounds. Wow Much weightloss.
All you have to do to throw this doctor’s math off is take a dump. Or inhale deeply. I saw a lady at the Cottage Grove Safeway this afternoon who still looks a cool fifty away from no longer needing the scooter, so not all of America is losing that full figure. Lordy do we have some fat-ass Yankees in these parts. But apparently the small portion of the Rachel Ray audience with the gumption not to sit on its ass in front of the boob tube all day long constitutes America. America is coterminous and coextensive with the part of the audience that self-reported weight loss as a result of this exercise plan. I’m willing to admit that I maintained my figure today with help from a Supreme Combo of Safeway Chinese takeout, but you just know that no one in Rachel Ray’s audience admitted to not losing weight on account of om nom nom donuts and quality time with the couch, or that if they did, their survey responses were omitted from the report.
And somehow, despite our being a bunch of narcissists and enablers, our weight loss as individuals isn’t an individual achievement, but part of a collective achievement by our country. Of course, it’s a totally bogus achievement, one blatantly negated by the teeming morbidly obese. Meaningful individual decisions are subsumed into a bullshit collective so that losers who won’t confront their own ennui can pretend that they’re part of something bigger. America, we are told, is a collective entity capable of losing weight.
It’s certainly capable of losing gravitas.
At home, I’m faced with cooking advice from one Sunny Anderson. I’ve been staying at Extended Stay America properties, and she has a relationship with the company to provide cooking “tips,” usually ones on the order of pouring a bottle of ketchup into a pan of ground beef and calling it sloppy Joe mix. Sunny Anderson, I’m told, is a well-known “chef” on the Food Network. In other words, she does bullshit showboating for a company that shouldn’t exist. It’s nice to know that my landlord maintains a corporate relationship with this woman for recipes worse than anything I could concoct off the top of my head (and I’m a half-assed amateur cook) instead of buying toilet plungers that don’t split from the flange to the dowel on the first use.
Notice, too, the name that she uses professionally. Sunny. You know, in case you didn’t realize that you’re being brightsided to death. And of course she smiles way too much. You’re paying above-market rent to live in a residential motel, but here, have some recipes that your ten-year-old niece would be embarrassed to cook for dinner, courtesy of this incompetent who somehow got a gig on cable TV as a professional cook.
A self-respecting society does not take kindly to this sort of contempt.
This environment of narcissism and self-debasement explains how Dov Charney, the now-former CEO of American Apparel, was able to establish a career in a field other than pizza delivery. The embarrassment isn’t that Charney is sexually disordered (that’s his problem), but that he was allowed to use company time to inflict his sexual disorder on others, mainly on subordinates, and that this went on for years before he was fired. When the board finally booted his deviant ass a few weeks ago, the misconduct they gave as cause for his termination was hardly newsworthy. He was masturbating in front of strangers on official business years ago.
Seriously. A reporter was interviewing him in his office, having just made his acquaintance, and apropos of nothing he whipped it out and started whacking off in front of her. She told a 60 Minutes interviewer that this didn’t really make her uncomfortable, that she figured it was just part of Dov being Dov. She said this in the kind of tone I’d normally expect from Jane Goodall describing her observations of copulating apes. In retrospect, it looked forced. I think she was more taken aback than dispassionately taking in the moment. She seemed to think that the politically correct position on corporate executives masturbating in front of visiting journalists was to accept it. Live and let live. Not be a prude.
This reporter was apparently willing to efface herself in order to give cover to a ridiculous sexual freak. I feel pwned not to have unequivocally recognized at the time that Dov Charney had freaked her out. I knew that I’d have been floored had he done that in my presence, but I think I didn’t want to believe that cub reporters were falling on their faces to justify Charney’s total lack of sexual self-control in his business life.
It was a systemic problem across the left. Charney was given carte blanche latitude to be a sexual predator in his capacity as CEO of American Apparel because his company was highly regarded for making its clothing in the United States. Sure, he makes sexual advances out of the blue on designers working for him, but he’s bringing back textile production jobs to the USA. It later turned out that a lot of this onshoring amounted to illegally employing Honduran garment workers in East Los Angeles instead of employing them legally in Honduras. In effect, Dov Charney was being given a pass for predatory sexual behavior in the workplace in exchange for talking a good game about hiring Americans back into the battered garment trade. Hire blue-collar Americans for your production line in exchange for the right to expose yourself to subordinates; okay, then, say nice things about hiring blue-collar Americans for your production line in exchange for exposure rights.
This is like saying, “Oh, come on, how can you criticize Robert Pickton for serial murder? He hires nice local Canadian boys to feed the pigs.” Americans were so habituated to watching corporate executives gut-punch labor that when an upstart industrialist with the demeanor of Quagmire promised to do the opposite, they gladly enough allowed him to assert feudal sexual prerogatives over his female employees. Labor-leftists in particular were so desperate to support a corporation repatriating blue-collar jobs to the United States that they were willing to settle for one led by a sexual predator.
Dov Charney skillfully cast himself as a misunderstood visionary who needed extra latitude to bring his artistic vision to fruition. This appealed less to sincere elements of the labor left than to mushheaded neoliberal types eager to follow a strongman who knew how to talk the talk. His was a crazy-like-Woody-Allen shtick. If unprincipled leftist partisans can be counted upon to dismiss allegations of child molestation against Allen, surely they can be counted upon to dismiss less serious but still extremely tortious allegations that Charney imposed himself sexually on a number of women in his employ.
This sort of moral relativism comes in handy. It is not, however, just a problem on the left. A very similar attitude excuses the aggressive rudeness of Donald Trump as a legitimate management style. The way he “fires” “apprentices” on television would risk getting him jumped if he did it to a real employee of a real business.
Charney had real staying power for an executive who turned his business into a den of overt moral turpitude. I suspect that had it not been for his misunderstood-visionary-bringing-jobs-home act, American Apparel would have had a difficult time raising capital through stock flotations. There must have been a large pool of private investors willing to buy and hold American Apparel stock as a public service, in lieu of transferring their investments to better-performing stocks and in spite of Charney’s monkey business. Oddly, American Apparel’s creditors were slow to finally put the kibosh on Charney’s continued employment, even though his behavior was a known liability, having previously resulted in generous out-of-court settlements with plaintiffs alleging sexually predatory behavior. One would expect them to be more cautious than private investors about getting entangled in such a mess.
Odder yet, they’re apparently allowing him to return as a “consultant.” I don’t have the energy to follow up on them tonight, but there are news stories from the last forty-eight hours about Charney’s return in this capacity. Normally, I’d expect creditors and insurers in a dispute like this to scream bloody murder and petition to have him barred from company premises on account of his uncontrolled sexual exhibitionism. All I know to expect now is that this dispute is an offering of first fruits to the trial bar. The day he was fired, Charney spent nine hours haranguing the board and its attorneys about the injustice they’d done him, so this is not a chap who’s bashful in his use of plaintiff’s counsel.
At least some of the Canadians we get down here are decent ones, like Alex Trebek and Dagmar Midcap. Dagmar’s smoking hot, and she’s too classy (I think) to expose herself inopportunely, even if I’d rather see what she’s got than get a glimpse of the Dov stuff.
It’s small comfort in a society as fucked as ours.