Our Culture of Narcissism

Most Chronicles readers will no doubt recall the sordid Jussie Smollett hoax, which played out over the course of almost three months early this year in a scenario that might have been scripted for reality TV. Given the media’s saturation coverage of the fiasco, I will forego a reprise of the details. Instead, I wish to suggest that the Empire star’s memorable antics on the mean streets of midwinter Chicago were not at all a freakish anomaly, but a perfect illustration of the new American normal. We are now so far around the bend that we can see ourselves coming back from the opposite direction—with a noose around our collective neck. What is most interesting about Smollett is his unbridled capacity for self-hypnosis. At some point he seems to have begun believing his own story. Even after the hoax had started to unravel, Smollett (who is also a recording artist) made concert appearances and repeated his victim narrative on television. At one appearance he stated, “Above all, I fought [expletive] back…I’m the gay Tupac!”

I offer this précis of the Smollett saga as a particularly memorable, if a mite histrionic, instance of our culture of narcissism. Of course, I can’t say with any certainty that Smollett qualifies as a narcissist in the clinical sense of the term (only his therapist knows for sure). I can say, though,...

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