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Our Culture of Narcissism

Forty Years and Counting

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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