‘Top Ten Scandals of the Decade!’ screamed a glossy magazine cover at my local shop. I was buying tea and biscuits, gingerly making my way into a new year, a new decade even. But I wasn’t quite ready for this.
‘Scandals’ of the past 10 years included Britney Spears shaving her head, various other celebrity escapades, and yes, the ubiquitous Tiger Woods saga.
But nowhere was to be found, say, the invasion and ongoing occupation of Afghanistan, or the disastrous NATO campaign that has taken the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans.
There were no photographs of Iraqi widows and orphans peering out from amongst the Hollywood swirl of heavily medicated stars, no outraged headlines like: ‘$53 billion spent on reconstruction in Iraq and 40 per cent of Iraqis lack clean drinking water!’
And conspicuously absent were mug shots of those nefarious neo-cons that had cheerled the invasion of Iraq, and then seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth when things went badly. I secretly longed for a tabloid recounting of their tale – something like ‘Perle and Wolfowitz found living in remote Arizona town, together with Elvis and aliens’. Of course, the next likely scenario would be an underground campaign by Perle and Wolfy to ‘liberate’ one of the aliens’ resource-rich home planets and assassinate their cruel dictator Zargon, a once earthling-friendly ally.
But back here on the blue planet, things look less than promising for the next decade. Thankfully we can always turn to pop culture for inspiration.
Consider for a moment, if you can stand to, the Tiger Woods story. It’s really rather instructive.
Like so many cracks in the façade of the American dream sagas, this one has all the elements of a classic potboiler: sex, drugs, infidelity – and in an of–the-era twist – text messaging.
But look a little deeper – or say, have coffee with a young feminist psychiatrist (no, apparently not a contradiction in terms) friend and you will find the perfect 21st century illness lurking at the scandal’s seedy core: narcissism.
According to said psychiatrist friend, there are a lot of Tiger-like high performance narcissists out there (she’s actually convinced there are a rather high percentage in her own profession). I’m willing to concede there are some in mine as well – the classic example being the great John Cheever (who, unlike the vast majority of clinical narcissists who suffer from delusions of grandeur, really was a genius).
The thing about Cheever that intrigues me is that, like most narcissists, he suffered from an essential inability to reconcile his vision of himself – an elegant New England country squire with the perfect marriage and family – and his actual self – an alcholic who had illicit affairs with young sailors. Apparently he became enraged if anyone called him on the disparity between his real and imagined, idealized self.
In a similar vein, Tiger Woods and his entire ‘branding’ process were dependent on the image of him as a happy family man living in domestic bliss, a multi-racial success story – black father, Asian mother, married to a gorgeous blonde Scandinavian. So why was everyone so shocked when his American dream devolved into a nightmare of bimbos, lies and pharmaceuticals?
Male narcissists, it seems, are also often misogynists, who compartmentalize women into variants of the ‘Madonna/whore’ complex. Women are either Monoandric – the stable, often sexless nurturing type who help perpetuate the narcissist’s ideal image of himself, or the Polyandric type – the young, pretty and often pretty vacant types they habitually seduce and abandon, in an effort to keep a continual narcissistic supply, the constant adoration they feed on.
If you read the work of Doctor Sam Vaknin, an expert on narcissism (and author of Malignant Self Love), it’s hard not to draw political parallels with say, American foreign policy or, beyond that, the entire minority/majority world relationship.
Vaknin describes narcissists as cunning, immoral extortionists, control freaks intolerant of dissent who will stop at nothing to achieve their aims, including lies, deceptions and tellingly, demonization of their victims. They never admit their mistakes, and the only thing they respond to are threats of sanctions or punishment for their immoral behaviour. Intriguingly he also says that narcissists are often ‘media-obsessed’.
To the narcissist, other humans are mere instruments, Sources of Narcissistic Supply. He sees no reason to consider their needs, wishes, wants, desires and fears. He derails their life with ease and ignorance. Deep inside he knows that he is wrong to do so because they might retaliate – hence, his persecutory delusions.
These are the victims of the narcissist’s deceiving emotional messages. The narcissist mimics real emotions artfully. He exudes the air of someone really capable of loving or of being hurt, of one passionate and soft, empathic and caring. Most people are misled into believing that he is even more humane than average.
They fall in love with the mirage, the fleeting image, with the fata morgana of a lush emotional oasis in the midst of their emotional desert. They succumb to the luring proposition that he is. They give in, give up, and give everything only to be discarded ruthlessly when judged by the narcissist to be no longer useful.
Riding high on the crest of the narcissist’s over-valuation only to crash into the abysmal depths of his devaluation, they lose control over their emotional life. The narcissist drains them, exhausts their resources, sucks the blood-life of Narcissistic Supply from their dwindling, depleted selves.
When confronted with better alternatives – which more efficiently cater to his needs – the narcissist annuls or violates his contracts without thinking twice.
Moreover, not all contracts were created equal in the narcissistic twilight zone. It is the narcissist who retains the power to decide which contracts are to be scrupulously observed and which offhandedly ignored. The narcissist determines which laws (social contracts) to obey and which to break.
Essentially, writes Vaknin, because of his inability to reconcile his ideal, imagined self and his actual one, the narcissist is emotionally shallow and unable to experience empathy for others. In his lack of self-awareness he projects his very shortcomings onto others.
Hmmm…let’s review again the scandals of the last (several) decade(s).
Help create the Taliban, then bomb the hell out of Afghanistan in a supposed effort to defeat them, kill thousands of Afghans and plead humanitarian intervention.
Arm and abet Saddam Hussein for years, entrench his rule while making average Iraqis suffer through 12 years of draconian sanctions, carry out an illegal invasion and disastrous occupation with a chillingly casual arrogance, exacerbate sectarianism by arming rival militias and then blame the Iraqis for their unfortunate fate.
I always say the only thing worse than being an enemy of America is being a former ally. Just ask Noriega, the Shah of Iran, Saddam or one of those mujahadin turned Taliban commanders. I wonder if any of them believed the presidential sighs and promises of devotion or if like Tiger Wood’s waitresses and aspiring reality TV stars, they tried to play a player and lost the bet.
But we in North America needn’t worry our pretty heads about such treacheries. We can avoid contemplating the million plus Iraqis dead since the 2003 invasion, or the thousands of Afghan casualties, or the Nobel Prize-winning President who favours massive aerial bombardment of villagers – or hey – even the Canadian Prime Minister who prorogues parliament, bleeds dirty oil from the tar sands, and bombs Afghanistan.
By wrapping ourselves in a cocoon of narcissistic complacency, hiding our head in the sand and avoiding discussion of anything deemed too ‘political’, we can easily contemplate a fun-filled decade of perfecting our bodies at the gym, while watching CNN and catching up on strangely cathartic celebrity scandals (note to sponsors: perhaps you can cleanse Tiger’s image by resurrecting him as an Afghan war hero).
Ah, the unbearable lightness of being.
When Hadani Ditmars isn’t busy being an NI co-editor, she enjoys working out, meeting narcissists and reading cheap tabloids.