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John F. KavanaughMay 23, 2011

In the July 3, 1999, issue of this magazine I addressed what I thought was the “triumph of Ayn Rand.” The column expressed a worry over the impact of Alan Greenspan, a disciple of Rand, on the future of our economy. Little did I suspect that Rand’s triumph would not be limited to the chaotic effects of unchecked and voracious capitalism. She recently has also become something of a patron saint for many politicians and media figures. What is more troublesome is how she haunts our contemporary American zeitgeist. I do not mean the spurt of her book sales. I mean our national psyche.

The next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the go-to book for diagnosing psychological dysfunction) will eliminate narcissistic personality as a disorder. That is because narcissism has become so ordinary. By narcissism I do not mean the appropriate self-confidence, even self-love, needed to survive. No; the narcissism now so commonplace in contemporary American life fits the classic criteria for a true disorder. The symptoms often include self-aggrandized notions of one’s power and success, an unwarranted sense of superiority over others, exaggerated self-importance and pride, manipulation of others and indifference to their emotions and feelings.

The Mayo Clinic Web site notes: “When you have narcissistic personality disorder…you often monopolize conversations. You may belittle or look down on people you perceive as inferior…. You may insist on having the best of everything—the best car, athletic club, medical care or social circles.”

Most Americans are not afflicted with grandiose illusions or the inability to empathize with others. Nonetheless, there is a growing cultural mythos that lionizes the kind of so-called hero that appears in the novels of Ayn Rand. She may imagine them to be great individualists, but they are actually, as the quotation from her novel Anthem in the title of this column reveals, radical narcissists. The “I-god” thinks he or she is self-made, splendidly isolated from every benefit or grace that has complemented or made possible working hard for success. That is why Rand’s characters despise altruism, even belief in God. Altruism requires empathy. God requires humility. Narcissism resists both.

The contemporary form of individualistic narcissism, however, is not necessarily expressed in atheism. But it does require self-inflation and a contempt for other people. You see it in news pundits who can only ridicule the other side and interviewers who continually interrupt the person they are supposed to be questioning. You hear it in talk show hosts who imagine themselves the saviors of America. You find it in politicians and special interest groups that cannot even entertain, much less address, an opinion contrary to their own.

A perhaps more benign, but nonetheless troubling example is the emergence of Donald Trump as a possible presidential candidate.

“Today, I’m very proud of myself,” Trump said on April 27. Trump’s pride was grounded in his belief that he was the only person who could force the president of the United States to show the long form of his birth certificate. So there. By the end of the week, after saying that we should just take over Iran’s oil, Trump chose the venue of Las Vegas to utter a string of foul-mouthed fantasies, deluding his audience into thinking that his self-indulgent vulgarism would change the Chinese economy.

By the time this column appears, Trump will likely have disappeared from the list of presidential hopefuls. Despite his newfound embrace of traditionalism, he will probably realize that his record could not bear the inspection of a rigorous campaign.

These may be hard words, but Trump will not worry about the words of a person like me, who never met a payroll, built a building or mounted a reality show.

But such achievements may not be what life is all about, whether personal or national. A rising chorus tells us that we are supposed to choose between Rand’s hated collectivism and her narcissistic individualism. Human life in its fullness, however, is found in neither option. As the French philosopher Jacques Maritain pointed out long ago, the only authentic alternative is a community of persons.

It is only by the common good of our shared nature’s giftedness that we flourish. And it is only in sharing our gifts that we are fulfilled as persons.

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Kathy Berken
11 years 10 months ago
John, thank you for your thoughtful insights. The use of the term narcissism to describe Americans over the word individualism is a good one, and so I wonder if narcissism could be a by product of our "rugged individualism," or possibly our growing Protestant ethos, even among those of us who are not Protestant. 

I've been thinking for a long time about how this country went from a sense of we to a sense of I. From the common good to what's best for me. When President Obama told the world that he and his team chose not to release the photos of bin Laden after he was killed because "that's not what we are about," I felt a profound sense of hope. Not the hope that the photos won't be misused, but the hope that our president's inner core of belief reaches for a communal spirit of  integrity in this country. "That's not what we're about" became, for me, a sign pointing to the possibility of community, away from the individualism, from the narcissism we have so insidiously adopted.

How can we, as a country, as a people hungering to belong, awaken our sacramental imagination, not so much to bring throngs of people back to church, but to bring us to an awareness that in our communal acts of sharing, feeding, forgiving, affirming, welcoming, healing, and loving, we awaken to the reality that grace has always been present?
ed gleason
11 years 10 months ago
Rand is not dead as long as her disciples keep spouting.
Newt Gingrich [newbee Catholic?] said at a Friday night speech 05-13 11

Gingrich also blasted Obama as "the most successful food stamp president in modern American history."

See what happens when RCIA is bypassed? Join the Church of the Margins as quickly as you can.

11 years 10 months ago
Dear Fr. Kavanaugh, In response to an article in a local paper by Cal Thomas, I wrote the Letter attached. During the campaign last fall, our new Sen. Johnson said-spoke the words, he was an advocate of Ayn Rand. In the LaCrosse Diocese, we were told to "vote of life." Johnson, Walker and local candidates all won. The editor was a bit hesitant to print my comments-but he did. No follow ups.

Ayn Rand and Cyl    
121 words

The almighty dollar, $ , the floral symbol that marked her grave is the antithesis of the Cross and empty tomb, symbols of sacrifice and hope celebrated by the Christian world this questionable Holy Week (Cal Thomas 4/17/11). Atlas, Paul Galt and capitalism, with a large C that Thomas, Rep. Ryan, Sen. Johnson and Ayl Greenspan advocate are better symbolized by our debt, debit, eternal war and Drones. Yes, the virus is epidemic not because we failed to support the crass hubris Cyl and those who hold their teacups with middle fingers symbolize, but because the anti-viri of equality, community, veracity, simplicity and peace, attributes of the Quakers, and the Beatitudes are treated like hopeless malignancies.

Thomas Chisholm 316 W. Spruce St. Chippewa Falls, WI 54729   715 726 0365

Dear Mr. Editor: I purposely spelled Cal—Cyl and Alan—Ayl. I hope you will print this letter without changing anything. My wife questions the intelligence of your readers-will they understand the sarcasm? I struggle to refrain from using even stronger invective.
11 years 10 months ago
I just love this piece.  Thank you, Fr. Kavanaugh.  The last paragraph is a perfect reminder for us all to keep in mind always.
David Smith
11 years 10 months ago
Father Kavanaugh, this little piece is like the summary - the last page - of a much longer, well reasoned text discussing Ayn Rand's writing throughly and impartially.  All you've given us here is your conclusion.  If we're to believe you blindly, that's enough; otherwise, we need the full text.
11 years 10 months ago

Narcissistic behavior, isn’t that what happened in Eden, following God’s ever ancient ever new decision to take from the existing human gene pool, a man and a woman, endowing them with heretofore unknown “moral responsibility” called Sanctifying Grace, thereby establishing “First Parents” for the First Family of God, which in Revelation led to the Church, the First Family of God perfected?

Wasn’t the Original Sin of Adam and Eve the sin of narcissism, whereby humanity through the self-aggrandizement of exaggerated self importance called Pride, usurped  in effect Godlike stature replacing the Divinity with the Human Self , in synthesis descriptive of  atheism?

And so it seems to me has it  ever been and will ever be, until Christ comes again, straightening out what he did through Mary’s “fiat” putting to an end once and  all the disordered “I” a human fixation, ever challenging God narcissistically!

This is what I glean form wading through Jesuit Father John F. Kavanaugh’s waves of finest wheat in his insightfully  focused, “This God, This One Word: I”.

But really,  what do I know, being a simple man who knows a little about many things but not very much about anything? Indeed, mountains of knowledge tower all around, causing me to look up longingly from the much lower level plateau on which I live, ever trying to at least touch one of the still towering, but closer peaks!  And so I babble on, thanking people like Father Kavanaugh for giving me momentary buoyancy to touch a little what I see from a distance. Thanks, Father Kavanaugh!

C Walter Mattingly
11 years 10 months ago
William Buckley long ago spoke out against the Godless extremism of Rand and some of her followers, noting the dour outlook extended to others. Yet the reason for her current revival is her support, extreme as it may be, of taking responsibility for one's own life and actions. Our current administration, for example, wishes to consolidate control in the hands of a "benevolent" bureaucracy. It is therefore opposed to providing a voucher for parents suffering from generations of declining educational performance in their neighborhood schools, depriving them of access to parochial and other private schools whose students have had better high school graduation and post secondary education rates. Bureaucrats and their supporters wish to retain that power for themselves and so deprive the parent and student of that ability to make their own choices among schools in their own neighborhoods. Why? Perhaps a narcissistic, delusional belief that they are in a better position to make that decision from the state capitol or Washington than the parents in the neighborhood.
Another example would be HSAs for health care. Moderate followers of Rand's core value of self-responsibility would tend to favor the patient taking control of his healthcare as far as possible, accenting that by varying copays or their share of payments in Medicare by lowering costs for those who control the nation's greatest, and self-induced, health epidemics, smoking and obesity, by not smoking or maintaining their proper weight and physical condition. The current administration, violating its pledge to put healthcare before the American public, has slighted such effective possibilities of health improvement motivation as well as ideas which likely truly would control costs.
The example Jesus provided us congruent with such self-responsibility can be discerned in the two fish miracles, the one of His adolescence and the one of His adulthood. At Cana he provided a free lunch for the assembled guests, who had only to dip into the magic baskets and feast. With the fisherman, a miracle of his adulthood, He did not feed them the fish, he taught them how to fish by giving them advice on where to cast their nets. They still had to fish themselves, haul the nets in, manage the overloaded boat, return them in marketable conditions to the shore, transport them, prepare, cook, sell them, etc.
The first miracle was appropriate for children and those unable to help themselves, and is a miracle of His youngest years. In short, it was a handout. The second is more a miracle for adults. It was a hand offered to help. The catching, handling, preparation had to be done by the fisherman. We all know the cliche: feed a man to fish, and you feed him a meal; teach him to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. It is a cliche because it is contains a fundamental truth.
It is appropriate to chastize a grandstanding, outfront narcissist such as Trump, yet he is not a serious candidate but more of a Trumped-up version of Olberman or Beck. It is likely part of his marketing schtick. It is the more subtlely deceptive narcissist that is the most dangerous.
In short, the turn to the influence of Rand is a reaction to a narcissism far more dangerous to the nation's future than that of a showboating billionaire.
It is the reaction to a perceived narcissistic government.
Christopher Kuczynski
11 years 10 months ago
This is an excellent article in both tone and content.  I agree, too, with the commenter that narcissism is as old as Adam and Eve, though I would observe that there appears to have been a real democratization of the phenomenon during my lifetime.  Though not the only culprit, technology certainly has provided everyone the means to build a world in which he or she is at the center.  What really counts in this world is self-reference and anything we can do to create "buzz," which I think is supposed to mean something like "interest," but means something more like what the word really connotes - a kind of noise lacking substance.  Couple this with the rugged individualism and general suspicion of anything that smacks of the common good, which are part of our DNA as Americans, and you have what you see splashed across our televisions and computer screens daily.  Yet I observe no greater sense of real joy and satisfaction for all our attempts at self-satisfaction.
11 years 10 months ago
Thank you, Father Kavanaugh, for as always a magnificent piece of writing. Would that politcians who profess to be Catholic, like Paul Ryan and John Boehner, would read and absorb what you have said. Regretfully that won't happen. They profess more belief in the Randian view than in the Gospel and probably have no knowledge of the great social teachings of the Church.

I remember reading recently that Ryan is an unabashed disciple of Rand and requires all of his staff to read and be thoroughly versed in her ideological view.

I sometimes have great difficulty being under the same tent with so-called Catholics such as these. But as a friend of mine once said, this Body, like all bodies, also needs components for discharging the detrius.
11 years 10 months ago
I am very interested in the observation that the next issue of the DSM will likely drop narcissistic personality as a disorder.  I have been trying to find some information on this on the Internet, but have not been successful.  Any suggestions would be helpful. I am especially interested in the reasons for doing this.
Edward Visel
11 years 10 months ago
Your writing is engaging and readable as ever, Father. I always look forward to your columns.

I think this piece touches on a very deep problem of our society, but without really resolving it, as David Smith commented above. There is great tension beween Christian humility and capitalism. Rand presents her view of the ideal morals of citizens of a capitalist society (though many capitalists disagree with her). Catholicism gives us a system of morals and virtues, but does not give us a system of government. What, then, would that corrolary system of government be?

I've thought about this for some years, and honestly can't think of one. On a small scale, communal living, e.g. a monastery or convent, works well (hopefully), carried to a societal level, communism has not proven very promising, as the largest Communist nation has shifted from Maoism to "capitalism with Chinese characteristics", or whatever iteration they are on now.

The fact may be that we need capitalists who consider themselves first to make our society function. In economics, the assumptions are made that people are self-interested and self-maximizing - assumptions which seldom prove to be wrong. From a Christian standpoint, that's very sad, but it's also very human. A more hopeful note can be found in the rise of CSR - Corporate Social Responsibility - which takes a corporation's self-interest and universalizes it, in a very Kantian way. Capitalism may be unavoidable, but that doesn't mean we can't try for some measure of morality. In this, Rand is just another theorist who has been passed by.
11 years 10 months ago
Edward Visel's last comment strikes the core of the issue for me: how to organize an economy of millions - sometimes 1000s of millions - of people?  It is a complex, gargantuan task.  That collective communism is an historical failure is evident, despite Marx's philosophical appeal. State socialism - ala Great Britain - seems to eventually bankrupt an economy.  Capitalism, at least, seems to work better, despite huge inequities and historical tragedies, slavery and child labor, among them.  There is something right, just and true about rewarding human ingenuity and corporate responsibility. 

In this imperfect world, I would cast my lot with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, a so-called "progressive Republican," who certainly had political baggage - extreme jingoism for example - but nonetheless the first President to invite an African American to dinner in the White House and willing to take on corporate, unaccountable capitalism. 

Where does the gospel of Jesus Christ fit into these huge systemic questions?  Catholic social teaching, ever evolving in our complex world, yet anchored in gospel values, provides a vision and a path.  I will cast my lot with its teaching and guidance.   Fr. Kavanaugh's last three lines are informed by the spirit of Catholic social teaching.  The Church's role is to proclaim Christ first and then teach how to apply gospel values to contemporary life - not an easy task and mostly marked by shades of gray. 

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