Posted on July 25, 2022 by Larry Barnett
In the early 20th century, coinciding with the rise of high technology and the advancement of science – the telegraph, radio, personal automobiles, and the shift from agrarian to industrial culture – the way people are tied to each other and themselves has begun a major transition: from All-About-Us to All-About-Me.
All-About-Us was never entirely universal, of course. Personal life has always encroached on social life, and despite an excessive focus on individual freedom, Americans have been committed to the value of community and personal sacrifice. When World War I broke out, millions of boys enthusiastically joined the army and fought overseas, my grandfather among them. At the same time, modern culture began to fracture in new ways. As usual, artists and writers have shown this most visibly.
Impressionist painters like Van Gogh and Monet set the stage for the more abstract Picasso and Braque who introduced Cubism, and Surrealist/Dadaists like Man Ray, René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp. Writers James Joyce and poets TS Eliot and EE Cummings transformed the use and understanding of language. A psychological interiority has imposed itself and the power of authenticity has passed from public figures to personal expression. As the 20th century came of age, this trend blossomed into beatniks, hippies, experimental theater, electronic music, and psychedelic drugs, all of which contributed to a hyper-subjective All-About- Me. Individual expression and personal honesty became our cultural style, typified by comedians and comedians like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and George Carlin.
In the 1980s, postmodernism highlighted the importance of relative truth and the workings of systemic power and privilege. As the century drew to a close, cell phones, the internet and social media pushed an intense form of subjectivity even further. All-About-Us became cliché while All-About-Me took matters into its own hands. Now well into the 21st century, All-About-Me is in open conflict with All-About-Us. Identity politics, alternative facts, misinformation, and anti-intellectual movements like QAnon promote versions of history and culture that suit subjective beliefs about society, science, and religion. A recent incarnation is the fetal rights movement, which applies the All-About-Me ethic to the unborn child.
All of this “Sturm und Drang” can be seen simply as expressions of liberal and conservative thinking, what some call “the swinging of the pendulum,” but what happened was far less political than psychological. A form of hyper-individuality has taken hold, a trend of self-as-celebrity that fills Facebook and TikTok newsfeeds. At the same time, it is no coincidence that the civic sphere has withered away. The voting rate is low and efforts are being made to lower it further. Democracy, the political expression of All-About-Us, is suffering not just here, but around the world, succumbing to All-About-Me personality cults and political despots. While an excess of All about us leads to mind-numbing conformity, an excess of All about me leads to selfish chaos.
Modern democracy began in the 1700s as an outgrowth of Enlightenment thinking about freedom and freedom, but over three centuries it has morphed into an All-About-Me mass hysteria with characteristics narcissists, paranoids and schizoids. The wave of mass shootings in schools is symptomatic of a society suffering from psychic disintegration; plans for posthumous fame as a mass murderer reflect the ultimate nihilism inherent in All-About-Me.
Without a connection to the community and to each other, our humanity is lost.