Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Ego

According to the OED online "ego," as referring to "the conscious thinking self," entered the English language toward the end of the 18th century; in fact, the first citation is from 1789. As a psychological term referring to that part of the mind that is most conscious of the self, it arose about 100 years later, along with "depth psychology," of course; and at about the same time, it came to refer, negatively, to self-centeredness. That is, according to psychology, "normal" human beings, whatever that means, are supposed to have egos, a sense of themselves, some kind of unified personality. But society suggests--or does it?--that we shouldn't have egos in the sense of being selfish, drawing too much attention to ourselves, and--in the extreme--becoming narcissitic or sociopathic.

All the major religions seem to encourage a person to check the ego, to look not for ourselves when we look inward but (perhaps) for God, and to look outward--to others (especially those in need), to mystery, to the fact that everything changes, to the fact the ego is short-lived. Buddhist texts, The Bhagavad Gita, the Q'uran, the Bible--all seem to agree, perhaps loosely, certainly from different perspectives, on this anti-ego stance.

And yet this society, the only one I know relatively well, really constantly asserts the opposite. It is obsessed with celebrity, personal wealth, getting ahead personally, buying stuff to make oneself look great, and so on. In what way is Donald Trump, for example, not quintessentially American, and if he is that, then is there something wrong with how Americans define themselves, and if he is not that, then why is he so poplar, such an icon? In what particular ways does he advance the Golden Rule or basic precepts of the Judeo-Christian tradition or of any spiritual tradition?. . . Jacques Ellul claims that one key to propaganda in any culture (including ours) is that it appeals to the masses but in a way that gives the individual the sense that he or she is being addressed individually. So when a politician derides "running out of Iraq with our tail between our legs," he is appealing to some kind of mass-pride in a mythic "America" that can be reduced to the image of a dog, but he is also inviting each person to think of himself or herself as a beaten dog running away, and thus to reject anything connected with ending that war.

In fact, the word "we" is rather beside the point. The people who will leave from or stay in Iraq are military personnel, some journalists, and some private contractors. They aren't dogs, and they don't have tails, and if the military leaves, it ought to leave in the way that preserves the most lives--of the personnel and of Iraqi citizens. "Running out of Iraq with our tail between our legs" thus disintegrates completely, as a statement with any meaning, when treated with the simplest analysis. And yet as propaganda, it apparently works--on individuals, on their egos. It means something because it appears to mean something.

TV has become an especially bad place for ideas or genuine, interesting disagreements (as opposed to shout-ping-pong or interrupt-o-rama) to be explored, partly because it is composed chiefly of advertisement, around which "programming" is folded like wet bread, but also because those moderating the ideas have ceased to moderate or to be moderate. Say what you will about Larry King--he's old, he can lob softball questions, and every guest if of the same cultural importance--but he sets his ego aside and lets people talk; at least he gets that much done. Obviously, Larry King must have a huge ego; he's ambitious, and he likes being liked and likes knowing famous people. But as an interviewer, he can control his ego. Charley Rose seems to be able to do that, too--and Tavis Smiley.

But mostly TV isn't interested in ideas, nuances, thoughtfulness, or exchanges that are neither rushed, combative, faced, or some combination of all three. That's too bad. Once this popular medium had some potential, didn't it? Think of how good it might have been. It is now awful, and I think it's not going to get better. So when someone like Ron Paul (he may be right, he may be wrong, he may be both, that's not the point) cuts through the crap and speaks what he takes to be the truth, we are a) refreshed (again, whether we think he's right or not) and b) certain that his candidacy will go nowhere because he has chosen to say what he really thinks and to pursue a line of argument instead of saying something involves tails between legs, yadda-yadda.

The following wee poem concerns ego, and it's certainly one I could stand to take to heart (physician, heal thyself, and all that):

Station K-E-G-O

It’s just him, broadcasting
to himself with one watt
of power, pretending
to interview an Other,
playing requests and
and taking calls
he called in to himself,
about himself,
breaking for news about his life,
weather he enjoys, sports
that delight him. This
is Radio Solipcism,
from a studio of Self,
broadcast to stations
all along the Narcissistic Network.

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