Monday, July 30, 2018

Dawn of the Decadent

Christopher Lasch and the Narcissist Road to Power

By Greg Guma

Long before Donald Trump’s malignant narcissism plunged the United States and the world into a hall of mirrors, thought leaders like Christopher Lasch warned about an emerging psychic assault on humanity and a breakdown of culture. 

Most of the population had been reduced to incompetence by professional elites, Lasch charged in a controversial book, The Culture of Narcissism, while the family was simultaneously being undermined by advanced capitalism. The personality itself was under attack, he argued, by bureaucracy, a therapeutic culture, and “the domination of our whole experience by fabricated images.”

Cover graphic from Vermont Vanguard Press, June 12, 1979, with Publisher Steve Brown as model. 

As Michiko Kakutani explains in a new book, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, Lasch was ahead of his time in defining narcissism as a “defensive reaction to social change and instability.” A cynical “ethic of self-preservation and psychic survival” afflicted the nation, Lasch believed. It was the symptom of a country grappling with defeat in Vietnam, growing pessimism, a media culture centered on fame and celebrity, and “centrifugal forces that were shrinking the role families played in the transmission of culture.” 

In 1979, shortly before Lasch helped President Jimmy Carter write his memorable, televised “malaise” speech (Carter didn’t actually use the word), I taped and published an interview with the historian about his analysis of contemporary society. “It’s almost as if we can’t experience things directly anymore,” he explained, more than a decade before the Internet went public. 

“Something only becomes real when it’s recorded in the form of a photographic image, a recording of the human voice, or whatever. The result is that our whole perception is colored, and I think it has a mirror-like effect. People find it difficult to establish a sense of self unless it’s reflected back in the reaction of others or in the form of images.”

In The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch had extended the word’s definition to include “dependence on the vicarious warmth provided by others combined with a fear of dependence, a sense of inner emptiness, boundless repressed rage, and unsatisfied oral cravings.” He also added secondary traits like “pseudo self-insight, calculated seductiveness, nervous self-deprecating humor... intense fear of old age and death, altered sense of time, fascination with celebrity, fear of competition, decline of play spirit, deteriorating relations between men and women.”

Even more disturbing, he asserted that the narcissistic personality was ideally suited for positions of power, a callous, superficial climber who sells him or herself to win at any price. 

Today, all of this rings like a prediction about the shape of political leaders to come.

Since Lasch also argued that capitalism was part of the problem, specifically by turning the selling of oneself into a form of work, I asked him to explain. “Capitalism takes bureaucratic form,” he said. “Advancement and success depends upon the ability to project one’s personality and to project a winning image, rather than competence in any given job. Your own personality becomes the principal resource to be marketed.” Almost 40 years on, this sounds very much like the Trump-ist mindset.

Mass media were largely responsible, Lasch said, since they create both a sense of “chronic tension” and a “cynical detachment” from reality. And it wasn’t just the advertisements. “By treating everything as parody, a lot of TV shows reflect the same distancing techniques,” he explained. “Everything is a put-on, a take-off. And nothing is to be taken altogether seriously. We now have a whole genre that parodies other popular forms, creating a kind of endless hall of mirrors effect. It becomes very difficult to distinguish reality from images. Finally, the distinction collapses altogether.”

Somewhat depressed by this diagnosis, I tried to refocus on the bright side by asking about the difference between the debilitating detachment he had described and a more healthy skepticism.

“A person could even experience both reactions at different times,” Lasch replied. “This raises a very important political question too, because the thrust of institutions might have a very healthy political effect in reducing people’s dependence on big organizations, making people more willing to solve their own problems. But, on the other hand, it has so far expressed itself as a crippling cynicism in the whole political process: no change is possible at all, and all politicians are corrupt.”   

Worse yet, he asserted that the modern American family promoted the development of narcissistic people. Many mothers are no longer confident of their ability to raise children, he said, and many fathers no longer have work that provides an example to follow. "The atrophy of older traditions of self-help has eroded everyday competence in one area after another and has made the individual dependent on the state, the corporation, and other bureaucracies. Narcissism represents the psychological dimension of this dependence." 

Popular culture feeds as a parasite on the narcissist's primitive fantasies, Lasch continued. It encourages delusions of omnipotence while at the same time affirming feelings of dependence and blocking the expression of strong emotion. The bland and empty disco-supermarket-mall-mellow facade of mass existence can be overwhelming. Yet within people there was also enormous anger for which bureaucratic society provided few outlets. 

Lasch was expressing harsh and then-contrarian views, some that liberals, conservatives, and even radicals hesitated to embrace at the time. For example, he believed that American society was fast approaching a point of moral dissolution, but charged that both the "welfare state" and permissiveness were among the causes of the impending collapse. At the same time, he saw hope in the potential for resistance among working people who retained religious, family, and neighborhood roots.

One of his targets was the “awareness” movement. In that regard, when I asked what Lasch thought about Erhard Seminars Training (Est), an extension of the human potential movement, he offered that it did have some appeal as an “antidote” to narcissism. Yet his reason was chilling. “It entails a certain amount of arbitrary discipline, a kind of submission to authority that you find in some religious cults, too,” he said. “People who lack meaning and structure are likely to turn to some sort of authoritarian solution.”

In view of this, I wondered where he thought the necessary vision for change would come from. "There is more resistance among people who really don’t have much stake in the present economic system, people who are victimized by it,” he replied. “Their working environment is not invaded by bureaucracy in the same way. And the second thing is that they have some cultural resources, like religion, that help to counteract this. Of course, all these things are often sneered at as evidence of the backward mentality of American workers. We’re going to have to view that in a much more positive light.

“One of the problems I see is an erosion of any sense of moral responsibility. That’s closely linked to the loss of competence. And religion is one impulse that helps to keep alive the sense that people are responsible for what they do. It represents a sort of moral realism that is very important now.”

But the family, church, neighborhoods and institutions were all under assault, Lasch warned. And, although somewhat skeptical about what he viewed as a gradual shift toward state socialism, he acknowledged that “the state is going to have to play a larger role,” particularly in areas like energy and resource allocation.  

On the other hand, he also foresaw a risk that turned out to be all too real: that an expansion of the state’s role, combined with exploitation of reactionary tendencies in the family and church, could spark the authoritarian surge he feared.

Monday, July 16, 2018


A Rocky Season for Vermont’s Most Popular Sport
August 1, 1978, Vermont Vanguard Press
Story by Greg Guma    Photos by Ron MacNeil

Can you handle life at any speed? How about at 95 miles an hour, for 100 laps and $1,750 to win?
     Are you up for it? Are you experienced? Will you risk a full house “lawn show” race called the Busch 100?
     I don’t know about you, but the fans at Milton’s Catamount stock car racetrack are definitely in high gear. The family crowd is packing the stands just of Route 7 at Exit 17, ready to get on with Saturday night fever, set for a collection of late model, Grand American and mini-stock events. Their favorite stock drivers from Vermont and New Hampshire are here, plus some heavy weather from the Canadians and the southern invaders.

We’re in the pit at sundown, in the land of grease and money. You can smell the rubber and the sweat and feel the ground vibrate from the combined horsepower of  almost 100 machines planning to compete until midnight. At that point it’s Cinderella time; Milton prohibits racing on Sundays. 
     Catamount promoter Tom Curley is calling the men together for a pep talk. He wants them to come back next week to support the Grand American division. “It’s an off weekend,” he says, “a good way to get rid of used rubber.”
     The late model drivers aren’t much interested. Using up the tires worn down by this race isn’t on their minds; for most the Busch 100 is a losing financial proposition. The winning purse is $1,750, but even at third you only take home $600 — Hell, a set of tires can cost that much.
     Curley raps on for the crowd. “I only have 3,000 gallons of gas,” he says, “and I can’t order just 1,000 so don’t take too much.” There ain’t much pep in this talk. The drivers start to wander off. “But gas is all right for Oxford tomorrow, only take as much as you need.”
     OXFORD. The big buck event of the season, 250 laps at a track in Maine with $6,000 in the winning purse, plus national points in the late model stock competition (with a $4,000 prize at the end of that twisted trail). Some drivers are only here because Oxford is tomorrow, some plan to hit both races for either the Northern NASCAR or national points, and some just can’t bear to miss a race at the only late model track left in Vermont.
     It takes all kinds.


Here’s Dave Dion of Hudson, N.H., a popular man in these parts, a driver on the rise. Dave’s just naturally supercharged, and on his way in the big time, Grand National stock car competition. Behind that healthy mustache he’s always smiling. And why not? Dave is single, studdily and in control. Ford just gave him about $5,000 in backing. Yes, Dave Dion is the man to beat tonight. How’s it goin’, Dave?
     “I’m okay, but only racing about once a month. We are in the Grand National, but not doing that well. It takes a lot of cash.”
     Sounds rough, yet Dave grins on to victory through it all. However, some hot shots are expected to give him trouble in the Busch 100, especially the southern heavies up here hunting for national NASCAR points. One invader is Butch Lindley, a southern dandy to be sure, the blonde, blue-eyed national point champion from South Carolina. Butch is sponsored to the tune of $200,000 by Black Diamond Coal Co., which wants to see him hold the title another year. Wherever there’s a point race, Butch is running hard.
     “It requires buying a lot of airplane tickets, and a lot of people traveling, and at mid-season, where we are now, it seems like everyone is about worn out,” says Butch. He’s wearing his powder blue racing suit, leaning against his truck oblivious to the engines rumbling by. Butch is driving about three nights a week, and he’s at Catamount to beat Bob Pressley, who has been leading in the NASCAR point race for most of the season. Pressley is another southern invader, from North Carolina. It’s a race within a race.
     You know, most fans aren’t here to see two southerners compete for points. They’re at the edge of the asphalt oval to watch local sons show their exhausts. What makes stock car racing Vermont’s most popular spectator sport is the high-tension pleasure of seeing someone like Bobby Dragon lead the pack.
     We can find Bobby, one of Milton’s favorite citizens, the sexy Capricorn in Red 71, at the Dragonwagon waiting for qualifying heats to begin. Bobby isn’t here for national points, and he’s trying not to think about the northern circuit standings. But there are problems, especially his tires. He usually gets them from Firestone, but sometimes the tires go down before the checkered flag.
     ”I guess we’re behind the eightball,” he says. “We’ve had to be more conservative. When you’re out to Finish you change your strategy. But it’s not fun. You know, you have to take a chance to win.”
     Bobby has double worries: his tires and an engine change between the qualifying race and the main event. His crew is standing by to perform major surgery in less than an hour. Still, he’s loose enough to rap about the scene.
     I’m tired of asking drivers whether they think they’re gonna win, so how about the lowdown on Barre’s Thunder Road? Vermont’s only other stock track closed in late June, only a few months after New York promoter Tommy Kalomiris bought out principal owners Ken Squier (an ABC sportscaster known as Northern NASCAR’s racing godfather), Spade Cooley and Tony Parisi. What’s the story? Drivers have gotten bad checks, the stands won’t pass local inspection...
     “He had different ideas,” says Dragon of Kalomiris. “His plans for the season sounded far-fetched. I think you can always pinpoint a bullshitter.” Bobby tells me how Kalomiris tried to institute figure eight racing, and how he misled the fans about a race. “He brought in a Kook division, but people thought the late models were running. After that, people didn’t know what to expect.”
     There’s more to that story, but the heats are starting. Bobby is in the first. You can only feel the race in the pit, but by climbing the Dragonwagon you get the long view, custom-built cars in full-color, some sporting the names of sponsors, whipping in circles around a one-third-mile track. Handling is the secret here; the straightaways are short and the cars are usually packed two across, a few feet apart, like bombers in a controlled pattern. Except that this team is just synchronizing its competition, as the rasp and roar make primal music for the audience.
     About 15 cars are packed tight out of the first curve, but it’s obvious in a lap that the race is basically between Bobby’s Dragon-mobile and the Mad Monk, Claude Aubin from Montreal. In the stands they go wild for that classic US-Canadian standoff. And Aubin isn’t alone; Jean Paul Cabana is in the heat.
     Cabana, who has been racing for 26 years, won the first feature race ever staged at Catamount. Lately he’s been thinking about retirement; the wife would like it. But J. P.’s mechanics aren’t ready to pack it in... You know, Cabana would rather lose to an American than a Canadian. Like the southerners, the Canadian drivers — especially Cabana, Aubin and the younger Langis Caron — have their own race to run. It’s not a matter of points, but honor.
     Among the Canadian fans who make the trip to Milton, Cabana, the Scorpio in 5A, has a strong following. He’s half clown, half devil, and he didn’t do badly at the start of this season, winning the first Catamount late model event. But now he’s off the track with engine trouble in the middle of the qualifying heat while Bobby Dragon hangs onto first place, just inches ahead of Mad Monk Aubin. 
     They roll off the oval for pit work. Bobby’s marginal engine made it, but will have to be replaced before the feature race. Eight guys tear the hood away like thieves stripping a Cadillac. Two tackle the wheels, others jack up one side. Bobby Dragon is hunched in the middle, pouring water on the parts. It comes apart easily while the next late model heat begins.
     What no one knows at the Dragonwagon is whether that new Chevy engine will be installed in time, or whether it’s hot enough. At least no one looks too worried.


To: Greg Guma
From: Eugene Michael Scribner
Re: A Late Report from the Dead Copy Desk

Guma, you party hack, what do you know about racing? I’ve seen you total too many rusted hulks to believe anything you say about stock. This ain’t sizzler racing, pistonhead.
     Besides, this sport ain’t what it used to be. The fans are getting bored. Look at Thunder Road this year, only 1,500 attending when only a year ago the average was at least 3,500. Of course, Tommy Kalomiris helped along the decline.
     Anyway, here are the notes you wanted (and I better be paid this time). First, remember that stock car racing started in the south in the 1940s as a redneck’s way of knowledge; you didn’t need strength, just speed and guts. The south was just about the hottest car buying area in the country then, and it didn’t take long for Detroit to figure it out (and exploit it). Pontiac stepped into stock in ‘55 and soon the Speed Image took over.
     I hardly have to say that it’s a man’s man’s world to the core. Talking about sexism at the track is like spitting into a hot exhaust. Clearly unneccesary.
     Another stud in this tire is NASCAR, the national sanctioning group that governs racing. Some Daytona biggies founded it in 1947 and lately the smaller tracks, like Catamount, have begun to suspect that NASCAR is a scam to support the larger ones. Each driver pays a $40 annual fee, plus $20 for each national point race entry and nightly insurance.
     NASCAR used to guarantee the purse at each race it sanctioned, these days it only backs bigger tracks and larger events. Most places have their own purses, currently bad news around here. When Thunder Road closed, a bunch of driver got bad checks, or no checks, for races they had won. The northern circuit is in trouble, and NASCAR isn’t doing much to help. There used to be two races a week in Vermont, now it’s more like two a month as part of a new “super-circuit” covering Maine, New Hampshire , Vermont and Canada.
     The purses are getting smaller and some drivers even think the circuit will collapse. Talk to Stub Fadden, a New Hampshire driver — and a very sincere guy. He won the last two late model events at Thunder Road (and never got paid). Of course he’s pissed. But he also said, “I can’t see keeping the type of expensive race car I have for just six or eight races at Catamount. It wouldn’t be feasible.”  
     Also remember: money talks in racing, just like anywhere else. To race for national points or in the Grand National circuit you’d better have a sponsor. That’s why Dave Dion may be out of his gourd. He has a family crew, including two brothers, and minimal backing. He’s started poorly, failing to qualify at Michigan Speedway for the Gabriel 400. He did qualify for the Mason-Dixon 500 at Dover Downs but didn’t make the race. Will he ever get the message?             
     If you can keep the names and numbers straight watch out for some other drivers. You know about the Canadians — crazymen all. There’s also Robbie Crouch, about the cutest guy on four wheels. And fast. There’s whistling in the stands when he charges on. At the opening of the season Robbie announced his intention to take the northern circuit championship with his homemade machine. Robbie’s a Taurus from Tampa, who races summers here with a little help from the Tower Restaurant. Like Bobby Dragon he’s very consistent, and is numero uno in circuit points at the moment, a nose ahead of Bobby. He hasn’t won an event this year, but piles up points by finishing well.
     With Thunder Road closing and the south invading it’s been a weird season so far. Like a week before Thunder Road stopped running there was a Dave Dion night at the Barre track. Stub Fadden won his second Thunder Road feature in a row ($1,400 in rubber money). Meanwhile Dion, the guest of honor, crashed into a wall on the main straightaway in the first lap.
     And at the 78 lap Independence Day Holiday event at Catamount the Canadians took charge — a depressing night for New England. Quebec City’s Langis Caron held the lead, with the Mad Monk right behind. Robbie Crouch and invaders Pressley and Lindley also ran in the top six. The only Yankee to cut through was Ron Barcomb of Colchester.
     That about covers it, except for the Oxford 250. Smart money says the confederate flag will fly high, but more than 60 cars will try to qualify. That $6,000 top prize is bringing them out of the hills. Last year honors went to Don Beiderman of Burlington, Ontario, after Pressley protested without luck that he’d actually won.
     I’m still going to pull for a Yankee to win at Oxford, maybe Dragon or Barcomb. (Note: Scribner was 80 percent wrong. Bob Pressley took the Oxford 250, followed by invaders Lindley and Bill Dennis. Bobby Dragon had tire problems again, finishing sixth, but Barcomb did take fourth.) And if I get the chance I’ll trash Butch Lindley’s Ventura before he does any more damage. Black Diamond Coal must be stopped. The Civil War has just been re-declared.


All right, I won’t lie about it. I am not a stock car junkie. In fact, I don’t even enjoy being in cars. They’re infernal contraptions. Vanguard Press sent me to cover Catamount as a last resort, since I refuse to cover political events anymore unless they provide an oxygen mask.
     Actually, I feel short of breath right now, standing on top of the Dragonwagon. The bus is shaking while the crew and Bobby hoist out the engine. They float it to one side to take a look. My God, it’s only been ten minutes.
     Maybe I’m just dizzy from looking down on the crew, working in synch like some colony of oversized killer bees. Or maybe it’s the thick, oily air you can almost cut. Or the sound, which is impossible to describe in any known language. VAROOOM doesn’t come close — that’s a formula racing sound, a very fast and smooth Grand Prix event. At Catamount the sound is more BRRRRAAAMMM, BRAAAAMMM, BRAAAAMMM...
     From the front end of the bus I can see the other heats. In the second Lindley bolts from the pack to number one, while Stub Fadden hangs in and Dave Dion trails weakly. Dave, is this any way to win the Grand National? And in the third heat Pressley charges forward to beat Vermont’s Hector LeClair. The southern invaders are definitely in command.
     The bus shakes again as Bobby helps float in the new engine — a $7,000 homemade jewel. J.P. Cabana is pitching in. Cooperation like this is commonplace at stock races. It’s a family sport for the audience and the crews.
     “Number 23 would like a transmission,” yells the man on the loudspeaker. “Number 23 needs a transmission.” You can barely hear him above the race, yet Catamount is the kind of place where number 23 might just luck out.
     It’s almost time for the late model event, the best 30 cars from the three qualifying heats. At least eight of these maniacs could win.
     The Dragon team doesn’t have time to worry; they hear the street division doing its thing as they put finishing touches on the transplant. They call the street stock event the “crash and burn” show. It’s an affectionate joke, since many drivers started out running with street tires in an old wreck that moves until it comes apart. Then again, “crash and burn” is never more than a split second away, from street stock all the way to super-speedway.

Maybe I’m just a sucker for a local boy. I’d say Bobby Dragon is a dynamite driver. He’s been doing the circuit since 1966. With a volunteer crew, an Emmanuel Zervakis body, a Chevy engine and Bobby’s handling prowess the Dragon-mobile finishes consistently in the top five.
     “Actually, my brother (Beaver “Hard Luck” Dragon) started before me in Mallets Bay,” he recalled when I tracked number 71 to a quonset hut outside Milton Village. “We used to run five nights a week,” at Sanair in New Hampshire, Thunder Road, Plattsburgh, Catamount and Devil’s Bowl. Two tracks stopped running late model events due to lack of local talent; favorite sons fill the stands. And now Thunder Road is locked up indefinitely.
     Bobby has a low-cost operation, backed by Honda Automaster, but still worries about the increased cost of parts. “The purses haven’t kept pace with our expenses. And now the southerners run away with most of the money. Guys like Lindley and Pressley are sponsored to run nationally, and it’s hard for us to compete. They can afford to blow a $10,000 engine.”
     Limited by money and faulty tires, the Dragon team manages to hold its own through “better maintenance of equipment. Things are done right. We time each lap, and keep in radio contact during the race.”
     That reminds Bobby of the latest NASCAR hassle. Radios are good for safety and help avoid crashes, says Bobby, yet two months ago NASCAR sent out a rule prohibiting radios on less than one-mile tracks. Five days later they discontinued the idea, after drivers complained. “Some people say radios are too expensive,” Bobby muses. “But I think they’re a better investment than buying radial tires. Anyway, in any sport everyone’s looking for an edge.”
     Bobby thinks NASCAR could be surplus baggage for most drivers and tracks. “Curley (the Catamount promoter) says it keeps the division together. Well, it’s handy for promoters but we could run our own open competition rules We could have a point fund with money at the end of the year for the top few positions.”
     Local rules, rather than NASCAR’s uniform entry standards, might also discourage the southern point chasers from packing northern circuit races, Bobby adds. 
     I ask him about the Canadian-American competition and tells me it is “more a problem in the stands. The drivers get along. The Canadians do compete with each other. Myself, I enjoy beating southerners,” he grins.
     Even though he can hold his own with the invaders there is no national competition in Bobby Dragon’s future. “I wouldn’t go national because of work and family,” he explains. “It would have to be a big amount of money, a guaranteed salary. There are too many other things in life than to sink everything into a race car. Besides, I enjoy working on a car.” He and his team spend up to 40 hours a week keeping number 71 in top shape.
     “I guess I wouldn’t feel right,” Bobby says, “unless I had a hand in getting the car ready.”


Stock is a profoundly American sport. It builds myths out of nerves of steel and refined technology, and out of the potential for destruction lurking around every curve. The races are safer these days. At Catamount most of the drivers know each other fairly well, so there is a basis of trust. But the object is still basically speed plus handling and, when you’re hitting 130 or more on a big track, the aerodynamics of the body.
     And like most sports, stock racing is bound up with nationalistic impulses. That’s why at Catamount, on this clear July night at dead center in the northern NASCAR season, the PA system rasps out Dixie, O Canada and the National Anthem. The big 30 cars are lined up in front of the stands, flags fly and everyone’s standing. It’s the moment before tonight’s main event and the mood is mock-religious.
     The drivers pile into their machines, beginning laps in assigned positions behind the pace car, speeding up gradually, waiting for the flag. IT’S DOWN, and Lindley takes an early lead. Curse you, Red Baron! Soon he’s almost a quarter lap ahead, with Pressley, the Mad Monk, the Dragon-mobile and Dion’s Boss Cat bunched up at the head of the pack. They cruise the oval in a tight pattern. Each driver looks for openings on the straightaways.
     At lap 24 Lindley hits an obstacle: he’s so far ahead that he has caught up with the rear end of the pack. The Mad Monk closes in and Bill Dennis, a southern invader from Virginia, joins the leaders. The Yankees, as usual, are getting the squeeze.
     But Dynamite Dave Dion is on the way. At lap 42 he runs around the Monk; about 30 laps later he overtakes Lindley. Move on, Dion! I sincerely apologize for those sick remarks. You are definitely Grand National material. And Bobby Dragon has clearly put his engine in straight. He’s also showing his rear end to the Monk while Lindley falls back. One of the southerner’s tires is down. Tough cookies. At least one invader is out of the money. Now I’m into it, I’m in the spiral roar.
     Bill Dennis tries to outrun Dion but his engine is failing by the 80th lap. The Boss Cat will not be stopped and the Dragon-mobile is following, not too close, with the Monk still knocking at his back door. But wait...
     Another invader is on the move. Pressley leaves Dragon behind in the 90th lap and practically hooks bumpers with Dion for the remainder of the race. Sparks fly at the corners in the night light until the checkered flag comes down and.... DAVE DION HAS TAKEN THE BUSCH 100.
     By placing second Pressley has regained the national point lead from Lindley. And by holding third Bobby Dragon has recaptured the northern circuit lead. I’ll drink to that, but not with Busch beer.

Is anything revealed at the races? Who knows. It’s just another night of fun and danger for the whole family.
     “It’s more of a sport than a living up here,” says Bobby Dragon. “And it’s a family sport.”
     Why is that? Why are all these people into the races?
     “Well,” he shrugs, “there isn’t a whole lot a family entertainment around here.”
     It’s hard to argue with a winner.  

Author’s note:  Scribner returned 
  for a 1979 follow up... before 
 getting the newspaper banned in Stowe.