The You Decade
There's a new narcissistic pronoun in town.
I suppose I started to notice it about two or three years ago, when the salespeople at Rite-Aid began wearing dish-sized lapel buttons stating that "YOU are the most important customer I will serve today." It was all wrong, in the same way that a sign hung on a door saying "Back in five minutes" is out of time as soon as it is put in place. It was wrong in other ways, too, since it could be read from some distance (say, from 10 spaces back in a slow-moving line) and thus became an irritant to anyone who could grasp that "they"—or the "we" of this putative "you"—were not really important at all. As in "your call is important to us"—but not important enough for us to supply enough operators to get you out of the holding pattern and the elevator or fasten-your-seat-belt music that comes with it.
The annoying lapel button was soon discontinued, and the bright consultant who came up with it was no doubt promoted to higher things, but "You" retained its centrality. A room-service menu, for example, now almost always offers "your choice" of oatmeal versus cornflakes or fruit juice as opposed to vegetable juice. Well, who else's choice could it be? Except perhaps that of the people who decide that this is the range of what the menu will feature. Fox TV famously and fatuously claims, "We report. You decide." Decide on what? On what Fox reports? Online polls promise to register what "you" think about the pressing issues of the moment, whereas what's being presented is an operation whereby someone says, "Let's give themthe idea that they are a part of the decision-making process."
The next time you see an ad, the odds are increasingly high that it will put "you" in the driver's seat. "Ask your doctor if Prozac/Lipitor/Cialis is right for you"—almost as if these medications could be custom made for each individual consumer. A lawyer or real-estate agent will promise you to address "your" concerns. Probably the most famous propaganda effort of the 20th century, a recruiting poster with Lord Kitchener pointing directly outward and stating, "Your Country Needs YOU," was only rushed onto the billboards when it suddenly became plain that the country concerned needed several hundred thousand recruits in a big hurry and couldn't afford to be too choosy about who it was signing up.
Tourist posters are even more absurd. I saw one once for Cyprus, showing an empty beach with the slogan, "Keep It to Yourself." Probably at least a million of these were printed and distributed, with the result that the hotels on the island blocked out the sun on those unspoiled beaches. (Have you ever seen an inducement for a holiday that showed more than two people on the beach? Jamaica welcomes you—but isn't dumb enough to show you alone on the sand without a girlfriend/boyfriend. It just omits all the other "you"—targets who would otherwise mutate rather swiftly and disconcertingly into "them.")
I can clearly remember the first time I heard the expression y'all, which was at a Greyhound bus stop in Georgia more than 30 years ago. A young black man, hearing my English accent but mistaking my age, told me with exquisite courtesy and solemnity that he greatly admired "the stand y'all"—he actually spun it out all the way to "you all"—"took in 1940." Stirred as I was then, I was stirred and baffled, later, when others in Dixie used "y'all" to mean just myself and not anything plural. But then I heard someone say "all of y'all," which restored the plural to its throne. And that's where I want it to be. As in "you fools," or "you lot," or "you the targets of our latest marketing campaign to make you think it's all about you."
I have just been sent a link to an Internet site that shows me delivering a speech some years ago. This is my quite unsolicited introduction to the now-inescapable phenomenon of YouTube. It comes with another link, enabling me to see other movies of myself all over the place. What's "You" about this? It's a MeTube, for me. And I can only suppose that, for my friends and foes alike, it's a HimTube. It reminds me of the exasperation I used to feel, years ago, when one could be accused of regarding others as "sex objects." Well, one can only really be a proper "subject" to oneself. A sentence that begins with I will be highly solipsistic if it ends only with me, and if the subject is sexual, then the object of the sentence will be an object. Would people rather be called "sex subjects"? (A good question for another time, perhaps.) Or "sex predicates"? Let us not go there.
Perhaps global-scale problems and mass-society populism somehow necessitate this unctuous appeal to the utter specialness of the supposed individual. What you can do to stop planetary warming. How the maximum leader is on yourside. The ways in which the corporation has yourneeds in mind as it makes its dispositions. The candidate who wants to hear yourviews. Or, a little farther down the scale of flattery and hucksterism, come to our completely uniform and standardized food outlet and create your own salad and dessert, from our own pre-selected range of freshly prepared and tasteless ingredients!
So, whatever happened to the Me Decade? The answer is that nothing happened to it. It mutated quite easily and smoothly into a decade centered on another narcissistic pronoun. Which pronoun is that? You be the judge.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.