Williamsburg: Spiritual Home of the “Yunnie”?

2012 September 25
by Ando Arike

Whenever I venture forth onto Bedford Avenue these days, I’m continually shocked and awed by the demographic sea change that’s swept Williamsburg in the last decade—most dramatically in the past half dozen years, when large swaths of the neighborhood were rezoned from industrial to residential, spurring a huge building boom and influx of new residents. “Who are all these annoying young people?” I ask myself, fighting my way through the throngs of oblivious text-messagers, the coffee shop poseurs, the tiny designer dogs and their fawning owners, the tourists strolling five abreast, forming roadblocks every ten yards while they consult Google. Who are these people, so united by bourgeois homogeneity: white skin, youth, trust funds, high disposable incomes, and a profound sense of personal entitlement?

No, not “hipsters”—although many of the traits just listed might also apply to hipsters (a vague and elusive species, which may now be extinct.) But most hipsters made an obvious effort to flaunt their alleged “individuality” through tattoos, kooky retro clothing, and a snarky sense of irony. On the contrary, the bright and shiny young people clogging Bedford Avenue these days seem more or less interchangeable—citified versions of the twenty- and thirty-somethings crowding upscale suburban malls in Fairfield or Westchester or Morris County—lots of smooth, well-groomed, -coiffed, and -clothed surfaces, but an almost eerie sameness. This herd-like homogeneity, however, belies an acute, almost hysterical sense of “specialness” and “entitlement” common to all—each is the brightest star in a galaxy that revolves around her.

According to the theory of Jeremiah Moss, proprietor of the popular blog Vanishing New York, these people may be “yunnies” i.e., “Young Urban Narcissists”—his neologism for a demographic cohort he sees replacing the “yuppies” of yore, who were the first wave of gentrification after New York’s dismal years of bankruptcy and breakdown in the Seventies. But whereas the yuppies were a socio-economic category (Young Urban Professionals) Moss conceives of “yunnies” as a characterological type, distinguished by symptoms of pathological narcissism. Sure, monied backgrounds may help to encourage narcissism, but it’s not vital to the development of the type; I imagine we might find “yunnies” among the hierarchies of the Crips and Bloods, for instance.

“But isn’t narcissism literary and Greek?” you may be asking.  Well, there is, of course, the ancient Greek myth of the handsome young man who fell in love with his reflection in a pond, and unable to tear himself away, died pining after his own image: a wistful and innocent—if metaphorically powerful—story. What I’m talking about here is a bit nastier — the “narcissistic personality disorder” described by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), whose victims can range from mildly annoying to wildly sociopathic (think Ted Bundy). Let’s turn to the DSM-IV and see how it characterizes these people; maybe we’ll see someone we know.

According to the DSM-IV, a person with “narcissistic personality disorder” is characterized by exhibiting at least five of the following:

1. An exaggerated sense of self-importance—i.e. grandiosity (exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

2. Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

3. Believes he is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

4. Requires excessive admiration

5. Has a sense of entitlement

6. Selfishly takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends

7. Lacks empathy

8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him

9. Shows arrogant, haughty, patronizing, or contemptuous behaviors or attitudes

“But wait,” you’re thinking—“forget about the ‘yunnies’! Doesn’t this describe the Modern “Ugly American”? Isn’t this the face we present to the rest of the world via our foreign policy and our media productions? Isn’t this how our TV shows and Hollywood movies teach our children to behave? Don’t we celebrate and obsess over people like this? Don’t we elect them to high political office? Don’t we make them rich? Does this mean that the U.S. is sociopathic?”


What I’m getting at is this: if the pathological narcissist is an iconic American character type—a mutant of yesteryear’s “rugged individualist”—then what better place for these types to congregate than in the financial and media capital of the U.S. Empire? What better place to suckle the teats of grandiose greed and mendacity than the lair of Wall Street and Madison Avenue? New York City has become over the past three decades a perfect spiritual home for narcissistic personality disorder—just as the Empire’s body politic has come to wear this disorder as its public face, its persona.

Consider the term Manifest Destiny. Though we rarely hear this in our political discourse anymore, the concept is still central to the American ideology: we are the “exceptional nation”; we are the “indispensible nation”; we are a “shining city on the hill.” Every politician at the recent Republican and Democratic conventions mouthed these notions as though on autopilot—loudly seconded by the delegates on the convention hall floor, who burst into chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” at the merest twitch from the podium. And, of course, the loudest chanting was saved to celebrate the famous commando raid in which several dozen highly-trained Navy SEALS stormed a shabby house in Pakistan to summarily execute an infirm and unarmed middle-aged man in his pajamas and then dump his body at sea—according to President Obama “a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people…we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.”

It’s this selfsame grandiosity we see echoed on an individual scale by the ubiquitous “yunnies” shouting into cell phones, proclaiming to everyone within earshot their importance—the drama and cosmic urgency of their lives and their every word—whether it’s about a tragic romance, an earth-stopping business deal, or a dispute over a grocery list… It’s the same grandiosity our upscale marketers exploit to flatter us with continual appeals to our “uniqueness,” our “world-class” taste, our “drive for excellence”… The same grandiosity encoded in “iPhones,” “iPads,” “iPods,” “iTunes,” “iPhoto”—“I shop therefore I am.”

Alas, New York City was once a place where we came to get away from America…

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  1. 2012 September 27
    rightbank permalink

    Sarah Schulman again (THE GENTRIFICATION OF THE MIND):

    As artist Penny Arcade wrote in her 1996 performance piece “New York Values,” “bohemia has nothing to do with poverty or with wealth. It is a value system that is not based on materialism…. There are people who go to work every day in a suit and tie who are bohemian and will never have a bourgeois mentality like the loads of people who graduate from art school and are completely bourgeois…. There is a gentrification that happens to buildings and neighborhoods and there is a gentrification that happens to ideas.”

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