Politicians and pundits in the United States love to talk about our “national character,” typically in rapturous tones of triumphalism.
Often that character is asserted as a noble force but not defined: Earlier this year, for example, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said our national character — presumed to be benevolent — requires us to be welcoming to legal immigrants.
Other times it must be defended against foreigners who just don’t understand us: Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland last month explained that too many Middle Easterners fall prey to “depictions of Americans routinely raping, killing, firebombing mosques and torturing innocents as a function of national character.”
And sometimes character is political destiny: In New Delhi last month, President Bush proclaimed that “democracy is more than a form of government, it is the central promise of our national character.” Luckily for India, its national character shares the same feature, according to Bush.
Can a nation have a coherent character? If we take the question seriously — investigating reality rather than merely asserting nobility — we see in the U.S. national character signs of pathology and decay as well as health and vigor. What if, for purposes of analysis, we treated the nation as a person? Scan the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (the bible of mental-health professionals, now in its fourth edition) and one category jumps out: Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
DSM-IV describes the disorder as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy” that can be diagnosed when any five of these nine criteria are met:
1. a grandiose sense of self-importance.
2. preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. believes he or she is special and unique.
4. requires excessive admiration.
5. sense of entitlement.
6. interpersonally exploitative, taking advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
7. lacks empathy.
8. often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
Narcissistic tendencies to self-aggrandize are not unique to the United States, of course. But given the predominance of U.S. power in the world, we should worry most about the consequences of such narcissism here.
This disorder is bipartisan, and is virtually required of all mainstream politicians. When the House of Representatives held hearings about the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi declared that America is “the greatest country that ever existed on the face of the earth.” Texas Republican Dick Armey described the United States as “the greatest, most free nation the world has ever known.” With a “grandiose sense of self-importance,” politicians routinely ratchet up the rhetorical flourishes when asserting that the country is “special and unique.”
As for arrogance and haughtiness: When asked at his pre-war news conference in March 2003 whether the United States would be defying the United Nations if it were to invade Iraq without legal authorization, Bush said, “if we need to act, we will act, and we really don’t need United Nations approval to do so.” Bush prefaced that promise to defy international and U.S. law with the phrase “when it comes to our security,” but since the invasion of Iraq had little or nothing to do with the security of the United States we can ignore that qualifier. Here the younger Bush was merely mimicking his father, who remarked in February 1991 as the United States was destroying Iraq a first time: “The U.S. has a new credibility. What we say goes.”
On the Gulf War and “lacks empathy”: On Feb. 13, 1991, U.S. planes hit a bunker in Baghdad. Whether military planners knew it was an air-raid shelter or thought it was a “command-and-control site,” an estimated 300-400 civilians died. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referred to this as “one downside of airpower,” and said the incident led him to discuss with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf the need “to look at the target list a little more closely.” Was the goal of that review to discuss civilian casualties? No, it was to question the efficiency of bombing an already bombed-out Baghdad. In Powell’s words: “I asked questions like, ‘Why are we bombing the Baath Party headquarters for the eighth time? â€¦ Why are we bouncing rubble with million-dollar missiles?’”
Powell, who went on to serve as secretary of state in George W. Bush’s first term, was often referred to as the “dove” of that administration. Perhaps we could call this level of empathy the mark of a “tough dove.”
The unpleasant subject of the current Iraq war brings up “fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance.” Though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently acknowledged mistakes in the current Iraq war — “We’ve made tactical errors, thousands of them, I’m sure” — she made it clear that history will vindicate U.S. officials for making “the right strategic decision” to invade. But that small concession to reality was too much for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who responded, “I don’t know what she was talking about, to be perfectly honest.”
While it’s easy to point at the narcissism of soulless and self-indulgent leaders, this diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder applies to the country as a whole. The belief that the United States is unique — a shining “city upon a hill” — is deeply rooted, and for many has divine origins; 48 percent of Americans believe the United States has “special protection from God,” according to a 2002 survey.
The narcissism of the whole society also is evident in the widespread “sense of entitlement,” defined as “unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.” This is difficult to confront, precisely because it takes root to some degree in all of us and can’t be so easily displaced onto only the most overtly pathological. The vast majority of the U.S. public — by comparison to the rest of the world — lives an extravagant lifestyle that we show few signs of being willing to give up.
We are 5 percent of the world’s population and consume about a quarter of the world’s energy. This state of affairs is clearly unjust, made possible by coercion and violence, not some natural superiority of Americans. Yet the vast majority of the U.S. public, and even much of the left/progressive political community, acts as if they expect this state of affairs to continue. That’s real narcissism, and it’s at the heart of the political problem of the United States. Even if we swept the halls of Congress and the White House clean of every corrupt and cruel politician, the deeper self-indulgence of an affluent culture would be untouched.
Political activism to derail the pathological policies of those politicians must go forward. Critique of the concentrated power of the corporate elites who support those policies is essential. But the critical self-reflection necessary at the collective level also must come home to each of us.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center http://thirdcoastactivist.org/. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .