Friday, August 10, 2012

Everyone Wants To Be Me

Speaking at a campaign event in Colorado two days ago, President Obama, in the course of prattling on about all the things America's the best at (weirdly, he didn't mention income equality, social mobility, health care, poverty, basic education, longevity, or literacy, but never mind), also said this:

"And so no matter what the naysayers tell us, no matter how dark the other side tries to make things look, the fact is there is not another country on Earth that would not gladly trade places with the United States of America."  He concluded by saying that all the best things we're going to do will "remind the world why the United States of America is the greatest nation on Earth."

This reminded me of something.  It's called Narcissistic personality disorder.  Symptoms include:
• Reacting to criticism with anger, shame, or humiliation
• Taking advantage of others to reach their own goals
• Exaggerating their own importance, achievements, and talents
• Imagining unrealistic fantasies of success, beauty, power, intelligence, or romance
• Requiring constant attention and positive reinforcement from others
• Becoming jealous easily
• Lacking empathy and disregarding the feelings of others
• Being obsessed with oneself
• Pursuing mainly selfish goals
• Trouble keeping healthy relationships
• Becoming easily hurt and rejected
• Setting goals that are unrealistic
• Wanting "the best" of everything

Given a choice, would you spend time with someone who not only believed he was the best and the greatest, who not only believed that you and everyone else wanted to trade places with him, but who also loudly and frequently insisted on sharing such views with you?  Would you find such a person a good neighbor?  Trustworthy?  Psychologically stable?

On the other hand, Obama did remind his listeners that America is still a young nation, and maybe this is what he meant:  "In children, inflated self-views and grandiose feelings, which are characteristics of narcissism, are part of the normal self-development.  Children typically cannot understand the difference between their actual and their ideal self, which causes an unrealistic perception of the self."

I think America would be better off on every measure if we could focus more on being a good nation and less on being a great one.


Adventure Nickel Farm said...

Unfortunately I have to agree with you. Reminds me of the comments Johnny Depp made about America being a puppy. Which prompted a reaction much like your first bullet point.

Irene said...

All in all, though, there aren't too many other places on earth that have what we have here, the good and the bad, Barry. I sure would not want to go back to where my ancestors left to come here and I'm really glad they sold everything they had to come to America. There's something "wrong" about everywhere. You adjust and make things better. We do keep trying.

Terry said...

America is a movie that the rest of the world watches in the dark.

Comedy, tragedy, pomposity, vanity, absurdity, arrogance,,,, we got it all. But still everyone else in the world watches us, and wants to be here to take part in our collective madness...
I've been in the wilderness of Africa and Asia and seen people gathered around a film projected on a bedsheet, of an America they could not begin to understand in a language they all wanted to learn.
With that kind of adoration, it's impossible not to see ourselves as the center of the universe.
We just dropped a Land Rover on Mars; anyone else even remotely capable of that?

Topio said...

It's a politician in a campaign event willing and able to say whichever he thinks will get him votes.

It does not have anything to do with the fact that he believes this or not or wheter or not those facts are true.

They are sales and marketing, no more, no less.

aleks said...

It is funny that I can pick almost all of the symptoms of the narcissist in Terry’s comment.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks for the thoughts everyone. Irene, not sure what any of that has to do with the notion that all other nations want to switch places with America. Likewise, Terry, certainly there are people abroad who are fascinated by various aspects of America (though I don't think the presence of comedy, tragedy, pomposity, vanity, absurdity, and arrogance sets us apart from any other society), and yes, we have an advanced space program. Are you saying it follows from this that all other nations want to trade places with us? If so, I think Aleks might be on to something...

Javier, yes, but that's just it: the fact that a politician says such a thing to pander in America is extremely telling. In a healthy society, people would either guffaw or be embarrassed at his neurotic bad taste -- or both. Only in America is "Everyone else wants to be us!" an applause line. I can only imagine how bizarre and distasteful it must seem outside the country.

FishNoGeek said...

Yet another insightful post, Barry. Thanks for these -- they're wonderful fodder for my cross-cultural training sessions, not to mention my own musings.

I'm asked regularly about 'the American dream', and I ask other Americans as frequently as I think their responses will be interesting. One of the answers I hear sometimes is "to live in the best country on earth." Most of those good folks don't have a passport and therefore, unfortunately, have zero credibility backing their assertions. That doesn't make them bad folks -- just naive and, as you've said here, narcissistic. I can't blame them much; I drank deeply of the same Kool-Aid growing up here.

At the same time, as you've said in the last line of your comment above, when consumed by the outside world this attitude becomes bizarre and distasteful. I'd go farther: it significantly obstructs business and diplomacy. Being proud talkers makes us poor listeners and impolite guests; it directly erodes goodwill, our 'soft' power, and our negotiating positions.

That said, it's not all bad. I've come to believe that the most prominent features of any culture are double-edged swords: they are at once a powerful advantage and force for good, and also an Achilles Heel. I think our narcissism falls cleanly into that category.

On the one side, a broadly shared sense of confidence engenders risk taking which, sometimes, has resulted in audacious successes -- the moon landing in the 60s, maybe the Mars landing today, and others, perhaps even including victory in the Cold War. I suppose some have been military, although that could (should) be fiercely debated. Our greatest successes have probably been corporate and media-oriented, particularly on the marketing side. But that's another story as well...I digress.

On the flipside, our naive self-confidence leads easily to reckless behavior, both at home and abroad. We don't have to look hard for these examples, if we actually care to look -- and if we're willing to look beyond our own suborned media (enjoyed that post too, Barry). I won't start listing our failures here, lest I *really* digress.

Which list is longer? I'm not sure. I suppose different people's lists might reflect their political biases. But keeping score isn't my point: it's that naive American narcissism is a powerful force both for good and for evil. It isn't just one thing, so we can neither praise nor demonize it. We have to deconstruct it in order to understand it. But here's the irony: once you start picking apart this version of the American Dream, you wake up quite quickly. As soon as you step out of the delusion, it loses some of its ability to do damage -- but also to do good.

I think that might be one of the great fears that gnaws at so many conservatives: that detached academic pondering of America's place in the world which accepts and honestly evaluates external criticism pokes holes in our self-confidence and makes us collectively less powerful. They're right.

But they're only looking at half the picture -- most of them genuinely believe that American Power is always a force for good. I sure did. It was only with great reluctance that I came to understand that we haven't always been saints; it happened while abroad, and it couldn't have happened at home. It wrecked my sense of cultural self for awhile. But people in the rest of the world didn't grow up in the American cocoon where it's possible to buy into mass narcissism. It's quite clear to them that our power does both some real good and great evil.

What was it that Goethe said? "There is nothing more dangerous than ignorance in action." What is narcissism other than delusion and ignorance? Yes, our American power base is slightly weaker because I've stopped believing. So be it.

Our Man in Abiko said...

Good stuff, Mr Eisler. Your post reads like a sane version of the rant the anchorman chap in The Newsroom rattled off. Sorry, didn't catch his name as I was aboard a United Airlines flight at the time which was busy telling its customers how proud it was to ferry the American Olympic team for the last 30 years. But I hasten to add it was a flight to the United States, a country I do consider to be the best in the world at a great many things, not least pizza restaurants, show business (I(d just finished re-watching my favourite in-flight movie- Dr Strangelove) and craft beer establishments. But I doubt these truly great things were quite what Mr. Obama had in mind.

I don't think Japan, where I live, would gladly change places with America, nor Great Britain, where I'm from, though both have a great deal they could improve about their domestic pizza production, if they would only lose their arrogance and accept that other countries are better than them at some things at least.

Carry on.

T. B. Back said...

The most grating experience when you're a foreigner living in the U.S. is the combined patriotic narcissism and the utter ignorance about the quality of life anywhere else.

If the U.S. truly was the land of opportunity, wouldn't the Irish still pour in? The semiannually depressed Scandinavians? What about those fiscal rascals of Greece?

Japan, where I spent close to a decade, has a very similar obsession with everything Japanese and its innate superiority. But at least regular folks there can tell the difference between Moldavia and Mali.

On the other hand, transients like myself owe it to speak up once in a while, narcissistic retaliation or not.

Maybe it is possible to call out nationalistic nonsense respectfully if I keep in mind that my traveling itch owes no small due to the narcissistic pinheads back home?

R.J. Chastain said...

Over and over again I hear politicians and people spouting about the "greatness" of America, and how we are some how a "support" nation...

This thinking is not only flawed on many levels, but serves nothing on the long term except an ego that causes ignorance.

We all share one home. We can't, no matter how much America wants us to be, seperate from the rest of the world.

We are a global mind now. There is no seperation other than illusions created by egos and ignorance.

It's time we wake up and start fighting for humanity and nature rather than countries and idioligy.

Great peice brother.

petersmith said...

i really appreciate your sharing, America would be better off on every measure if we could focus more on being a good nation and less on being a great one.

Pawn Gold