How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Tragic Delusion of American Exceptionalism, Superiority Complex and the Nature of Reality

“Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak, When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound, When majesty stoops to folly.” – Kent to King Lear

On Friday night, my husband and I were very lucky to acquire a couple of tickets to see Bill Maher in Asheville. Anybody who is familiar with Mr. Maher’s particular kind of political and cultural satire knows he certainly doesn’t pull any punches but somehow makes the insanity of our American reality funny, at least for the few minutes one is listening to him. During his two hour monologue, Maher brought up (among other things), the popular American delusion of exceptionalism.

I had been thinking about American delusions a lot lately after reading American Fascists by the brilliant Chris Hedges, then reading an article on Alternet, then seeing Maher in Asheville. Last but not least, a blogger friend Gail raised the subject on her blog yesterday morning. The web of unreality being deliberately spread by some and greedily consumed by others appears to have finally matured enough to crave exposure to the light of day.

As Maher points out, most Americans subscribe to the theory that the United States is the most outstanding country on Earth. National pride is one thing, but pride based on falsehoods is foolhardy. In King Lear, a vain king bases the extent of his daughters’ dowries on their protestations of love for him. The eldest two, butter him up for maximum profit, but the youngest, Cordelia, speaks truth to her father, and for this, she is disowned. As the tragedy ensues, it becomes evident that Lear has a problem with constructive criticism. He cannot be at all objective about his own shortcomings and banishes all who in earnestness question his actions. In typical Shakespearean tradition, he realizes his folly after it is too late. The moral of the story: blind submission and protestations of greatness do not greatness make.

America is exceptional, but unfortunately, not exceptional in ways that would evoke admiration from the rest of the world. Here are a few of the ways the United States is exceptional:

• We have the highest healthcare costs in the world, yet the World Health Organization ranks our healthcare system at 37th, behind Costa Rica, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Chile to name a few.
• Among developed nations, the United States has the highest income inequality.
• We have the highest per capita carbon footprint.
• We rank among the countries with the highest percentage of circumcised men (odd trivia).
• Among developed countries, we have the highest rate of obesity and diabetes.
• We have the highest murder rate in the civilized world and the highest imprisonment rate on Earth (almost three times the nearest competitor on this one).
• We spend more on the military than all the other countries on Earth combined (all other stats here).

In spite of how life seems for the average American at the moment, the United States is still the wealthiest country on Earth, which is a sad testament given many of the above statistics. Americans have a lot to be thankful for, but we also, clearly, have a lot of work to do if we aspire to be the greatest nation on Earth.

“The superiority complex is one of the ways which a person with an inferiority complex may use as a method of escape from his difficulties. He assumes that he is superior when he is not, and this false success compensates him for the state of inferiority which he cannot bear. The normal person does not have a superiority complex, he does not even have a sense of superiority. He has the striving to be superior in the sense that we all have ambition to be successful; but so long as this striving is expressed in work it does not lead to false valuations, which are at the root of mental disease.” – Alfred Adler (the psychoanalyst who first defined the superiority complex)

The whole concept of American exceptionalism begs the question, “Why do some Americans need to feel superior to everyone else?” Isn’t this kind of comparative analysis a bit juvenile? Americans running around saying “We’re number one, we’re number one,” in spite of some very sad evidence to the contrary is like little kids fighting on the playground over who can spit the furthest. Like King Lear, the apparent need for some Americans to feel superior to everyone else points to an inherent inadequacy. Adler’s definition of the pathological superiority complex is telling. Who are the Americans that are fanatical about American Exceptionalism?

There is no doubt that many Americans are exceptional, but they aren’t the ones going around with a superiority complex on their shoulders. Most of those spouting “USA, USA,” have actually never even set foot inside a foreign country and therefore don’t have any first hand experience or knowledge of whether America is exceptional or not. And while the United States has enjoyed a certain set of variables (for example a wealth of natural resources thanks to the fact that our predecessors, the First American People left them intact) and a bit of good fortune that has allowed us to develop a ridiculous military and economic hegemony, this hegemony in no way implies superiority.

In a recent blog post, I touched on the speciest concept of human exceptionalism. Perhaps not coincidentally, the same demographic that subscribes to the idea that Homo sapiens is superior to all other life forms also suffers from a superiority complex when it comes to nationalism. These people are obviously compensating for their own inadequacies and mediocrity. For those deluded souls, no amount of logic or reason will sway them from their steadfast pathological ideals. It is also not surprising that among this same demographic are those who would deny basic civil liberties to immigrants, gays and any others they determine are inferior to themselves.

Unlike the self confidence that emanates from real accomplishment, a superiority complex is a pathology that in no way reflects any genuine supremacy of the person who demonstrates it. On the contrary, the superiority complex is usually a classic cover up for what is lacking or inadequate.

With the Tea Party movement in full swing, religious fundamentalism on the rise, and Donald Trump vying for the leading position as Republican candidate for President, it becomes painfully obvious that an increasingly large proportion of the American public are having difficulty with the concept of reality. To a psychoanalyst looking in from the outside, perhaps this is not surprising. As day to day life for the average American gets steadily worse (while the elite get wealthier), the diminished and impotent masses cling to their delusions of grandeur.

“How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” – Abraham Lincoln

As Americans march blindly forward to the 2012 Election Day, subscription to American exceptionalism is taking on a new fervency in right wing circles. Newt Gingritch’s new book is entitled A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters. Fundamentalist Christian wingnuts believe that America is God’s chosen land and that Americans have a divine mandate to rule the world in the name of Jesus. The fallout from the contaminated ideology is infecting Democrats as well. All candidates give the concept lip service. After all, who would elect someone who didn’t openly spew the mantra that America is “the greatest nation on Earth?” But within the worn-out shpeel of American hubris lies the seeds of timeless tragedy sown by all Western Civilization’s empires, and their inevitable declines shine a ray of light on a reality that most Americans would rather not see.

Given the state of the world right now, The United States does not need obedient sheep stoking the fires of an overinflated mass ego. Sure we can bomb the crap out of anybody who pisses us off, but this is not a quality that should foster fanatical nationalism. Hitler demanded a similar compliance from his citizens and look how that turned out. Like King Lear, the United States needs citizens of true patriotism who like Lear’s youngest daughter, will stand up and speak truth to power. If we don’t get our act together soon, a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions surely awaits us.


  1. Thanks killing Mother. I have been thinking about this for some time as well. Let's just say, the Fourth of July is now just another day on the calendar. I cannot continue to celebrate America's "greatness" when we are responsible for so many crimes against humanity, both here and abroad.

  2. Is American exceptionalism -- the cult of the nation -- akin to a religion? This article may throw some light on that:

  3. Another great link mijnheer. I often wonder why the United States, a country founded on the ideals of the Age of Reason, tends to be so easily swayed by articles of faith, both patriotic and religious. Our neighbor to the north seems to have excaped the same predicament.

  4. Great article... I'm glad I found your blog today!

  5. so what are your sources for saying this...? highest incrimination rate on earth???? i just truly wonder how you got to that conclusion..

  6. Anonymous, "Incrimination?" All stats are cited with links above. Click on the highlighted words.

  7. Thank you for this, killing Mother. I have so much to say about the subject of "American exceptionalism" that I'm not sure where to begin. Should I start with Plymouth Rock? Thanksgiving? Columbus? Lewis and Clark? Manifest Destiny (which shows that both legacy parties have been in on it together since the beginning but now has been turned upside down)?

    I guess I'll begin with a boring old lecture by Howard Zinn. You and I will be the only ones watching this, Mother, but that's okay I guess.

  8. tsisageya, I am glad to see your are alive and well after the drama and tragedy of yesterday's storms. I was a bit worried about you. I am currently reading your recommendation "The Earth Shall Weep," and I am hoping to write about it very soon. The perspected presented in this wonderful book should be taught to every kid in the Americas, but sadly, they are taught the falsehood of exceptionalism instead. I love Zinn. Thanks for the link.

  9. killing Mother, thank you. You are so sweet. The bad weather sidestepped us here in Montgomery. We had some wind but very little rain. I'm happy that you're reading "The Earth Shall Weep" and can't wait to read what you say about it. The Zinn talk is long but I don't really think it's boring. What a guy.

  10. I'm watching Howard Zinn in that talk again and it's come to my mind what Jesus said about patting yourself on the back and thinking yourself number one (that is, American exceptionalism).

    One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from dropsy. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him away.

    Then he asked them, “If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?” And they had nothing to say.

    When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

    12Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

    So I see that many folks who call themselves Lambs are really Wolves in sheep's clothing.

    (I've always hated that analogy since I happen to think that wolves are ultra-awesome, but still I guess it makes a point.)

  11. Tsisageya, Thank you for your contribution above. You (and Jesus) make an excellent point. Has anybody ever impressed anyone by acting prideful? I think not. Exceptional people do not need to place themselves above others. Instead, they lift others up to meet them.

  12. killing Mother, I've never said this before but have you ever thought about maps? Maps with their lines and boundaries and reports of who dies where in a tornado, for example? Robert Frost says that fences make for good neighbors. Maybe he's right, but I hate the fences of maps. I love those maps that have no black lines or names, though they are rare to find.

    I say this to say that Tuscaloosa, Alabama (and others) was hit by a terrible tornado recently. I didn't mean to make light of it by saying that Montgomery got sidestepped. I guess I just didn't want to bring it up.

    My sweet daughter has thrown herself into the volunteer effort to help those afflicted in Eclectic, Alabama.

    I just didn't want you to think that I don't care about it---or anything else for that matter.

    Please don't feel as if you have to respond. I just wanted to get that off my chest.

  13. Very well said. I appreciate your thoughtful post!