Saturday, December 20, 2014

Uncle Sam On The Couch

In my last post, I described an educational clinic located in a poorer part of a large American city. I described the healthy cooperation between the tutors in the clinic and the children who are being tutored, and the contrast between these kids – all of them from low income families, and many of them immigrants – and many Americans. I want to elaborate on that contrast. Therefore, today's post will not be directly about post-Peak education.

I have described these kids as “technicals”, comparing them to the small, nearly indestructible trucks used by some governments and most separatists in developing countries. Just like the trucks, these kids are tough, simple (but not stupid), and easy to fix. Their toughness and simplicity both arise from the fact that they are not full of their own self-importance, but they know that they have to share the world with others, and that this sharing involves saying “Please” and “Thank you” and waiting their turn for things. I contrasted them with Americans (and many other native-born citizens of the First World) by comparing the “First-Worlders” to BMW's, which are called “the ultimate driving machines,” but which are complicated, expensive to own and fix, and which need constant pampering. It can easily be argued that a person who is complicated, expensive to maintain, and in need of constant pampering is probably affected by a personality disorder. I submit to you that America's public face – the face put forward in American mainstream media, the face worn by the wealthiest Americans and the politicians they own, the face worn by many, even among the poor, who sympathize with the wealthy of this country – is the face of someone with a personality disorder. Being personality-disordered has consequences, both for our interpersonal relations and the relations between this country and nations and peoples external to it.

In discussing personality disorders, I will be referring to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The manual is commonly referred to as the DSM-IV. (The APA has published a new edition, the DSM-V, but I think it waters down some key diagnostic points which are pertinent to this post.) According to the DSM-IV, a personality disorder is “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectation of the individual's culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment.” According to Joanna Ashmun, a personality disorder is “a pattern of deviant or abnormal behavior that the person doesn't change even though it causes...trouble with other people...”

What are the marks of America's personality disorder? The DSM-IV describes a disorder characterized by “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy...and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

  1. ...a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love 
  3. believes that he or she is “special” and unique 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, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations  
  6. is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends 
  7. lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings or needs of others  
  8. is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her  
  9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes."
These are the characteristics of the narcissistic personality disorder. There is one other key characteristic that is not in this list. This characteristic is called “scapegoating” or “enemy creation,” and it is usually the outcome of narcissistic rage – the inevitable reaction narcissists have toward those who burst the bubble of their false self-image. Bursting that bubble is surprisingly easy – all one has to do is to contradict a narcissist or assert one's right to exist as a human being separate from, and different from the narcissist. M. Scott Peck writes, “A predominant characteristic...of the behavior of those I call evil is scapegoating. Because in their hearts they consider themselves above reproach, they must lash out at any one who does reproach them. They sacrifice others to preserve their self-image of perfection. Since the evil, deep down, feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that when they are in conflict with the world they will invariably perceive the conflict as the world's fault. Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad. They project their own evil onto the world. They never think of themselves as evil; on the other hand, they consequently see much evil in others...Evil, then, is most often committed in order to scapegoat, and the people I label as evil are chronic scapegoaters....The evil attack others instead of facing their own failures.” (Excerpts taken from People of the Lie, as reposted on Reflections on Cultic Christianity.) (Another note: Jon Krakauer also mentions narcissistic rage in his book Under The Banner of Heaven.)

Over the last decade or two, most who have written about NPD have written of the manifestation and effects of narcissism in interpersonal relationships, especially relationships of romance and family. These writers have been like most writers of poetry and songs in Western pop culture who have devoted the majority of their efforts to writing about the ins, outs, ups and downs of romantic love. Yet it should come as no surprise that the techniques needed to write a good love song can be applied with equal skill to writing a good song about almost anything else. In the same way, a great deal can be learned by studying the ways in which clinical narcissism can affect and motivate not only family dynamics, but the culture and policies of nations.

Therefore the next one or two posts will explore the origins of the narcissistic American national identity, and the way this identity has guided American foreign policy, the treatment of marginalized groups within this country's borders, and this country's response to limits – both its own human limits and the limits to growth imposed by resource constraints. I'll also make a few guesses regarding likely responses of this country to upcoming challenges, and what those responses will mean to its citizens. In attempting to describe the public American persona, I must say that there are many Americans – people from every national and ethnic background – who don't act like they're personality-disordered. However, theirs are not the dominant voices in America nowadays. Also, in laying out a roadmap for my next few posts, I am sure that I've given away enough to enable someone else to beat me to the punch with posts of their own on the same subject. Go for it, if you feel so led.

One last thing.  My assessment will not be patriotic or supportive of the current wars this country is fighting.  Therefore, what I say may cause a few readers to spew coffee on their keyboards.  You've been warned.

1 comment:

Aimee said...

If I were to diagnose the American national character, I would also choose narcissistic personality disorder. I look forward to your posts expounding this theme.