Hidden Motives

A look at the hidden factors that really drive our social interactions

America the "Best" and the "Biggest'

"Exceptionalism"

Our need to assert America’s superiority to other nations seems to be getting stronger as the case for it gets weaker and weaker. What’s going on?

Obviously no presidential candidate is going to call attention to the fact that we rank 34th in child poverty rates, just ahead of Romania. Or the fact that we rank 49th in rates of infant mortality. Take the fact that the “land of opportunity” now trails behind most of Europe in social mobility. On the other hand, we excel all other countries when it comes to the number of prisoners behind bars. And our rates of obesity outrank those of other countries, including Mexico.

No one wants to hear this – and, so, no one says it. This is no doubt due, in part, to the universal impulse to shoot the messenger who brings bad news. Yet other countries do seem somewhat better at facing adverse facts. And why do we have to go the extra mile and not just avoid unpleasant facts but also insist on being exceptional? The “most powerful,” the “world leader,” the “best.” 

Certainly part of the explanation has to do with our history as a refuge for the oppressed throughout the world. We recall that priceless heritage, and it has been and continues to be reaffirmed as others seek opportunity here or political and religious freedom, or seek asylum.

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It’s hard to give up that idealization. Even when reality does not quite live up to the hopes aroused, we remain a magnet for many.

And those hopes and struggles are entrenched in individual identities. So many have renounced their ties to their original homelands to settle here and put down new roots. They have vested interests in affirming the new selves they have worked so hard to establish. They do not want to see the flaws or acknowledge disappointment. 

But I think the main reason we continue to insist to ourselves that we are exceptional is our complicity in denying that we have failed to live up to our own promise. It is our big, dirty secret. The intensity and virulence with which we insist on it is in inverse proportion to our conviction in actually believing it is true. 

The evidence for this is the ritualistic nature of the affirmation, the complete absence of any need to justify it – indeed the total absence of any efforts to combat it. 

The presidential campaign shows this again and again. It’s like reciting the pledge of allegiance or the Lord’s Prayer. And the more ritualized it becomes through repetition, the more these acts become like entering a password on our computers to get on the internet.

It’s how we connect.

Ken Eisold is a psychoanalyst and organizational consultant whose book about the unconscious, What You Don't Know You Know, came out in January.

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