Hidden Motives

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

Americans' Need to be Number One

Exceptionalism.

We like to think America is exempt from the limitations of other countries, that we are richer, better, wiser, freer. But why is that so important to us?

To be sure, our founding fathers made a fresh start, free from established religion and inherited privilege, with extraordinary rights for individuals and wonderful opportunity. We were weak and poor then, but much of the rest of the world has caught up with us since, and with wealth and power our flaws have blossomed too.

Citizens of other countries have great affection and pride for their native lands, but we don’t hear them boasting of their superiority. It’s not required for their politicians to proclaim they have unique and morally superior destinies. So when surveys or objective comparisons show that we may not be No. 1 in every respect, we recoil. 

That happened again when Nicholas Kristof reported in The New York Times on a new index of “social progress” that ranked us 16 out of 132 countries. The headline was “No, We’re Not No. 1. No We’re Not No. 1.” Kristof knew we would find that hard to accept. 

According to his account: “This Social Progress Index ranks New Zealand No. 1, followed by Switzerland, Iceland and the Netherlands. . . . . The United States excels in access to advanced education but ranks 70th in health, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation and 31st in personal safety. Even in access to cellphones and the Internet, the United States ranks a disappointing 23rd.” (See, Kristof)

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If an individual person had such difficulty accepting facts, we would attribute it to insecurity, an underlying fear he was not as perfect as he needed to believe he was. What can you say about a whole society? Does the explanation lie in our need for some unifying myths or creeds or counter an underlying doubt?

Since America is essentially a nation of immigrants, of people who have migrated here from divergent cultures, all we have in common is our citizenship and allegiance—and the memories of the promises that drove people to come to “the land of opportunity.” Having so many differences among us, perhaps we need a common creed that needs to be affirmed and reaffirmed, an article of faith if not an irrefutable truth.

Moreover, in coming here, our ancestors gave up so much, their languages, native customs, their cultures and their families. Belief in the superiority of their new country may be one of the few things they could all hold onto, especially given the inevitable fact that for many who struggled and sacrificed to make it here, the dream turned out to be not as perfect as it seemed at a distance it was going to be.

The report makes it clear how much things have changed. Kristof writes: ‘Ireland, from which so many people fled in the 19th century to find opportunity in the United States, now ranks 15th. That’s a notch ahead of the United States, and Ireland is also ahead of America in the category of ‘opportunity.’ . . . Germany is 12th, Britain 13th and Japan 14th.”

So, perhaps, this conviction of American exceptionalism is actually a sign of being exceptionally in need of myths and unifying beliefs, exceptionally diverse and uniquely desperate to find common ground on which to stand.

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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