sent to UPI August 19, 2004
American Hubris: A Case for National Arrogance
An op-ed piece for UPI by John Renesch
2004 © John Renesch
Psychologist Carl Jung coined the term “shadow” to describe an aspect of the human psyche that grows darker as it is left unexamined. Usually, it is something the person doesn’t want to “own” so they try to bury it where it festers until it erupts in some not-so-subtle ways. Really successful people, leaders and those used to achieving excellence and great success, often have higher profile “eruptions.” The media is filled with smart successful people turning into aberrations of their “normal” selves.
Looking at the “shadow side” of excellence is applicable not only to people but to groups, including whole nations. The fall of the Roman and British empires can attest to a sort of national or cultural hubris, a quality in the culture or national personality that remained unexamined in a dynamic similar to what has been called “group polarization” or “groupthink” on a very large scale.
This may be happening to the United States of America which has achieved great material success so quickly for such a young nation. Could our “national hubris” be raising its head like it did with the British and the Romans? Psychologists write about how people who achieve great success can start to think their desires will always be satisfied; they get so used to getting what they want that they start expecting it everywhere. Sometimes, they start thinking they must be blessed by God. It is not uncommon for whole cultures who have amassed worldly goods to convince themselves that they are “heaven’s elect.”
All too often material possessions and power substitute for self-worth–whether we perceive ourselves as honest, kind, courageous, humble, loyal, or whatever virtues we claim to cherish. A colleague makes a point that when “self-worth” is tied to “net worth,” people can be condemned to living superficially.
Great success can cloud even the most brilliant minds. An inflated national ego crowds out perspective and good judgment. It is easy to develop a sense of invulnerability that can be dangerous, not only for others but for our own nation.
In his book, The Paradox of Success, author John O’Neil states that the “hyper-achiever sometimes deliberately decides that old friends and associates are no longer good enough, especially if their perceptions of new achievements are not always flattering….A dark side of distinguishing oneself is the risk of isolation and alienation.”
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Since the danger represented by the “shadow” is leaving it unexamined, it could be time for all Americans to look deeply into our souls and do some truth-telling about aspects of our nation and our culture that we may prefer stay hidden. Shining light on whatever darkness we may encounter will make us healthier, far less dysfunctional and allow us to thrive.
John Renesch is a futurist and social commentator who lives in San Francisco. His latest book is Getting to the Better Future.