The Narcissism of Great Powers

This last week I read an article in Slate about how as much as 6% of our population has NPD, or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and rates for our children may run as high as 10%. I also listened to one of the Sunday morning talk shows where three prominent politicians went on and on about how great America is and how we'll come through this economic crisis better then we were before. Essentially they said we should all adopt the position of the thief on the cross next to Brian in Monty Python's The Life of Brian and "Look on the bright side of life" simply because we're American and we've got this great history which dictates our invincibility. I found myself wondering, without that history, did the founding fathers believe that Americans could weather any storm by the simple virtue of their nationality? In contrast, did the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, The Romans, the French, the Dutch, the Spanish, and the British all go through periods late in their empires where their leaders told them they needn't worry about looming disasters simply because of their countries' respective histories? And, if so, is it likely that, had the diagnosis been available, some 10% of those countries' populations might have suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Now, for the record, I'm not saying the American Empire is doomed. Or, to be more specific, I'm not saying it's necessarily doomed quite yet. Maybe we've got another three hundred years left in us, maybe a thousand. But empires come to an end. If we're going to take heart from the history of America's rise to prominence, we have to temper that with a recognition that history also teaches us about the inevitable demise of empires.

More specifically, if our own history is going to tell us we're great, it should tell us why. If America rose to become the global super-power because of its people's industry, I fail to see how narcissism will take the place of hard work. Personally, I'd like to believe that what has made the United States special are our ideals of liberty, our respect for law, and our progressivism. These seem to be the forces which called people from all over the world to cross oceans to become Americans. If this reading of history is correct, then looking on the bright side of life will not make up for a bullying foreign policy, the use of torture, or the doctrine of preemptive war. Too many of us have become too fearful; we're afraid of everything from terrorism to immigration to socialized medicine to stem cell research to gay marriage. William F. Buckley, the father of modern conservatism, famously described the job of modern conservatives as standing "athwart history, yelling, 'Stop!'" If "Stop!" is our only answer to this crisis, or if that is only qualified with Bill Kristol's advice to Republicans, "Obstruct and delay," then the past victories of the United States will not compensate for our current intellectual and moral weakness.

I take no joy in watching the people of my country suffer, regardless of their political stripes. Schadenfreude quickly comes to an end in times like these. But where derision provides no solace, at least there's the consolation of this accidental camaraderie. I'm at that age when a person discovers that his favorite athletes are younger than he is, that he is now older than some of his favorite musicians were when they killed themselves in one way or another, and that some of his dreams might be just as dead as those rock stars. I take a perverse comfort in the fact that life tries to beat some measure of humility into individuals and nations alike. Whether we prefer our comeuppance in spoonfuls or inundations, the universe gives us our medicine in the quantities it sees fit.