AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM-Here’s a tiny fact. 300,000 Americans are dead of a preventable lethal illness.
That’s more people than died during World War II — in less time. And still, there are even more, millions of Americans, who don’t appear to care. America is hardly a society pulling together like during a war, to fight a common enemy.
But rewind, even, to a time before COVID. If you’ve read my other articles, you know I often say, “Americans make their kids do active shooter drills, just so they can carry their guns to Starbucks.”
Well, there it is, in the picture above. Gun owners actually organized a “Take Your Gun to Starbucks Day.”
I bring all of that up because there’s a difficult question that needs to be asked these days, and you’re probably — understandably — not going to like it. So let me begin by trying to avoid asking it, because, well, it’s pretty rude.
When the world looks at Americans, it sees people who are really, really different. Weird. Strange. Not right. Something, the world thinks, went badly wrong with these people. Americans creep the entire world out by now, make it shudder, give it the chills. The world knows that there is nobody — and I mean nobody — else in it quite like them. I don’t mean that in a good way. It’s important to say that I’m not being negative — I’m just making a set of observations.
Americans are renowned the entire world over by now for what can only be described as incredible levels of cruelty, brutality, violence, stupidity, and indifference.
Again — that’s just an observation, not my opinion. If you don’t believe me, ask your friends. Go from one corner to the other of the globe, and you will hear much the same perspective, whether it’s in France, Canada, China, or Chile. Americans tend to be seen as bullies and fanatics and maniacs. They are laughingstocks now because they have made fools of themselves. They have too many guns and don’t read enough books. They don’t seem to care about anything but money, power, sex, and fame. Certainly not the world, certainly not anything that matters, like science, literature, art, love, truth, beauty, goodness…not even each other, and by now, not even themselves. Something is not right with Americans. Something is wrong with them.
That is what the world thinks. That is what I hear, day in, day out, from my non-American friends, colleagues — hell, even in casual conversation with the cab driver.
Now, Americans — of the sane and thoughtful kind — will object and say: “But there are many people in the world like that!” And Americans are badly wrong about all that. Most of the rest of the countries in the world in which people live such brutal, violent, and ignorant lives as Americans do are dictatorships, authoritarian states, theocracies, or all three. People don’t seem to want to live that way, in indecency and impoverishment and humiliation, dehumanizing one another, exploiting one another in order to live — they are forced to, against their will. Americans are the only people in the world who choose all that.
And they seem to choose it over and over again. What’s worse, when you point it out to them they freak out. The first kind of American Idiot is the right-winger, who throws a tantrum when you tell them Trumpism was badly self-destructive, especially for them. But the second kind is the “educated” liberal, often with some kind of fine degree, who, when you point out that Joe Biden has no real plan or even desire to give Americans a functioning social contract — decent, affordable healthcare, education, retirement, childcare — throw a tantrum, too.
Americans on both sides choose think they are very, very different, and so America is deeply “divided,” as pundits say. In fact, though, America is remarkably homogeneous. Yes, there are some important differences between both sides — the Democrats aren’t fascists, the GOP puts kids in cages. But neither side — nor the huge numbers of millions who back them — support any of the following: public healthcare, education, retirement, childcare. All those things are what we give people, by the way, when we consider and care about them, when we wish them to live in dignity and peace and grace.
Neither side in America wants to give everyone much of anything. The question which dominates American politics is: how much should we deny people? An extreme amount, or a less extreme amount? How much do we let people suffer intense harm and a stunted life — a massive amount, or a slightly less massive amount.
That is how the entire rest of the world sees it, make no mistake. Every single one of my friends from every corner of the globe thinks this, often in literal terms. They are baffled by America — not just the Trumpists, but also all those “educated” Americans who back exactly the same basic political, economic, and philosophical positions — everyone doesn’t deserve dignity, a decent life, made of basics which are free and abundant for all, because some people are liabilities, and we can’t “afford” those, even though we’re massively rich and powerful. It’s as ugly as it sounds — and it’s every bit as painfully stupid, too.
Americans on both sides are far, far closer to each other than they are to the rest of the rich world when it comes to social, political, and cultural attitudes and preferences. In Canada and Europe, for example, the sentiment above, the basic philosophical position which both sides in America share — nobody in society has inalienable and intrinsic worth, therefore nobody deserves anything for free, which is how Americans on both sides end up voting against public healthcare, retirement, education, childcare, and so forth — is seen as repugnant as it is baffling as it is mindless, thoughtless, immoral, disgraceful, and foolish.
There are indeed Americans who don’t think that. But they are a tiny minority. Maybe 10 or 20% of people are truly disgusted by what their country has become. It’s even true that most Americans say they want those things — but they never, ever vote for them, for example, Liz and Bernie offered, but Dems chose Biden, who offers little to nothing in the way of basics for all. That just makes them hypocrites and liars, who say the right thing to pollsters, and then turn around and vote against it.
What does all that say to you? What question does it raise for you?
Here’s what it makes me ask, and this question is based on hundreds of conversations with friends and colleagues from around the globe in recent months and years, watching America spiral out of control, into fascism, hatred, and mass death.
The question goes like this:
Are Americans psychopaths?
Now, that might make you chuckle because you think I’m trying to make you mad. I’m not. I say that as objectively as I can. Because when I think about what makes a psychopath, it seems to me that Americans are beginning to fit that description altogether too well. And maybe, worse, they always have.
Let’s discuss a few of the most salient traits of psychopaths. They are distinguished by what’s known as being “callous-unemotional.” That is, they don’t seem to feel very much, and they seem to have a striking lack of empathy, lack of regard for others, and “deficient affect,” which means that they don’t seem to be able to handle or have appropriate emotions but stay blank instead.
Isn’t all that a weirdly perfect description of, well, Americans? At least, say, about the half of Americans that you and I know we’re both talking about? Isn’t it…a bullseye? If a baffled world had to choose two words to describe Americans, those two words would indeed be callous and unemotional.
How callous are Americans? They let their kids be shot in school — massacred, perhaps, is a better word — because they think carrying guns to Starbucks is a human right. They make each other beg strangers for pennies online for basic medicine, like insulin, because healthcare isn’t a human right. They put their own kids into “lunch debt,” which becomes “student debt,” which becomes “medical debt.” (As a result, the average American is now impoverished, dying in debt s/he can never repay, and that is how you get to Trumpism, because such people grow frustrated and hopeless, and then erupt in rage, as social bonds break, and old hatreds ignite all over again.) They exploit each other, working “jobs” which basically amount to being billionaire’s henchmen, demanding that their neighbors and colleagues pay their “debts” — which they can’t — or else. They dehumanize each other in every way imaginable, building a culture where pretending to have a perfect life on Instagram is showered with fame. They treat each other like dirt — and then go to weird mega-churches on Sunday and pretend they’re fine and good and moral people.
But that’s just how callous Americans are now.
America’s also the original slave state. Yes, the rich world all had a hand in slavery. But America was different. It literally raided a continent and then shipped slaves across the sea. After that, minorities were segregated. I want you to take a second to imagine the horror of all that for a second. Imagine being an American slave. Ripped away from your parents. Maimed when you tried to “escape.” Treated like a subhuman. Everywhere you went in society, you were less than an animal. Your children and spouse ripped from you. Dying in indignity, part of a genocide that had gone on for hundreds of years.
How callous is a society that? So much so that “callous” is a vast understatement. Words don’t do it justice. Monstrous? Immoral? Horrific? Nightmarish? Holocaust? All those only come close to what America was for centuries.
And yet we don’t see it that way, do we — or at least Americans don’t. Nobody will say: “wow, we must have been psychopaths to inflict centuries of slavery, genocide, hate, violence on people like that. Because only psychopaths could do such a thing.” White Americans will apologize for slavery, in a kind of abstract way — but I don’t know that they really feel it.
That brings me to unemotionality. This part is going to be really, really hard for some Americans to comprehend.
Americans have what I call “the look.” The entire rest of the world knows the look, and people reading this from Europe, Canada, Latin America, Asia, wherever, will instantly know what I’m talking about.
When you talk to (many) Americans about something that requires curiosity, empathy, grace, kindness, intellect — something strange happens. Their eyes go blank. Their jaws lock. Their faces go tight. They are trying to repress feelings. Feelings of rage, resentment, maybe guilt. “Hey!” they’re saying, “Don’t talk to me about this! Don’t make me feel! Don’t make me think! I’ve been told those are bad things. Things that make a person weak. I’m not here to do any of those!”
So what is the American here to do — at least in his own mind, usually unconsciously, sometimes very consciously? “Don’t make me feel! Don’t make me think!! I’m here to make money! I’m here to dominate others. To win a game of status-seeking through conspicuous consumption.
To rub as many others’ noses in the dirt as I can, by having more than them. By the way, when I deny everyone else basics, that helps me win the game of status and supremacy, too. And then going to mega-church on Sunday to pretend all that’s moral, good, and just, and I’m a nice person!”
Some Americans know that intensely — Ivy League kids, who take all that “education” and. . .go to work on Wall St and Silicon Valley, instead of doing a damned thing that matters with their lives. The Beltway pundits in DC, who think “deficits” matter more than human life. The gun nuts who take healthcare away from the ill, who think they are, somehow, ardent believers in Jesus, who’s probably weeping for them right about now.
But most Americans don’t know it. They just know that thoughts and feelings are bad. Intolerable. Things that must be repressed, the more intense and provocative they are. Intense thoughts and feelings are deeply uncomfortable to Americans because they have been taught that anything but conformity, obedience, and submission are dangerous. Do what the boss says — don’t ask any questions — or you might lose that healthcare along with that crap job.
So when you do ask the American to think or feel something, something intense, difficult, challenging, but ultimately rewarding, full of goodness and complexity and human frailty and struggle, they go blank. They give you dead eyes. And either a plastic smile or a clenched jaw.
They are being as unemotional as they can. They are repressing all the feelings, and thoughts which might trigger feelings, because in American culture, those are considered bad, dangerous, difficult, threatening things. You only feel things along with a laugh-tracked sitcom, or a superhero movie you pretend is high art, or some dumb pop song, or maybe sharing some even dumber Instagram post. Americans have been taught to think and feel as little as possible — and most of them don’t know it, which makes perfect sense, because, well, how could they?
And yet that kind of massive emotional-cognitive shutdown is the key trait of a psychopath, too. How do you explain the fact that millions of Americans don’t seem to care…about anyone? About the most insane and brutal kinds of suffering? No, I’m not exaggerating. Kids being massacred at schools. People dying without basic medicine. Elderly people working three jobs, until their dying day.
Fathers foregoing chemotherapy and dying of cancer, so their family can keep their house. And so on.
How do you not feel anything about all that? The natural human response is grief, pain in resonance, and shame, over the injustice of it. Natural — as in, that response has to be blocked. It’s innate in us, in the same a little child will be concerned to see you crying. Something has to go badly, badly wrong for our natural gifts of empathy, concern, care, to become indifference, maliciousness, and willful ignorance. Something active has to happen to us for that human transformation into ugliness to take place.
Let me give you a tiny example. When you live in some American cities, you might have to literally step over people in the streets — they might be passed out, or they might be dead. Who knows? Nobody much lifts a finger. Nobody has time. It’s not normal to care about such people — they’re “liabilities,” after all. But that is so deeply abnormal in any other society — anyone and everyone would stop if someone was lying face down in the street or park, and it would be considered an emergency — that not to care about it would be a sign that something was badly wrong with you. That is how warped America is now. And maybe how warped it’s always been.
Behaviors that would be considered psychopathic in nearly every other country on earth by now are considered normal in America. And the opposite is true, too: behaviors that are considered normal in nearly every other country in the world as so deeply abnormal in America — things like large amounts of empathy, decency, goodness, consideration, care, humanity, enough to, for example, take the position that everyone in society deserves to be free of exploitation and abuse, and live in dignity, meaning basics like medicine and retirement for all — that they are regarded as psychologically dubious and suspicious. “You want everyone to have all those things? What are you, weak? Crazy? I’m not paying for it!!”
There is no doubt that they display the callous-unemotional traits that are the hallmark of psychopathy to such an extreme degree that it really is something very much like psychopathy — like I’ve said, who doesn’t feel anything at watching the dystopian horror show American life has become, made of scenes like school shootings and crowdfunded insulin and kids in concentration camps? The answer is that only Americans don’t. But that also is precisely what makes them something very, very close to psychopaths, if not, by now, the real thing.
Psychopathy takes place when something happens, as I’ve discussed, to block our natural gifts of empathy, consideration, and goodness. True psychopaths are emotionally blocked from birth — as a result of massive trauma or genetics, that debate not yet quite settled. But Americans can’t all be genetically deficient. Instead, what seems to have happened is something like this.
Americans seem to be socialized and acculturated into psychopathy. And that process seems to go like this. You grow up in a culture where extreme brutality and violence are perfectly normal — from school shootings to people just dying without basic medicine. Yes, you may lament at the loss of life, but you don’t really feel the grief, the pain, the injustice, because to do so would be the ultimate weakness. And you’re taught that all that is moral, just, right, and fair. That what’s immoral and unfair and wrong is for the “weak” to be burdens on anyone else. Everyone must stand on “their own two feet” — never mind that that as a moral bedrock rules out everything from decency to civilization to democracy to a functioning modern society. If someone cannot “stand up for themselves”, they are weak, and the weak deserve to perish.
That’s what I was taught at school in America, by the way, in no uncertain terms. The “weak” kids — like me, the frail ones, or the different ones, or the thinkers and poets and artists and intellectuals — were mercilessly picked on by morons with bulging muscles, and the teachers applauded openly, or maybe in secret, smiling as they walked away. You can tell me that it’s “not like that,” but, of course, it is.
American life is one long process of socialization into psychopathy. You go to a preschool and grade school where things like “lunch debt” and bullying and school shootings are normal. You go to college where you learn abstruse theories that justify greed and selfishness and indifference. At those colleges, life is run by “fraternities” — bands of patriarchal brothers bonded together by and for violence to the vulnerable (that’s what hazing is and for, hello.) You get a job, where being abused by your boss — screamed at, demeaned, threatened, bullied — is perfectly normal. If it’s a “good” job, it involves trying to exploit someone else — take advantage of their vulnerability to make more money for you, and here think of healthcare or investment banking or what tech has become.
And if you can’t do any of that — well, you’re the weak one, and you deserve all the punishment and pain you get. So you find someone even more powerless to punch down on, to hate, to demean, so you have someone to punish and be supreme over, just as you have been demeaned and dehumanized all your life long, just like American working-class whites do to Black People and other minorities.
Does that sound about right to you? Or am I way off the mark? You can be the judge of that. I’d like to take a more objective stance than mere opinion.
And when I look for evidence of psychopathy, it’s everywhere in America. From the death penalty to the massive budget for violence — war and prisons and militarized cops — to the trillions spent on making a drone army, while the average American goes without affordable basic medicine. From the school shootings to the shrugging indifference to human suffering the malicious rage and resentment aimed at the slightest display or act of human vulnerability.
And just like a psychopath, America seems to have the same kind of emotional life, too. It’s unable to form social bonds, which is reflected in the fact that trust has collapsed. Relationships are growing nonexistent, reflected in the disintegration of social groups and ties. Hate and rage and indifference aren’t just normal — if you can’t display enough “competitiveness” and aggression and “resilience,” if you can’t dish it out and take it, the pain — well, then, you must be weak, and you don’t deserve to have anything.
America’s an increasingly lonely, desperate, unhappy, embittered place — just like you’d expect a psychopath, or a nation of them, to be.
So, let me ask you again. Are Americans psychopaths? No, not “all of them.” Even a psychopath will feel things once or twice in his life. Not all Americans are anything. But something seems to be badly wrong with enough Americans — a huge, huge number of them, certainly a majority — to have made America a society legendary for its cruelty, brutality, violence, rage, selfishness, and stupidity.
Something has gone wrong with enough Americans that when you ask them to think and feel things, they give you The Look…they go dead in the eyes, their lips lock into a barely hidden sneer, their rictus faces trying hard to conceal their rage…at you. Something has gone badly wrong with enough Americans that the rest of the world is baffled, bewildered, and repelled by their shrugging indifference to shocking levels of human suffering and even death, the embittered way they lash out at vulnerability, hoping to destroy it, even if it means destroying themselves in the process, instead of trying to nurture and protect it. In the way that enough Americans think strength is having bulging muscles and lots of guns and a flush bank account — but not the immense gentleness, courage, empathy, grace, and power it takes to lift others up, especially the vulnerable.
Remember those 300,000 needlessly dead, more than a World War — and how millions of Americans could care less?
Are Americans psychopaths? Here’s my answer, and you probably won’t like it. If they’re not — then what are they?
(Umair Haque writes for Eudaimonia and Co. Posted most recently by Medium.com.) Image Credit: “Gun Owners” Group on Facebook. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.