David Stairs

Sigmund Freud in the parallel universe that is America (Photo credit: Library of Congress/Corbis Historical Collection)

Amid all the loose talk about lost American greatness, there seem to be many people worrying about just what has gone so terribly wrong, as if last year’s withdrawal from the quagmire of Afghanistan was evidence of American weakness, and we really ought to go back to war in Ukraine. I’d like to propose that things have not so much changed as that they have just become “more American.”

There has always been a streak of disagreeableness in America, evidenced by the colonists early and consistently ugly relations with Native Americans, let alone half of the republic being developed as a slave empire. When we talk about American exceptionalism, we should leave room for an addendum about the exceptionally bad behavior we have exhibited throughout our history.

Politically we have been arguing from the outset, and not just with a family of self-indulgent Hanoverian kings. Jefferson spent the 1790s working to undermine Washington, Hamilton, and Adams, eventually succeeding in demonizing the Federalist viewpoint until that party faded away. The notion that we’ve never been more divided than we were under Trump simply is not borne out by our history. Andrew Jackson was as divisive as Trump ever thought of being, and a slave owner to boot. Libertarian attitudes about preserving the freedom to do exactly as one pleases fit neatly into a narrative of states rights, a persistent drumbeat that atomization is better than cooperation, and Republicans are still arguing with federalism two centuries later.

American obsessiveness with “freedom” and gun ownership might have made sense in the 18th century when there was still a frontier and colonists felt oppressed by an uncaring monarchy. But to transfer these values to a continent-spanning 21st century post-industrial society only lends justification to those who would abuse such “rights,” racists and violent fascists— those we fought a terrible war to overcome.

In 1901 Sigmund Freud published The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, an examination of the psychological roots of error. Chapter 5 of this volume of Freud’s work gives us the famous explanation of misstatements, or “Freudian slips.” Writing as a Victorian, Freud considered that many common psychological pathologies stemmed from social repression, especially of a sexual nature. But the psychopathology of American life presents a more complex, and deep-rooted series of challenges.

Sex is not America’s original sin, nor is racism. Violence is. The American national bloodsport, football, would seem an obvious result of this perversion. But an American fascination with all things bent goes far beyond crack-back blocks. Criminals and sociopaths are the stock-in-trade of American entertainment, from the real-life examples of Billy the Kid and Whitey Bulger to serial killers like Ted Bundy and Charles Manson. From out of this deep well our literature is rife with similar characters: Hannibal Lecter, Baron Harkkonen, the antiheroes of Cormac McCarthy and Vince Gilligan. Popular TV series, like Yellowstone or Ozark, celebrate assassination and murder as an everyday commonplace at a level that makes “Who Shot JR?” seem positively tea time.

America has always had an affinity for warped celebrity, and throughout its history has used current technology to elevate the unusual. Mountebanks, like P.T. Barnum, raised media spin to a middlebrow art. Today, it is internet influencers who sling slop in the name of self- and product promotion. YouTube sleuthing the death of Gabby Petito feels less altruistic than capital-intensive when one drops ad revenue from followers onto the balance. Our widespread obsession with luxury, as depicted in much reality TV, employs collective voyeurism in pursuit of vicarious satisfaction. From the foibles of the Royal Family to the hissy fits of the Real Housewives, an average person can only peep with envy.

Some of our celebrities take the form of outrageous scammers like Bernie Madoff, or Elizabeth Holmes. Others are more extreme products of the entertainment industrial complex, people like Carol Baskin and Joe Exotic, or the self-styled German heiress Anna Sorokin. Given their national soapbox, these saponaceous shills sell plenty of suds, washing or brewed. The partnership between shamelessness and hucksterism is deep-rooted in the American character, and has evolved from the evangelical pulpit and patent medicine of yesteryear to today’s style-over-substance Superbowl commercials.

Long before Hollywood was founded, Americans traded in cult of personality fables. An early practitioner was David Crockett, the frontiersman and former congressman who threw in his lot with the rabble who holed up in the Alamo wanting to defend the formation of a slave republic. The silver screen, and later the tube merely extended the typology, our obsession with coonskin caps. We are ever quick to idolize such people, and woefully slow to write the truth about our history.

Americans are also inveterate risk-takers. From oil wildcatting to nationwide casino gambling, subprime borrowing to cryptocurrency farming, as a people Americans have always ached for get-rich-quick schemes. Our captains of industry, the Rockefellers and Carnegies, from Mellon to Musk, have been obsessed with extraction and consolidation, both of natural resources and information. Our inability to collaborate in a coherent way on socially important issues, like climate change or gun violence or Covid, is a symptom of this misguided individualism.

Materialism is bred in American bones. Land speculation is what fueled settlement, as well as fomented conflict with native peoples. The “Great American Pipedream,” whether a log cabin in the forest, or an antebellum plantation manor in the Old South predates and underpins both the 1940s Levittowns and today’s MacMansion gated communities.

Speed and convenience replaced simple satisfaction in the mid-19th century. Time management in our industry paralleled an obsession with timeliness in everyday life brought on by the regulation of the railroads. From a chicken in every pot through to Henry Ford’s dream of putting a Model T in every driveway, so long as it was black, we swallowed the dream of universal affluence, especially for those who could steal it. Vehicle ownership today is not so heavy a burden as home ownership, and device possession is even less onerous. So we arrive at the present state of collective psychosis, where young Americans are glued to their gadgets 24/7, suffering from FOMO, an addiction Freud would have had a field day with.

Our corporations grow feeble on stock buy-backs as CEOs obsess over increasing share price because their bloated bonuses depend upon such malfeasance. The accrual of extreme wealth widens income disparity even as our tendency to greenwash the environmental crisis sets the stage for precarities soon to come. A politicized Supreme Court enables Big Coal to castrate regulation of emissions even before such regulations are in place. What once passed for American Optimism can now only be labeled “American Obliviousness.”

That we will be able to come to our senses and join in a collective effort to reverse the looming disaster seems foredoomed. American Exceptionalism argues against responsibility. The clouds forming on the horizon are an accumulation of current and past sins— violence to our lifeworld. They are the looming compilation of 500ppm of atmospheric CO2— a future 5°F temperature increase— and the inevitable endgame of a people’s blind belief in progress at all costs, our collective in-born slip-of-the-tongue-of-the-mind.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

Comments are closed.