This paper addresses the intersection between the analytic couch and a society bent on global dominance. I begin by identifying cultural, social, and political forces that support the internalization of an empire identity. Four key characteristics of an empire identity are described prior to portraying the psychological dynamics and defenses that are implicated in maintaining an empire identity. Finally, I indicate why it is difficult to recognize the presence of an empire identity in psychoanalytic practice as well as why it would be important to do so.
We are an attractive empire…. Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets. (Max Boot, in Chalmers, 2004, p.70)
[T]his country [is] devoted to the death of paradox…. (James Baldwin, 1955, p.21)
“These (American values) are God-given values. These aren’t United States-created values.” “We will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of our great nation.” (George W. Bush quoted in Ryn, 2003, p.7)
Despite warnings from a number of writers (e.g., Alstyne, 1960; Perkins, 1962; Fish, 1978), Cold War rhetoric shielded the general public from the reality of U.S. economic and military policies that were aimed toward the creation of an American empire. Since the election of George W. Bush in 2000, there is growing public awareness and, in many cases, outright public acceptance of the United States status as an empire  (Chalmers, 2004; Chomsky, 2004), though this is couched in altruistic and paternalistic rhetoric (West, 2004). Often missed in the discourse regarding the U.S. government’s empire policies is the internalization of a collective identity (empire identity), which is necessary for both overt and tacit support of these policies. This social or group identity, like any identity, comprises particular attitudes, values, beliefs, and aspirations that are imperceptibly internalized in countless ways through social discourse, media, and rituals (Kaplan, 2002). Indeed, it would be very difficult to grow up in the United States without ascribing to an American identity, of which empire identity is a subset. Even if one is staunchly opposed to any policies and actions aimed toward global dominance, attributes of this empire identity remain within each of us. This is analogous to Americans growing up in a racist culture, which means that even if we abhor racism we are nevertheless tainted with its brush.
In the realm of psychoanalysis, there have been voices that recognize that the couch is not sequestered from the vagaries of the larger societal systems that shape the psyche. Fromm (1947), Adler (in Hoffman, 1994), and Sloan (1996) remarked on the problems of capitalism, Kovel (1970, 2000), Altman (2000), Cushman (1995), Straker (2004), and Suchet (2004) have identified the gossamer threads of racism in analysis, Chodorow (1989) and Benjamin (1988, 1995) have attended to patriarchy and how it shapes female subjectivity, and Samuels (1993, 2004), Sloan (1996), Walls (2004), and Botticelli (2004) note the relation between the psyche and the political realm. There are shared tenets in this tradition of critical analysis of social systems. First, there is a correlation between the larger social-cultural systems and a person’s individual identity and behavior. Put another way, parents reproduce the culture vis-à-vis their children, suggesting that family space and cultural space are inextricably linked (Coontz, 1988; Mintz and Kellogg, 1988). Second, the unconscious is shaped not simply by the so-called drives, but also by social symbolic forms of communication. Third, the patient’s suffering and psychopathology are not divorced from the vicissitudes of the economic, political, and social realms. Indeed, the overemphasis on the individual’s neurosis and its source in childhood can divert our attention from societal sources of the patient’s suffering (Sloan, 1996). Fourth, the failure to recognize the first three tenets can result in the collusion with oppressive systems.
A great deal of this literature focuses on how the various systems of thought and practice (e.g., economic, political-patriarchal, institutionalized racism) within a society contribute to a patient’s experiences of oppression as well as transference-countertransference dynamics and enactments. For example, Cushman (1995) wrote that therapists need to “entertain the realistic possibility that political structures can be the causes of personal, psychological distress” (p.337). This is to be expected. What is not addressed are those instances when analyst and patient are part of a system and social identity that are connected to economic, political, and military policies and actions aimed toward global dominance. There are three implications. First, analyst and patient may unwittingly overlook their collusion and, perhaps, their suffering or distress in relation to the larger social system and social identity, which they tacitly accept. Second, an aim of psychoanalysis is to recognize and take responsibility for one’s role in human affairs, which accompanies an increase in agency and freedom. Awareness of one’s political beliefs and behavior suggests an invitation to greater freedom and responsibility vis-à-vis the routine decisions one makes in the political realm (Samuels, 1993). This said, I have little interest in increasing the analyst’s or patient’s guilt, though I question whether we are to analyze and claim only the distress to ourselves while avoiding the suffering of those “others” who suffer from expansionist policies. Are we to claim and analyze only the distress of the consulting room, overlooking complicity—my own and the patient’s—in economic and political actions that disrupt not simply psyches, but entire societies? Third, the relative absence of analysis of the long history of U.S. economic and military expansionist policies, which are, at their core, anti-democratic, conflicts with the more egalitarian and democratic features of relational analysis (Mitchell & Harris, 2004). I liken this incongruity to a cultural parapraxis worthy of attention.
In this article, I define and identify the characteristics of an empire identity and point to cultural, social, and political forces that support the internalization of this identity. I then describe some of the psychological dynamics and defenses associated with maintaining an empire identity. In addition, I indicate why it is difficult to recognize the presence of an empire identity in psychoanalytic practice as well as why it would be important to do so.
Sources and Characteristics of an Empire Identity
Chalmers (2004) argued that the Spanish-American War  inaugurated American imperialism, though roots of American imperialism are also linked to both the Monroe Doctrine of 1823¸ which rationalized numerous interventions in South America and the Caribbean, and the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny, which sanctioned violence and the expropriation of land from Native Americans and Mexicans. U.S. expansionism was not confined to this continent, but extended deep into Asia. At the turn of the 19th century, Secretary of State John Hay issued the Open Door Notes that dealt with the recognition of Chinese territorial integrity, but, more importantly, established the American right to the same expansionist, economic privileges that European countries had (Bacevich, 2002). These Notes yoked economic expansion to the rhetoric of political liberty and democracy, which has been a key feature of U.S. interventionist foreign policies to this day (Lundestad, 1990).
The height of intellectual justification for American imperialism, Chalmers argued, could be found in Woodrow Wilson’s “hyperidealistic, sentimental, and ahistorical idea that what should be sought was a world democracy based on the American example and led by the United States” (p.51). Ronald Reagan continued this legacy, saying, “I have always believed that this anointed land was set apart in an uncommon way, that a divine plan placed this great continent here between two oceans to be found by people from every corner of the earth who have a special love of faith and freedom” (quoted in Lundstead, 1990, p.17). Reagan merely echoed Wilson’s belief in the U.S.’s global mission to democratize the world and bring about the “ultimate peace of the world” (Chalmers, 2004, pp.47-48). The religious triumphalism of the Bush administration’s moral justification for military interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere (Ryn, 2003) is the most current illustration of democratic evangelism and the transcendence of free market fundamentalism.
Lest one think that theo-political speech comes only from Republicans, Democrats have also believed in the special or divine mission of the U.S. Bill Clinton, for example, viewed the end of the Cold War as “the fullness of time” and the U.S. as an “indispensable nation” (Bacevich, 2002). Like previous administrations, the Clinton administration yoked economic expansion to political freedom, though the rules of the marketplace and the new freedoms would, not surprisingly, be used to the advantage of the U.S. (Bacevich, 2002; Chalmers, 2004).
While the roots of American imperialism are in the soil of the 19th century, the period after WWII saw an exponential increase in American imperialistic power and influence throughout the world (Lundestad, 1990). The policies of containing Soviet expansionism provided American political leaders the justification for interventionist actions or to position troops and weapons wherever they believed the Soviets might be a threat (e.g., Europe, Turkey) or where they believed Communists were trying to infiltrate a sovereign country (countries in Latin and South America). One might think that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the end of the so-called Cold War, the U.S. would find sound reasons for deconstructing its military industrial complex, reduce its military presence in foreign countries, and discontinue covert or overt interventions. This was not the case. While there was some reduction in U.S. military forces and there were some base closures (notably, Clark AFB), there was neither a significant decline in military power nor evidence that the U.S. expansionist policies changed (Bacevich, 2005). Indeed, the fact that there are approximately 725 known American military bases in 38 foreign countries and over 254,000 military personnel in 153 countries is clear evidence of the continued intentional reach and influence of the United States throughout the world (see Chalmers, 2004, p.154). A more sobering fact, raised by a presidential blue ribbon commission, is that “since the end of the Cold War, the United States has embarked upon nearly four dozen military interventions…as opposed to only sixteen during the entire period of the Cold War” (quoted in Bacevich, 2002, p.143). One cannot have and maintain an empire without military force to ensure its survival.
American expansionism is supported by the religious-mythic narratives  that proclaim America’s special role in the world and in history. These grand narratives of American exceptionalism, which may be characteristic of any empire (e.g., Roman, British, Spanish), are used by politicians, the media, and many citizens to give meaning, purpose, and understanding to domestic and foreign policies and actions. For example, Reagan, in his farewell speech, said, “We meant to change a nation, and instead, we changed a world. Democracy, the profoundly good, is also the profoundly productive. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.”  Clinton’s “indispensable nation” and, more recently, George W. Bush’s assertions of America’s “God-given values” (quoted in Ryn, 2003, p.7) are further illustrations of the presence of religious-mythic narrative in American culture. These political leaders, like many Americans, deeply and, I suspect, unquestioningly believe in the special role of the U.S. in the world. Their zeal and rhetoric embodies the collective cultural myths that mix the sacred with the secular.
Religious-mythic narratives of America’s divine mission in world history are part of and support an American identity of which an empire identity is a subset. No doubt there are many ways to describe this empire identity, but I will settle on identifying four characteristics of an empire identity that are dependent on these religious-mythic narratives. The first feature one notes in these narratives is the illusion of American altruism—the belief that we are motivated by our unselfish devotion to help others. In writing about racism, James Baldwin (1955) noted that “Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, into a proud decoration” (p.31). We do this not only in relation to the hard truths of racism, but also by telling and re-telling the myth in our goodness, in our divine chosenness to spread freedom, democracy, and free market capitalism throughout the world. Even in the prosecution of just wars, Americans find it difficult to confront and take responsibility for the horror inflicted on enemy populations (e.g., fire bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, and many other cities; dropping atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima), because to do so would challenge the mythic belief in our essential and exceptional goodness. The presence of this illusion of altruism can be seen in the Newsweek cover, Why Do They Hate Us, which appeared after 9/11. Notwithstanding the pain and suffering of 9/11, the cover reveals the underlying myth of altruism in the midst of shock and fear. In other words, the disbelief in the question presumes innocence (How Could They Hate Us would be a more apt title), which I argue is inextricably yoked to the mythic narratives that support an unquestioned belief in the goodness of American intentions and actions throughout the world.
All of this is not to gainsay the good that Americans have done in helping other countries through government programs and U.S. NGOs. However, belief in our altruistic motives is not identical to aid offered to other countries. The offer of U.S. assistance is and has been mixed with other political, economic, and strategic motives, which is understandable and expected. The illusion of American altruism involves elevating the belief in our unselfish devotion and motivation, crowding out other perspectives and motives. This belief functions to justify military and economic interventions, minimize or rationalize any harmful consequences, and deny our less savory motivations and interests.
The illusion of altruism is closely tied with a sense of entitlement. Lasch (1979) believed that “new social forms require new forms of personality, new modes of socialization, new ways of organizing experience” (p.50). In surveying the American social landscape, Lasch thought that the concept of narcissism, despite its shortcomings, “provides us…with a tolerably accurate portrait of the ‘liberated’ personality of our time, with his charm, his pseudo-awareness of his own condition, his promiscuous pansexuality, his fascination with oral sex, his fear of the castrating mother, his hypochondria, his protective shallowness, his avoidance of dependence, his inability to mourn, his dread of old age and death” (p.50). To this list, Bellah et al (1985) would add exaggerated individualism, self-reliance, and fear of commitment. Another feature of American culture and identity, which is briefly addressed by Lasch and absent in Bellah, is a sense of entitlement. The beliefs in the goodness and moral rightness of the U.S. are inseparable from a profound sense of entitlement—that we deserve to have power and riches (Bacevich, 2002). This sense of privilege, as Ryn (2003) and Lundestad (1990) both note, is embedded in American foreign policies and actions. Because we are a special nation, because we are chosen and blessed by God (putative evidence is economic and military power), we have the right to intervene in the affairs of nations and an unquestioned right to wealth and power. Let me offer a brief illustration of this. During the second Iraq War, I overheard a therapist say that it was a good idea to be fighting terrorists in Iraq instead of at home. This rationale was offered by the Bush administration as well as by the media. However understandable, this reasoning, to my ears, is a blatant example of narcissistic entitlement. First, there is the underlying belief that since the U.S. has the military and economic power to prosecute a war it should and, second, there is a near total absence of empathic understanding of the horrific physical and psychological devastation wreaked from warfare.
The third feature of an empire identity is simplification. Human beings, Farley (1990) noted, are fundamentally tragic creatures because in grasping reality by way of language we distort it. Language captures only a portion of life and simplification is the tendency to take this portion for the whole. Put differently, simplification is the conscious and unconscious practice of eschewing complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty by believing that one’s interpretations of reality are not only the truth but all the truth there is. In terms of an empire identity, there is a simplification of the world into us or them. For example, the social anger and hostility toward “Old Europe” for disagreeing with the United States’ relentless march toward war is an illustration of reducing complex reality into slogans that shield oneself from doubts or questions about one’s view of reality and the consequences of one’s actions. George W. Bush’s simplistic categorization of Iran, Korea, and Iraq as the axis of evil is another example of this tendency, which Hall (1991) identifies as a strand of simplism in evangelical Christianity.
Simplification, which is inextricably linked to a belief in the inherent goodness of American policies and intentions and a grandiose sense of entitlement, becomes a key factor in screening the messiness of our motives and actions in the world and serves to keep dissenters at bay by turning them into “bad” objects (disloyal). For example, the rhetoric around the second Iraq War was framed in terms of security and, later, as our aim to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq and to the Middle East. Even if one sincerely believes in these latter aims, it shields the historical complexity of the Middle East (e.g., the role of colonial powers and the United States toward Saudi Arabia), the motives of the U.S. (e.g., securing Middle East oil and insuring military presence in the region), the varied experiences, needs, and desires of Middle Eastern citizens, and of the diversity of religious and political beliefs in the Middle East. This simplification attends a naiveté that the U.S. is simply trying to make life better for “these” people. Those who question U.S. motives are often seen as unpatriotic.
James Baldwin identified the tendency toward simplification when speaking of racism in the United States. He wrote, “(F)or there is a great deal of will power involved in the white man’s naïveté. Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors” (1955, p.166). While it is probable that all human beings lean toward simplification at one time or another, I am suggesting that this is a key feature of an empire identity, which is inextricably linked to a belief in the inherent goodness of American policies and intentions and sense of entitlement.
The last characteristic of an empire identity is pride. The theme of pride or American arrogance has been consistently identified by many who have tried to depict and understand the expansionist policies and actions of Democratic and Republican administrations since the 19th century (Bacevich, 2002, 2005; Ryn, 2003; Chalmers, 1999, 2004; Chomsky, 2004; Gardner & Young, 2005). Decades ago, Reinhold Niebuhr pointed to this when he noted that Americans tend to see themselves as “tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection” (in Bacevich, 2002, p.54). Even before 9/11, it was often heard from politicians and citizens that the United States is the greatest country in the world, which, if measured solely in terms of military expenditures and economic power, may be close to the truth, but a very narrow truth nonetheless. Since 9/11 American pride can be seen in the elaborate, triumphalistic, self-congratulatory social rituals such as baseball’s World Series and the Super Bowl and in the media spectacle of George W. Bush’s landing on a U.S aircraft carrier, proclaiming “Mission accomplished.” It is evident in the media and in common speech that refer to American wounded and dead as heroes, taking pride in their sacrifice. . We see it on bumper stickers such as the “Power of Pride,” the proliferation of American flags, and the eclipse of any views from public discourse that challenge prevailing myths. Ryn (2003), making use of Greek dramas, warned that hubris coupled with the will to power is a most dangerous combination. In a similar vein, Chalmers (2004) feared that “Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits impatiently for her meeting with us” (p.312).
Pride, as an attribute of the empire identity, signifies idealization, if not glorification, of the role the United States plays in the world. Correspondingly, pride, at its best or least harmful, involves the recognition of the “other” (e.g., former Soviet satellite states) as less than and in need of our help, which is a form of paternalism that West (2004) recently argued is evident in the Democratic Party. At its worst, pride results in recognizing the other as primitive, as an unworthy object that must fall within the orbit of American control (especially those countries that benefit the U.S. in some way). Those countries, for example, that do not have democratic governments are seen as backward or rooted in failed political structures of the past. Countries who struggle economically (e.g., many African countries) are perceived to be primitive, tribal, and corrupt (Chalmers, 2004). Even in relation to other so-called advanced democratic countries (e.g., Canada, Germany, etc.), many Americans find faults (e.g., socialized medicine in Canada) thereby suggesting that the United States is superior. This serves only to bolster our sense that we, as a society, are better, more sophisticated, more enlightened than all others. The combination of pride and power breeds envy, resentment, and fear, which may be said to give birth to Nemesis.
Kaplan (2002) noted the relation between “international struggles for domination abroad profoundly shape representations of American national identity at home” (p.1). Likewise, I argue that the U.S. empire cannot exist in the absence of a public mindset or identity that supports it, and the social space that gives rise to an empire identity cannot be divorced from the analytic space. In brief, this identity, I contend, is comprised of four interrelated features, namely, the illusion of altruism, entitlement, simplification, and pride, which is deeply rooted in American history and manifested in the grand narrative that we tell and re-tell about ourselves.
Psychosocial Dynamics and the Empire Identity
It appears that the American psyche has, for many decades, included an empire identity, raising the question about how this identity is maintained and manifested. There are, without question, many answers that would help explain the durability of this identity in American life. For the sake of space and time, I identify four psychological defenses that are implicated in securing an empire identity— adhesive identification, weak dissociation, rationalization, and the refusal to surrender. These psychological defenses may be further understood as socially shared ways of organizing experience. This said, defenses are usually understood as intrapsychic processes and are inherently reductive when applying them to such complex phenomena as social behavior and identity. I do not make any claims that these are definitive explanations, though I believe they are heuristic.
Bick’s (1968) and Meltzer’s (1975), research into the psychological life of infants, coined the terms adhesive identification and adhesive identity, which they argued was a more primitive or earlier form of narcissistic identification. Their work with adult patients and observations of autistic infants led them to question the idea of object identification. Infants, they noted, appear to cling adhesively to their mother's body and to other surfaces, which they believed is an attempt to obtain a sense of contact for the sake of psychic integration and avoidance of annihilation anxiety. They also found this concept helpful in understanding some adult patients. Tustin, in her work with infants and adults, emended this view, adding the term adhesive equation. “In adhesive equation,” Tustin argued, the ‘subject’ feels the same as the ‘object’ (no space between them) while in adhesive identification the ‘subject’ feels similar to the ‘object’ (there is space between them)” (in Mitrani, 1994, p.355). What these theorists were identifying was a mode of organizing experience and relating whereby the subject and object were, from an epistemological point of view, inseparable, which is not equivalent to the psychoanalytic idea of merger. There is, in other words, an epistemological confusion between the subject and the subject’s object. Thus, the loss of the object means a corresponding loss or disintegration of the self. The prospect of loss and disintegration or annihilation anxiety fuels, in part, the intense emotional clinging to the object.
For these analysts, adhesive identification is associated with an early developmental stage of organizing experience and relating to objects. In terms of adult behaviors, Bick, Meltzer, and others used the concept to refer to pathological patterns of relating and organizing experience. For example, Grotstein (1977) differentiated between normal developmental adhesive identification and the defective adhesive identification seen in schizophrenia. At first glance, then, the concept would not seem to fit well with routine, non-pathological forms of adult social interactions. Yet, I am suggesting, following in the footsteps of Loewald (2000), Mitchell (2000), and Ogden (1989), that if adhesive identification refers to cognitive processes implicated in a particular pattern of organizing experience (and relating), then one could identify traces of this early form of identification in some adult interactions that are not pathological. In other words, Ogden (1989) argued that “human experience is the product of the dialectical interplay of three modes (autistic-contiguous, paranoid-schizoid, and depressive) of generating experience…. Each mode creates, preserves, and negates the other” (p.4). Adult organizations of experience and relating, then, comprise earlier cognitive process. The presence of intense anxiety may hyperactivate one or more modes. In the case of adhesive identification, those cognitive processes associated with a perception of the object as inextricably a part of the self are present in normal and pathological adult behaviors.
I suggest that the attributes associated with an empire identity, combined with an intense emotional identification and exaggerated idealization of American identity, point to adhesive identification . Another signal of adhesive identification is intense hatred and hostility directed toward any object or person that threatens the cherished identity and attachment to the sacred object. Put differently, threatened loss evokes annihilation anxiety, which is transformed into more tolerable hostility and anger. Hostility and rage, accompanied by intense, emotional idealization, then, serve as evidence of the unconscious confusion of the subject with the object (empire identity). That is, there is an illusion wherein persons unconsciously believe that the survival of the object (the idea of the United States) will secure their sense of going on being. The object, while rationally viewed as distinct, is, at the unconscious level, one with the subject. One might view the object (U.S. empire identity) as an intersubjective subjective object—an omnipotently shared subjective object analogous to Winnicott’s (1971) transitional object. Thus, any critique of or challenge to the object evokes intense anxiety (transformed into more manageable affect like rage and hostility) associated with the loss of one’s identity and sense of going on being. This is comparable to the notion of the infant’s undifferentiated relation to and use of surfaces to provide cohesion and a sense of going on being.
Consider two brief illustrations—one clinical and the other cultural. A middle-aged, educated professional woman, Karen, asked about a book on my desk, The New American Militarism by Andrew Bacevich. There were other books on my desk, but this one had a picture of a steely-eyed soldier in camouflage fatigues. I asked what had caught her attention and she said it was the soldier. She continued, saying that the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were heroes. At one point she said, “If it was not for them, I probably wouldn’t be here.” This reference included American soldiers who fought in WW II. In my view, Karen’s comments represent a form of adhesive identification wherein she holds the illusion that her sense of self and going on being are attributable to these soldiers who represent the power and strength of the United States. Karen’s idealization is neither pathological, nor something unique to her. Indeed, Bacevich (2005) argued that many Americans deeply admire the military, citing “opinion polls surveying public attitudes toward national institutions have regularly ranked the armed services first” (p.23). Moreover, many share Karen’s belief in how these men and women have altruistically defended the United States. What is clung to is not a surface, but an idea or constellation of ideas embedded in collectively held stories.
The underside of intense and rigid emotional identification with a cherished object is hatred and hostility. The bumper sticker “America, Love it or Leave It” signifies and communicates a shared and underlying hostility and anger. The bumper sticker is aimed at those who would dare question and critique American policies. Those who question or reject certain shared beliefs are viewed as a threat. Put another way, if one raises questions or critiques, one cannot be a true American, which indicates, at an unconscious level, an epistemological confusion of the subject with the subject’s object. The motivation, then, is to split off or get rid of any person who challenges or questions the United States, revealing a profound level of repressed vulnerability. This desire signifies a form of attachment wherein the object (U.S. as a constellation of representations, ideas, and values) is identical to or indistinguishable from the subject. This said, there is nothing inherently pathological about a person’s use of this bumper sticker, though in my view it is a cultural artifact that represents cognitive processes associated with adhesive identification and, correspondingly, the defense against intense anxiety associated with the loss of one’s sense of going on being.
Another psychological feature that helps explain the cultivation of innocence is weak dissociation. Dissociation refers to a defense whereby a representation and affect “escape the control of consciousness and develop independently” (Ellenberger, 1970, p.371) and entails “a contraction of the field of consciousness” (in Meares, 2000, p.45). While dissociation represents unformulated experience that escapes consciousness and symbolization, it is important to point out that the person is “organizing his mind in a way that protects the good self and other from persecution and dread of annihilation” (Keylor, 2003, p.219). Stern (1997) argued that narrative rigidity, which is a complex form of organizing one’s mind, is an example of dissociation in the weak sense. An inflexible narration means that other ideas, meanings, values, and affects are excluded, remaining unformulated. This “passive dissociation…is indirect, because it is a consequence of so insistently turning our attention elsewhere that we never even notice alternative understandings. Focal attention under these conditions is controlled by the intention to enforce narrative rigidity” (p.132). Hostility and rage toward alternative interpretive renderings of American intentions and actions signify the presence of a rigid narrative and narration. In terms of an empire identity, weak dissociation is manifested whenever persons continue to rely on story lines that protect against interpretations associated with blame, responsibility for harm, repentance, loss of power and prestige, and loss of idealized self-image. Weak dissociation is also noted in the absence of discourse that includes contrary views. Frequently, the absence of discourse about something that is present (e.g., masturbation) suggests shame. In this case, however, the absence simply refers to an unconscious refusal to entertain other views, suggesting repressed anxiety linked to vulnerability.
Consider the stories told in the U.S. about the reasons for invading Iraq. As it began to be clear that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration relied on the tried-and- “true” American myth of bringing freedom, democracy, and market economy to Iraq and the Middle East. For the most part, the American media, which may have tentatively questioned the reasons for going to war, supported this story. It is not that this story was patently false. Rather, it was told and re-told so that it crowded out other interpretations and perspectives that would contradict more altruistic claims. For example, Iraq was militarily and economically weak as well as estranged from most of its Arab neighbors. Thus, it was a prime U.S. target to further establish military and economic power in a region that is rich in oil. In a world where oil is the lifeblood of “advanced” economies, the most powerful country wants to have influence, if not control, over a region that produces most of the world’s oil. In so doing, the U.S. solidifies its hegemony and the illusion of invulnerability. The interpretation of mere self-interest in maintaining hyperpower status contradicts the story and associated altruistic claims about bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq. Weak dissociation, in brief, helps maintain an empire identity and its associated attributes.
Closely associated with weak dissociation, Stern (1997) argued, is rationalization. The function of rationalization “is to render material acceptable, understandable, comfortable, straightforward; to rob it of all puzzling elements” (Bartlett, in Stern, p.136). Put differently, rationalization simplifies reality by eschewing anything that would contradict cherished meanings or conflict with an idealized identity. Rationalization undergirds Baldwin’s (1955) view that Americans “have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, into a proud decoration” (p.31). Our narrative and narrations are inextricably yoked to rationalization that transforms any ugly consequences into beauty and any wickedness into righteousness. In brief, weak dissociation and its partner, rationalization, support an empire identity with its contrived naiveté and simplification.
Knowing that I had been in the military, Karen assumed I held the same views she did. Rightly or wrongly, I offered a couple of alternative interpretations and questions. For example, I wondered if the United States would intervene and offer freedom to the people of Zimbabwe, implying that oil was a deciding factor for war with Iraq. I wondered aloud about the thousands of Iraqis who have been wounded and killed. Karen’s response was twofold. To my last musing, she said that Iraqis want to be free and are paying the price for moving to the path of peace, which would not have occurred if the U.S. had not intervened. Then, Karen changed the topic, suggesting an avoidance of possible conflict and anger between us. While we were later able to address what had taken place, I believe that the interchange signifies the presence of weak dissociation and rationalization. Karen relied on the oft repeated stories for U.S. intervention and for the death, destruction, and suffering of Iraqi people.
Adhesive identification, weak dissociation, and rationalization may all be said to signify a refusal to surrender. A number of psychoanalysts have implicitly or explicitly addressed the idea of surrender. Angyal (1965), for example, argued that there is a drive for autonomy (assertion) and a drive for homonony (surrendering to something greater). In a similar vein, Ghent (1990) proposed that masochism involved a pseudo surrender; submission that had the appearance of surrender. Surrender, for Ghent, is not voluntary and is an experience of being “totally present,” which is connected to a sense of aliveness and “the discovery of one’s identity, one’s sense of self, even one’s sense of unity with other living beings” (p.111). Winnicott spoke of “surrender” in terms of opening himself up to the patient’s story and discovering new meaning in the interaction (Rodman, 2003, p.305). To surrender means to be open to and be moved by difference, whether that is in oneself, through the stories of the “other,” or in the encounter of some new idea or meaning. The conscious or unconscious intention to be moved by another person means understanding him/her, respecting his/her essential subjectivity, allowing oneself to be shaped or influenced by his/her story, and being capable of handling the paradox of difference in likeness and likeness in difference (Benjamin, 1995).
An empire identity includes the defense against surrendering to any person, country, idea, or reality that is believed to contradict cherished stories and concomitant beliefs, values, and meanings. Indeed, surrender is equated with subjugation and loss and, thus, evokes intense anxiety, which, for an empire, is usually channeled through coercion and violence toward any persons or ideas deemed to threaten group identity. The refusal to surrender accompanies the wish to be invulnerable, repressing pervasive anxiety associated with vulnerability linked to annihilation or subjugation. Consider evangelical writer John Price of whom Bacevich wrote. In the late ’70s, Price warned of disarmament and moral decay, which was “leading to America’s last days as a free nation.” Price predicted the “Soviet occupation of America before the end of the century” (p.129). The deep anxiety manifested in these views is associated with the threat of subjugation and loss, which the writer handles by trying to motivate people into becoming invulnerable through the expansion of military power. Another illustration of the refusal to surrender is seen in the attempts to make the world into our own image. The colonization of the other (free market fundamentalism, Wilsonian democratic evangelism) signifies the wish for the other to be the same as me, which manifests the denial of difference.
By refusing to surrender, the empire identity is omnipotently secured, though at the cost of cultivating ignorance and violence. This refusal to surrender can set up a sadomasochistic dynamic between those who ascribe to the empire identity and those who wish to reject it. For example, Karen’s avoidance of the questions I raised can be interpreted as a refusal to surrender—the refusal to be moved by ideas that differ from her own. Yet, I, too, played a part. When I experienced her “resistance,” I became irritated. I thought, “Why can’t this very bright, well-read, professional woman see my point of view?” In that moment, my wish to be rid of an empire identity paralleled her wish to hold onto it. Moreover, it was a moment wherein we both refused to be moved by each other. The refusal to surrender can also be silently present and mutually reinforced whenever the analyst and patient unconsciously (or consciously) accept an empire identity and its associated mythologies. This dynamic, I suggest, is apparent not only in our society between adherents of empire policies and those who disagree, but also between the United States and those countries who strongly disagree with our actions in the world.
In summary, the constellation of defenses—adhesive identification, weak dissociation, rationalization, and the refusal to surrender—are part of a collective stance that maintains an empire identity. I wish to stress that these defenses are not an indication of psychopathology, but rather of shared stories, values, beliefs, and attitudes that comprise a collective identity.
Conclusion: Misrecognition and the Question of Analytic Relevance
Positing the presence of an empire identity in psychoanalytic psychotherapy raises two questions. First, if there is indeed an empire identity that attends a societal American identity, why is it so difficult to identify its presence and dynamics in therapy? Second, is it really necessary to attend to the characteristics of empire identity in therapy? My answers to these questions are more provisional than comprehensive.
In psychoanalytic literature, one can easily find articles and books that explore the presence and dynamics of racism, classism, and sexism in therapy. Yet, one would be hard pressed to find articles and books written about the presence and dynamics of U.S. imperialism in therapy. Granted, the concept of imperialism, which I am suggesting here is a cognate of empire, is used, but in different ways. For example, Burston (1986) wrote that “a man bristling with indignation about ‘imperialism’ or ‘the homosexual menace’ may discover that he really hates himself (for whatever reason), but needs a locus of external threat or persecution to continue evading his own inner misery” (p.152). This is a familiar, and no doubt accurate, interpretation, yet it avoids the reality of imperialism in the man’s life. Indignation about imperialism may also reflect the man’s political perspectives and aspirations. In a different vein, Cushman (1996) uses the term “imperialism” analogically when referring to the desire to impose self-psychology onto an Asian setting, and Esman (1982) uses it metaphorically in his depiction of the relation between psychoanalysis and other social sciences. This analogical use may reflect the fact that these two analysts are part of an empire. In any case, we are still left with the question of why little is written about U.S. imperialism or empire identity in relation to psychoanalytic psychotherapy.
I suspect that one of the reasons why racism, classism, and sexism are addressed in the literature is because analysts confront the patient as other. The immediate clash of subjectivities reveals the sharp edges of difference that appear in resistances and disruptions. The white, middle-class analyst encounters an African-American working class patient. An African-American analyst listens to the laments of a white American who believes he was passed over for promotion because of the company’s policy on “quotas.” A female analyst listens to a male patient talk about his relationships with women. A male analyst wonders about the “glass ceiling” his female patient has bumped into. In the transference-countertransference interaction, the analyst, hopefully, encounters the real differences of the other as well as his/her own biases regarding race, class, and gender. Encountering a person who signifies obvious gender, class, and/or race differences is no guarantee that these culturally shaped differences will be recognized and addressed by either the patient or the analyst. However, there is a greater possibility of recognizing and dealing with differences when the differences are more obvious and likeness is not used to overlook them. Like two fish in the sea, the more alike a patient and analyst are, the more likely they will not analyze the ocean they share. If we were to encounter people from Okinawa, Syria, Vietnam, El Salvador, and France in our consulting rooms, we might be invited to confront our American identity and the attending myths we tell about ourselves. Since many people do not, I believe it is much more difficult to recognize shared illusions that attend an empire identity.
Yet this also begs the question, does it really matter if we do not recognize and attend to the politics of an empire identity? No and yes. Patients come to therapy for all kinds of reasons and with all types of emotional suffering. The therapeutic frame and process should be established in light of the patient’s needs, suffering, and goals. The patient’s political beliefs, while important, do not necessarily need to be explored. An analyst’s interest or agenda in exploring a patient’s political identity can signal countertransference biases and would need to be explored. A qualified “no” to the question means that I first want to assess whether exploration of the patient’s national identity is related to the patient’s suffering and consider its benefit to the patient—all of which may be done with the patient.
This said, there are, in my view, several reasons for being attentive and open to exploration of the presence and dynamics of an empire identity. First, psychoanalysis is founded on the idea of free association, which implies an openness to speak about and explore any aspect of one’s life and relationships. This reflective practice is not mere navel gazing, but aimed toward increasing agency, freedom, and accountability. For example, if in my therapy I discover I hold sexist beliefs, then I am now confronted with deciding whether to continue acting out of these beliefs or to find ways to explore the roots of these beliefs and to let them go (or at least not act out of them). Identifying and exploring the features of empire identity in analysis can mean confronting our vulnerability (and invulnerability) as well as making decisions about how we will respond (for, against, indifferent) in the social sphere to the politics of empire making. A more conscious, deliberate, and responsible stance is preferable, in my view, to an unconscious one.
A second and related reason emerges from the ideas of multiple function and overdetermination. Psychoanalysis has, from its inception in Freud, noted the complexities of human life. The decisions we make are fraught with unconscious meanings and motivations. Our behaviors (and symptoms) often have multiple functions. Human communication and relationships are inherently and relentlessly complex. By exploring social-political identities, we invite people to encounter the ambiguity and complexity of life, opening the possibility of doubt, ignorance, curiosity, and awe. If life is not perceived as complex, then it is narrowed and an attenuated life is a fearful one. This stands over against the tendency toward simplification. Moreover, the acceptance of complexity, ambiguity, and doubt is the handmaiden of empathy, compassion, and understanding of the “other” that are only present when one is willing to surrender to the other.
The third reason for exploration is based on the belief that the couch cannot be segregated from the vagaries of the culture. The space of the consulting room and the social space of the nation, while distinct, overlap, which has implications for the consulting room and for society. When one considers that American psychotherapists live and work in an empire, there should be some level of concern, because the expansion of military and economic power means employing anti-democratic policies. An empire is fundamentally anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic in its attempts to colonize other countries or keep client-states underfoot. In the United States, psychoanalytic therapy tends toward the democratic and egalitarian values. The conflict between the values of the space of the consulting room and the social space of an empire should not be ignored. Indeed, I think of the presence of this conflict as a cultural parapraxis, but no joke. Is the consulting space in conflict with dominant cultural values and beliefs? If so, what does this mean to patients and analysts? Are we aiming patients away from an empire culture? Are patients aiming us? Are we colluding with the empire culture? Here I recall Lifton’s (1986) book, The Nazi Doctors, where he wrote about the Nazification of the medical establishment, which included the Nazification of German psychoanalysis (Thomä & Kächele, 1994). Certainly, this analogy fails for many reasons. However, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the narratives associated with promoting the American empire would shape patient-therapist interactions. If one accepts this line of argument, then an analytic approach is necessary to understand the internalization of the ethos of the empire.
Since its beginning, psychoanalysis has also been interested in what society represses. In Victorian society, Freud identified the repression of sexual desires (as well as the narrowing of female subjectivity). Many analysts have examined societies using analytic conceptual tools to discover unconscious structures, meanings, desires, and motivations. Living in a society that is bent on extending and maintaining hyperpower status raises questions as to what is being repressed and what is being projected. In a so-called free society, how is freedom attenuated by the anxious preoccupation toward military and economic power? How does the militarization and commodification of the social sphere give rise to particular symptoms and psychic suffering? How has American military and economic power disrupted the psyches and social spaces of other countries?
Two final points. I wish to stress that my or a patient’s recognition that we live in a society that seems bent on military and economic global dominance does not mean we have to arrive at the same decisions or conclusions. My political leanings in this matter are obvious, but I respect a patient or therapist who makes a decision to accept (and take responsibility for) the extant American narratives that support policies and actions the U.S. government takes toward the expansion of military and economic power. Respect is not contingent upon agreement. Second, even if a patient or therapist rejects an empire identity, this does not mean that one must take to the streets or become more involved in the political sphere. It may instead mean making smaller decisions and actions (e.g., not investing in the military industrial complex, not financially supporting movies that promulgate American myths of heroic altruism, reading and becoming more informed). Regardless, a decision to act, however small, is a sign of agency and not powerlessness.
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1. Lundstead (1990) noted that there is an ongoing debate about what empire means. One definition refers to “the formal political control of one state over another’s external and internal policy” (p.37). The broader definition “means a hierarchical system of political relationships with one power clearly being much stronger than any other” (p.37). As Lundstead and others (Chalmers, 2000; Bacevich, 2002, 2005; Chomsky, 2004) have pointed out, unparalleled economic and military powers have been used to coerce or force many countries to alter their foreign and domestic policies. Indeed, Chalmers (2004) makes an excellent distinction between the methods of control and influence by old empires and the methods of the American empire.
2. The beliefs and values associated with the U.S.’ special role in history is not simply linked to narratives or speeches. Civil rituals (e.g., press conferences, inaugurals, congressional sessions, 4th of July), cultural rites (e.g., sports events), and social entertainment (e.g., movies) are other examples of how values and beliefs associated with American expansionism are internalized and maintained.
3. This speech is readily available on numerous web sites.
4. I wish to stress that many people who have been wounded or who have lost a loved one to combat use this kind of language and accompanying beliefs as a way to find meaning and purpose in the midst of grief and suffering. This is understandable, but the point here is that pride is being used to justify expansionist policies.
5. I recognize that the concept of adhesive identification has been used to understand the child’s use of skin or other surfaces in providing psychic cohesion and continuity. When applying it to larger social groups and behaviors one confronts the absence of “surfaces” or skin. However, I am suggesting that the type of relation and mode of organizing experience is actively operating with later modes of organizing experience (Ogden, 1989) such that there is an intense emotional attachment whereby persons unconsciously have difficulty differentiating between the desired object and their own subjectivity.
6. My only quibble with Ghent’s (1990) perspective is his view that surrender is not voluntary. “One cannot choose to surrender,” he wrote, “though one can choose to submit” (p.111). While surrender connotes passivity, passivity need not connote the absence of choice, the will, or intention. I am using the term to refer to the conscious or unconscious intention to be moved by the other.