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Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation With The World

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We speak with author and psychiatry professor Robert Jay Lifton who says, “Superpower syndrome really means an American sense of entitlement to rule the world because it’s the strongest power in the world.” [includes transcript]

In a recent article in The Nation entitled “American Apocalypse”, author and professor Robert Jay Lifton writes:

“The amorphousness of the war on terrorism carries with it a paranoid edge, the suspicion that terrorists and their supporters are everywhere and must be “pre-emptively” attacked lest they emerge and attack us. Since such a war is limitless and infinite—extending from the farthest reaches of Indonesia or Afghanistan to Hamburg, Germany, or New York City, and from immediate combat to battles that continue into the unending future—it inevitably becomes associated with a degree of megalomania as well. As the world’s greatest military power replaces the complexities of the world with its own imagined stripped-down, us-versus-them version of it, our distorted national self becomes the world.”

  • Robert Jay Lifton, distinguished Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York as well as a visiting psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. He is also the author of several books. His latest book is Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a recent article in The Nation entitled “American Apocalypse,” author and professor Robert Jay Lifton writes: “As the world’s greatest military power replaces the complexities of the world with its own imagined stripped-down, us-versus-them version of it, our distorted national self becomes the world.” Robert Jay Lifton is a distinguished Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, visiting psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. His latest book is Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World. We spoke with Professor Lifton a few weeks ago.

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Superpower syndrome really means an American sense of entitlement to rule the world because it’s the strongest power in the world. Because one is militarily dominant one has the right to be a dominant superpower, and with that of course goes the unilateralism, the absence of mutuality, and the sense of really seeking to control history. Superpower syndrome, then, is the kind of overall rubric or way of understanding a lot of separate American policies, all of which shocked us, but putting them together as a consistent point of view, and stance in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the power that the superpower is up against?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Well, superpower syndrome is fundamentally based on fantasy. That is, it’s the fantasy that one can control the outcome of world events. In that sense, we’re not the same as the British Empire, which put bureaucrats on the ground and sought to create institutions modeled on itself. It’s more of a hit-and-run creation, and influence on what might be called “fluid world control,” that’s what I speak of it as, “fluid world control.” And the superpower doctrine is written for us in plain language in the National Security Strategy document of September, 2002. It simply puts us in a situation where we claim the right to be the dominant military power in the world and to prevent any other nation from even imagining that it can equal our power. All that is part of the superpower syndrome and that in turn is bound up with what I speak of as “apocalyptic violence.”

AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky says that a superpower can exert its power most effectively, not by being rational, but by being irrational, where others in the world cannot predict what this number one superpower in the world, in this case, the United States, will do. What do you think of that?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Well, he’s certainly right about it being non-rational. In some ways, though, it is almost predictable. I don’t think that our behavior has been so unpredictable once we saw its general direction. And part of the argument in my book is that it’s part of an ideology which pulls together a kind of military fundamentalism from a more or less secular influence, people like Rumsfeld and Cheney, together with a religious fundamentalism, the influence of the Christian Right to create a doctrine and a policy that has a certain consistency. And it polarizes the world into good and evil. It seeks to dominate militarily and it can employ cynical manipulations because they’re in the service of what is perceived as a higher truth. So, in some ways the behavior is certainly consistent. It’s certainly non-rational. It’s a kind of fantasy of omnipotence, but it is consistent. We’re doing this again and again and what we’re doing fits into this category.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dr. Robert Jay Lifton. From mid 1995, you conducted psychological research on the problem of apocalyptic violence, focusing on the Japanese cult that released poison gas in Tokyo subways. Can you talk about how that research relates to today?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Yes. That Japanese cult called Aum Shinrikyo released Sarin gas in the subways in 1995. The important thing about Aum Shinrikyo was the marriage of ultimate zealotry and ultimate weapons. They were a relatively small cult but they really wanted to join in destroying the world in order to create Armageddon. They had a vision of releasing a much larger amount of Sarin gas later on that year so that Americans would think that the Japanese had done it, the Japanese would think that Americans had done it, other world powers would join in what would become World War III, and that would lead to biblical Armageddon. Wild fantasy, of course, but fantasy associated with weapons of mass destruction. They actually manufactured chemical and biological weapons and sought unsuccessfully nuclear weapons. They also wanted to be join in what used to be called “forcing the end” by being active in producing Armageddon. Now, when 9-11 occurred, people were struck by the title of my book on Aum Shinrikyo, Destroying the World to Save It. That is the ultimate apocalyptic image. And certainly Bin Laden fits into that, has the image of destroying much of the world in service of recreating it in perfect Islamist fashion. But what is little appreciated is that we enter into all of this in our response and ourselves become apocalyptic. That is, with our vision of world control, superpower syndrome, we seek to destroy that which we take to be wrong-headed or evil in the service of a perfect Americanized democratic free enterprise world. So, we want to see ourselves as rational, and non-apocalyptic, but we enter into kind of apocalyptic interplay. What I really have come to believe and say this in my book, there’s a kind of a tandem between Al Qaeda on the one hand and ourselves on the other, each reacting to the other, each stimulating the other. Certainly, nobody, I’m sure, was more delighted with our invasion of Iraq than Bin Laden. The two zealots, so to speak, stimulate each other, in a kind of mad dance, which couldn’t be more dangerous.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how do you break the cycle?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: You can break that cycle. You can change things in this country. There still are democratic expressions, maybe this program is one of them, in which we have our voices, don’t use them as much as we should. We have to act both within the electoral system and outside of it. One thing that’s very important and my book tries to address is that I don’t think that Americans realize how extreme our government has been. And if you put it within this superpower and apocalyptic structure, you can begin to see its extremity. However, Americans are beginning to doubt what we are doing. It’s as if reality is catching up with us. Because so much of this projection is a kind of fantasy that isn’t borne out by actual events, as we’re seeing in Iraq, and as we’re seeing with our unsuccessful diatribes against nuclear proliferation rather than taking more constructive universal and international approaches.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Robert Jay Lifton is our guest. His latest work is Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World. You have researched Nazi doctors. You have researched Hiroshima survivors. What lessons can you draw from that research and apply to the world today?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: After 9-11, I looked back at my earlier research such as that on Hiroshima and Nazi doctors and Vietnam. And I realized the apocalyptic dimensions of what I had studied. For instance, Nazi doctors had this vision of purifying the world what I called the biomedical vision. But they saw it as an expression of virtue. And you really can’t kill very large numbers of people except with a claim to virtue. So, the Nazis had this vision “of killing to heal,” which you find in all apocalyptic expressions, including some of our own. And in the case of Hiroshima, you know, the weapons themselves are apocalyptic in terms of what they can destroy. So, it used to be in the past, there were the religious projections of the end of the world in order for Jesus to return or some sort of purification. Now, we can literally carry through that world ending with our weapons. And that apocalyptic dimension has entered into our consciousness and also led to a tendency to associate the weapons with some deified purpose, some holy purpose, what I call “nuclearism.” And seemingly, you know, even Vietnam, a smaller event by these criteria, there was that famous image: We had to destroy the village to save it. In small compass, that’s an apocalyptic image. You destroy to save. In Vietnam, there was what I came to call “the atrocity producing situation,” very relevant for us in Iraq right now. A situation so constructed militarily and psychologically, that the average grunt, no better or worse than you or me, can walk into it, and commit atrocities. Because he’s psychologically upset, he is loosing buddies, and the military policies encourage atrocities and encounter insurgency action. That was central in Vietnam. The other thing I would say, and this is a measure of hope from my previous studies, in Vietnam, the psychology of American survival gradually changed. Usually the survivor the person in the country fighting a war in response to deaths in that war has a need to reassert the necessity of the war, and pursue it ever more vigorously, but the opposite alternative survivors mission can be to question the whole cause, to denounce the war itself as in no way justifying those deaths. That’s whapped in Vietnam over time. Some of that is already happening in relation to Iraq, and could happen a great deal more intensely over the next weeks and months.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you elaborate on that more, about Iraq?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Well, when you look at Iraq now, it looks as though we’re in a kind of in-between position. If you read what the family members of soldiers killed in Iraq say, you have the feeling they’re in a terrible personal conflict. On the one hand, they want to believe in their country and they wanted to believe — they want to believe that those deaths had some meaning and significance, and therefore, the war must be supported. On the other hand, they have difficulty, stifling profound doubts that those deaths and especially the death of that particular family member, was justified or necessary. And something in them is dubious about the whole war. Sometimes they say it outright, other times they imply it. So, we’re at some in-between stage of confusion. But there are more and more voices, not just from the left, but from all through the society that are questioning the war itself. And of course, all of that question and doubt is fed by the deceptions and distortions on the part of the administration in justifying the war in the first place. They come together, and all of us are in some measure survivors of deaths of Americans in Iraq, and we are questioning more and more whether those deaths are justified. And when that happens, the overall American consciousness changes, and it becomes a powerful psychological source for anti-war attitudes, and for political changes. It can also affect the whole political scene.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Jay Lifton, do you think that the U.S. was suffering superpower syndrome before Bush came to power?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Of course. I mean, we emerged as a superpower from World War II. No country had ever had as much physical power and a certain moral power also at that time. At the end of the Cold War, we became the only superpower in the late 1980’s, early 1990, and we certainly threw our weight around in the world and did all kinds of dangerous things. But all of this went up a quantum jump with the Bush administration in which doctrine that had been developed by neo-conservative theorists over the previous ten years became official policy. And what had been superpower attitudes, sporadically expressed, became a systematic form of behavior in the world so that, yes, some of the superpower syndrome surely existed pre-George W. Bush, but not as dangerously or consistently or as aggressively. And of course, that was made possible by the extremity of the ideology of the Bush administration and by 9-11.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush has said he believes God selected him to be president. How does that fit into this picture?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: That’s a part of the American impulse toward the apocalyptic. There’s a kind of fundamentalist-like tone in all of that. He is following what Bob Woodward paraphrased as God’s master plan, and Woodward is not given to irony, particularly. God’s master plan then seems to be in his hands and those around him. That’s a very dangerous view because that immediately polarizes the world and that mobilizes the American impulses toward the apocalyptic, toward destroying what’s wrong and evil in order to purify the world. So, that kind of religiosity combined with military extremism is the combination we’re trying to cope with and to change right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Right now, you are analyzing where we stand with Iraq, where we stand in the world. You have been an activist as well as a scholar and psychiatrist for many decades, looking at a very severe situation, a showdown. In the 1980’s, you’re well known as an anti-nuclear activist, analyzing what it means for adults and kids to face the possibility of annihilation. How would you rate where we are today compared with the past?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: I think this is the most dangerous situation we faced in whatever history I have lived through, over, what, more than a half century. It’s most dangerous because of these extreme or apocalyptic attitudes on our side, and also elsewhere in the world. So that the Bin-Laden-style apocalyptic projections feed our own and we feed theirs. I think it’s more dangerous than it’s ever been. The hopeful side, however, is that more and more people are beginning to sense this danger. They don’t necessarily understand it clearly, but they sense there’s something wrong with it, and it needs to be changed, and that the direction is questionable. But I can’t remember — well, look, during the Cold War and during the 1980’s, during the Reagan administration with the aggressive attitudes toward nuclear weapons on our part and then Soviet Union as well, maybe it was just as dangerous because there was a real danger of blowing up the world. Right now, the danger is not of an immediate nuclear confrontation, but rather of attitudes that are profoundly destructive and which lack any sort of mutuality or vision of some shared world so that the attitudes right now are more dangerous and the policies are most dangerous, but the nuclear confrontation in the 1980’s was certainly as dangerous on its own.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Jay Lifton, author of Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World.

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