Through his columns, first at CBS and now at NPR, Dick Meyer has provided this site with so many interesting jumping-off points that I’ve given him his own category. I believe he is the only writer besides Chesterton to gain that dubious distinction, but, I digress.
Several times over the past few weeks, I have mentioned the upcoming release of his book, Why We Hate Us; American Discontent in the New Millennium; it was released yesterday, and good for all of us that it was.
In his recent collection, One Man’s America; the Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation, George Will wrote in his intro,
…for all the fascination with new media, I believe that books remain the most important carrier of ideas, and ideas are always the most important news. Hence books themselves are often news.
Why We Hate Us fits Will’s description of a book-as-news; he is not saying what everyone else is saying. Amid the jarring and discordant punditry-chorus, where the left, basso profundo repeats “everything is bad, everything is wrong and you suck, too…” while the soprano right intones “everything is great. Except for them. And that. And you…” Meyer steps up, clears his throat and sings:
Prosperity and security are necessary conditions of head problems like we have. But they are not sufficient conditions. Christopher Lasch, a historian and social critic, was one of the first to worry that the worldview revolutions of the sixties could truly threaten people’s ability to build and lead productive, unselfish adult lives. “American confidence has fallen to a low ebb,” Lasch said in his 1978 book The Culture of Narcissism; American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectation. “Society seems everywhere to have used up its store of constructive ideas.” The culprit, he said, was selfism, or narcissism.
Looking at a family like the Bascombes, Lasch would say they suffer because their self-centeredness, as it does with too many post-sixties people, has blinded them to what life is really about. They lack a sense of their place in their spiritual and intellectual ancestry, in history and in community. They lack what I call “social inheritance.” More, they don’t have what we would now generically call “life skills.” Lasch believed authentic and enduring life skills don’t come from how-to books or innate people smarts, but from teaching, tradition and imitation. They come organically, not deliberately, from parents and grandparents, from religion, from how people in the neighborhood live and act, from high culture and from high-quality popular culture. They come with rules and duties, not just smiley faces. Lasch says, “the atrophy of older traditions of self-help has eroded everyday competence, in one area after another.” …
“For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individualist saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped to his own design,” Lasch wrote. There is nothing new to be seen in a mirror. Narcissists are obsessed with pictures of themselves, as the minister Chris Eads puts it. They care mostly about how they appear to others and, after that, how they feel. The cruel irony is that this self-centeredness is actually the ultimate form of dependence; the narcissist’s pleasure and peace depend on appearances and what others think. So they rely on building the biggest McMansion on the block, wearing the biggest diamonds, blasting the loudest music, or being the most politically correct person in town. This helps create the public environment we hate.
Self-awareness, self-realization, self-actualization, and self-fulfillment have become the measures of emotional and existential health – “the triumph of the therapeutic,” as sociologist Philip Rieff called it. But being so self-centered is a retreat. And in the 1970′s Lasch saw “selves” retreating from religion, politics, hometowns, high culture and even history – from duty and have-tos.
I know, it’s good, right? You want to keep reading!
The book has a pernicious draw-in; Meyer’s solo begins by enumerating some of the social ills of our time, and as he does it basso left and soprano right readers will be chiming in with, “yeah, that’s right!” in turn, before he crescendos into his central theme: you’re both right, you’re both wrong, and this non-stop bickering is only further fragmenting a society that is already perilously balkanized and splintering further every second.
It will infuriate you. Left or right, at some point you will find yourself sputtering at the pages and shaking the fist. Read on. If you’re as open as you think you are (and we all think we’re open-minded) and if you’re intellectually honest (ditto), you’ll eventually find yourself sitting back in the chair, less angry, more thoughtful, and willing to consider that maybe some of what you think could be amended to include some of what that other person you hate thinks. And think how good you’ll feel about yourself for allowing the admission!
This is not a book of solutions; every season we see dozens of those – books promising that if we just live this way or that, adopt this attitude or that – everything will be better. Meyer allows that there is no one grand “solution” that can be mandated and put into law; the solutions, rather, must come from within each of us, in our sphere, in our tryings at daily life. From our balkanized bunkers, we will have to decide just how alone and insulated we want to be, or whether we would rather begin a reclamation of community – in all of its messy, differing and not-always-completely-fair but authentic glories. It is a challenge to America, to pull herself together in the small ways – in order to prevent the big falling-apart.
I frankly think this is a book to read yourself, and to give to your mother and father, and to slip into your kid’s college trunk, as he or she is packing. Everyone should read it, and think about what Meyer is saying, and discuss it with others. I think in so doing, we’ll find out that – for all of our differences – we have some mutual core concerns.
And perhaps simply acknowledging that can start us on a restorative road.
To get another sense of the book, read Meyer’s turn at the On Faith stump over at WaPo/Newsweek:
My great-grandparents, grandparents and parents all lived in insulated communities of German Jews, in America. They were reform Jews whose families had fled Germany around 1848, extremely assimilated (a term of denigration to many other Jews), secular and non-observant. They had unadulterated and strong Jewish identities, part cultural, part historical and part ethnic; they had realistic and unbending views about anti-Semitism and the social marginalization of Jews.
That is the religious tradition I inherited and that I feel is an invariable core of my identity – no matter what choices I may make in life. Nobody but me thinks of this as something religious. I am not observant and I am not a believer. Within my own skin and experience, however, I feel traditional.
What I certainly lack is a German-Jewish community of reform Jews. They really don’t exist in America anymore. Community is what nurtures religion organically; without community, religion is not inherited and taught by example – it is chosen and in some ways improvised. In America, that can be like any other consumer choice.
You can hear Meyer discussing the book with Leonard Lopate here and he’ll be doing a reading at Politics & Prose in DC on the 11th, which will be available on NPR. Look for him also on The Colbert Report on August 14th.
Full disclosure: I had a hand in “midwifing” along the first draft of the book (and provided snarky musings on the title – which is a take off of Newsweek’s famous post-9/11 cover statement: Why They Hate Us)
Below, I’ve linked to past Anchoress posts in which we’ve discussed some of the ideas Meyer is exploring in the book – perhaps they will serve to whet the appetite and inspire you to purchase the thing, which – if you haven’t figured it out yet – I am highly recommending to you!