Meyer: Why We Hate Us

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!

Meyer and Shana; Blaming vs Growing Up
Class tells; Class wars do not
Meyer: Stuff and Nonsense
A Mother-Hung Nation; Meyer Again
The Futility of Political Debate
Paranoia Ascending Widgets

About Elizabeth Scalia
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  • dmeyer

    Obviously, this is the kind of generous support that every author could wish for. Obviously, our Anchoress is biased. She helped me a great deal in writing this book, though we have never met or even talked on the phone (and that very fact undermines a few of the arguments in the chapter of my book called “OmniMedia”).

    Since I began corresponding with the Anchoress, some of her readers and fellow bloggers, I have been struck that intellectuals concerned with religion — not necessarily just believers — have been my most productive readers: demanding, ambitious, non-trivial. This book is my first “big” book and I made mistakes. There is perhaps too much in it that is small-minded and petty, though I had hoped those bits were merely illustrative. I am hopeful that the extended Anchoress community will focus on the big ideas and perhaps help me learn more how to express them in ways that pierce the media-info-Cuisinart triviality cycle.

    I know many people dislike public writing. For those who do, I would welcome e-mail to

    I hope there is a fray join here later on.Thanks to all, especially the Anchoress

    Dick Meyer

  • Joseph

    I have had the great pleasure of crossing pens with Mr. Meyer for some years now and–partisan as I am–I have never been infuriated by anything he has written. And I certainly don’t hate what’s just been quoted by you, Anchoress, but I am kinda confused by it.

    In that marvelous prose style guide “The Reader Over Your Shoulder” poet Robert Graves remarks that effective prose should never leave any doubt in the reader’s mind as to whom; as to what; as to where; as to when; as to how; as to how large or how small; and as to how much or how many.

    Your first citation is four full paragraphs that leave this reader largely uninformed about any of these.

    I gather that Mr. Meyer and three other emminent men have been worried for a long time about a culture of narcisisim and self-fulfilment, presumably America’s current culture, although this is so only by implication in the quoted passage.

    But whom does this culture include? It appears to include the Bascombes, who have obviously been behaving boorishly somewhere off-stage. It also appears to include too many of a category called “post-sixties people”. [I was born in 1952. Do I qualify?] It is clear that these post-sixties people are in real bad shape: they don’t know what life is about, they lack a sense of place, they lack social inheritance, they lack high culture and high quality popular culture, they lack rules and duties, they lack life skills, they lack teaching, tradition, and imitation.

    Gosh its amazing what they lack. But who are they?

    Do they include George F. Will? Christopher Lasch? Warren Buffett? Oprah Winfrey? Colin Powell? John Gotti? Martha Stewart? Condolesa Rice? Bill Gates? Al Gore? John McCain? Steven Spielburg? Julia Roberts? The gentleman with the well-modulated voice who hosts the broadcasts of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra? You? Me? Or Mr. Meyer himself?

    If this is truly an American cultural problem, shouldn’t it include all of us? If so, why is it the problem of a post-sixties They rather than a We?

    Or are they merely “the great unwashed” as we find them out there with their I-pods, their computer games, their Blackberries, their flat screen televisions, their reality TV shows, their SUVs, and their idols such as Donald Trump or Paris Hilton, who have turned being boorish into one of the fine arts? So They are the American narcissist culture. And who are We?

    One should always be suspicious of the We that refers to the people who get on Our nerves as They.

    It doesn’t surprise me that Mr. Meyer hails from the same culture that Stephen Birmingham wrote so tellingly of as Our Crowd.

    Our Crowd.

    I wonder what Mr. Meyer would have thought of the unwashed greenhorns down on Cherry and Hester Streets, with their Piecework, their pushcarts, their Yiddish, their backstairs Talmud academies, their illicit crap games among the tough little proto-gangster boys in the streets, and their great tragedy that we still know as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire? The TSF had as profound an impact on the New York of their day as 9/11 has had in ours.

    Would the exiles from the pogroms and from the constantly shifting boundary between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, have been a We or a They?

    Now my own family traces back to the time when They were those wild and uncouth yahoos hailing from places like Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, with their forty-rod corn liquor, their orgiastic Camp Meetings, their chewing tobacco, and their Bowie knives. As you might guess, my earliest known ancestor was one of the yahoos.

    But all of Us–the civilized Anglicans, Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists of the New England Way, and even, in that motley place called New York, Dutch Reformed Christians and Sephardic Jews–who once hosted a speech by George Washington himself–all of Us really didn’t believe that the country could derive any true benefit whatever from the They on the other side of the Appalacians.

    And last, but not least, the They of very little later, the Irish Who Need Not Apply, fleeing the potato blight and bringing their rough peasant Popishness and hair-trigger pugnacity–spreading the influence of the suave and sinister Jesuits beyond the confined little enclave down in Maryland.

    At least that’s what We all thought about Them at the time.

    Mr. Meyer has been kind enough to suggest that he might rejoin the fray. I certainly would welcome him. I no longer drink forty-rod, Granpaw McNelly was the last of us to chew Red Man or say Grace at table, and I myself am now a rootless Buddhist lacking spiritual and intellectual ancestry–though I am quite self-fulfilled.

    But, if put to it, I could probably root around and find the Bowie knife somewhere.

    [Sorry the excerpt wasn't enough for you, Joseph, but it was an excerpt mean to give a quick sense of the book - clearly I failed with you, although I have emailers telling me they're looking forward to the book having read the excerpt, so I don't think is has bothered too many. The Bascombes - I thought about bracketing and explaining, but I really didn't have the time. I always figure my readers are pretty generous sorts who will not hold my faults up to a glaring light, nor will I pick on them for spelling errors, etc. It's all part of living together and getting along in the great big world, after all, ain't it? So, today I fail the prose test. Hopefully tomorrow I will do better. Hopefully tomorrow we will all be better people than we are today, right? Or what's the point? Meanwhile, are you blogging anymore at a site of your own? Because this seems like it should be a blogpost at your blogsite, doesn't it? - admin]

  • roylofquist

    Dear Anchoress and Correspondents,

    I have always been fascinated by au courant intellectual discourse. I have seen a trend over the last 50 years to a kind of ennui. After WWII, an existentially threatening time, there has been a tendency to conflate ordinary politics into something more important than it really is.

    Aside from my curiosity, I am of the hoi polloi. The “ordinary” folks I know are not that much different from the folks I knew 60 years ago. They are simple. Words and clever arguments do not confuse them. It is their wisdom that has carried us to being the closest thing to God’s Kingdom that this world has seen.

    I am serene in my faith that this too (whatever the current crisis) shall pass. My grandchildren and theirs are truly blessed.


  • Acer Palmatum

    Dick, you should thank the Anchoress, because her review makes me want to buy this book! I think you may be onto something here.

  • Joseph

    Anchoress, its not a question of you failing the prose test. My viol strings tend to be tuned a little sharp and I apologise if I have in any way hurt you. And you have gently reminded me once again that I am abusing your bandwidth. My mh condition is starting to override my good judgment–one of the symptoms is too prolix and too thoughtless writing. So good wishes to you, and thank you for bringing me up short enough to catch my slip into the manic before it got out of hand.

    [We all get too prolix, sometimes, Joseph, as we learned in Catch-22! (Recall ex PFC Wintergreen!) - admin]

  • Peregrine John

    This looks like brilliant stuff, to me. Between Messrs. Meyer and Joseph, I’m pretty sure it’s all a bit beyond my normal thought processes once the complexity and arguability (is that a new word?) of the topics are brought out; but that is, as our hostess points out, a good thing, a path to tomorrow’s Me being better than today’s. Since I come from a long line of dirt-farming yahoos, crescendoing in the last few generations with some genuine heroes and geniuses, I certainly hope so.

    I’m looking forward both to watching my own reaction and the reactions of various ideological groups. It will be telling, and useful. Can’t hardly wait.

  • Dave Justus

    I’d love to read this, any chance a Kindle version will be availible? :)

    I am skeptical though, it seems to me to be another ‘things used to be so much better and everything is going to heck now’ ideas, and I don’t have a lot of patience with those. Usually I find they over romaticize the good of the past and are overly pessimistic about the ills of the present.

    I’m certainly post 60s, and I’ll also admit to a lack of what is probably considered “life skills.” I’m no good at carpentry, automechanics, and not even a great cook. If I want home repairs done, my car fixed or a gourmet meal I have to hire that out. Of course, since using my primary skills earns me more in the time it would take me to perform those tasks, that is a pretty good deal. Perhaps part of “life skills” in the 21st century is understanding that specialization is often more efficient (and thus better compensated) the generalization.

    Perhaps I am too optomistic. I think now is the best time ever (or more accurately so far) to be alive. Sure, the very abundance of choices can create problems, but those problems are much better then the ones we used to have.

  • TheAnchoress

    Actually, Dave, being as how you are a guy who really tries to look at both sides, this book would be right up your alley. It’s definitely not a “things were so much better when I was young” book and more an acknowledgment that will all of the ways things ARE better and HAVE improved in the nation – with all the solutions and improvements – there are other problems that are eating at the heart of who we are as a nation and society. I think you, esp. would like it!

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  • merrymary

    I am listening to the podcast as I write this – I am fascinated and anxious to get my hands on the book. Very insightful post and excerpts on your part and it is so wonderful to hear (sorry read – confused with the podcast going on as I comment!) such an articulate and insightful discourse on the state of “society”.

    An interesting and somewhat related post on called “Building Resilience in a Turbulent World” mentions the same issue of lack of community and how that effects our outlook. “Louis Cozolino, author of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, concurs. ‘For most of the past, people lived in groups of 50 to 70 and there were multiple generations and multiple people we were interconnected with,’ he told Vision. ‘But in societies like our own, the emphasis is on individualism. I suspect that the increase of mental illness that we’re seeing is related to that factor. It’s hard to prove it because we can’t go back in time, and we can only guess that there really is more depression today than there used to be. But we can make a compelling case for it.’” I think that there is a certain “mental illness” that we share as a society.

    Your quote from Meyers – “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.

    I think that there are so few manners practiced out there (I agree with Meyers here enthusiastically) because there is so little self respect and therefore cannot respect or grant beingness to others – we have had the religiousness and for the most part, spirituality pounded out of us. We hear constantly that we are basically chemical reactions gone awry and being fed the spin that a drug is going to fix our spiritual and cultural dilemmas. It is very difficult to maintain community and thereby a sense of self. So we are left with a certain deprivation here.

    Thanks so much for this post – I look forward to reading back to the other post you mentioned.

    I do hope that you are up and running (site) and your health is not bugged for long either!

  • mskloemp

    I have a quote from Luther and one from Augustine. Both seem to see sin as the self curved in on itself or narcissism. Luther said the greatest expression of God’s wrath is His silence. He allows to go our own way. We prefer our sins to God and He allows the choice. St. Augustine said that the penalty of sin is sin. We choose sin and that sin is our punishment. We choose narcissism and that narcissism acts as a flail in our lives and our relationships.

    Martin Luther defined sin as “incurvatus in se”

    Augustine defined sin as “the heart turned in on itself.”

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