Why We Hate Us

NPR's Dick Meyer, in his new book, Why We Hate Us, diagnoses the self-loathing, moral confusion and ennui that infect supersized America without hectoring and badgering us and without tiresome self-righteousness or smugness.

If that sounds like a blurb for the book, well, it is. In fact, it's mine, right there on the back cover. But I meant it, even though it's a blurb.  Dick wrote a great book, rollicking, funny and crazy-making. An interview with Dick appears below. Full disclosure: Dick is a friend, and I gave his manuscript a charity read. Fuller disclosure: Dick and I are in the same poker group. Even fuller disclosure: Dick's a crappy poker player. Fullest disclosure: I'm much worse.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Explain, in the context of your book, why the presidential campaign is unfolding the way it is. And, are we right to hate ourselves over the way politics is conducted in this country?

Dick Meyer: I had a brief, shining moment of optimism that this campaign was headed in a direction we could hate less and even like.  It's fading fast. It seems clear to me that both candidates are honest people. They are not phonies and, importantly, are able to communicate their authenticity as human beings through our absurd, distorted 24/7 media Cuisinart. Further, both candidates started out trying to capture the middle, which was how all American campaigns were run until the Nixon era.  Finally, both Obama and McCain are temperamentally sideline, not mainstream, people; they have independent, even mischievous anti-establishment streaks that I admire in a world of fake goody-goodies.
So looked at from 30,000 feet, I thought the selection of Obama and McCain, men of character, expressed a "hidden hand" desire of voters to put down the polarized and plastic politics we rightly hate. Maybe the winner will be able to govern well; that would be an outcome of consequence. But at this point both campaigns are tawdry and misleading, both platforms are the worst of their parties hackneyed, predictable old groupthink and the media coverage has bulimic and obnoxious. Are we right to hate all that? Of course.

JG: An oversimplified question, but an important one: Is television to blame for everything? I don't mean everything-everything - I don't think you can blame the atomization of community, which is one of your themes, on television - but, really, is television and the race to the bottom to blame?

DM: Television is to blame for exactly 57 percent of America's civic ills. I could prove it if I had the space. Television came of age at a time when Americans were becoming more mobile geographically and spiritually. We moved around more and lived with family and lifetime confidantes less. We rejected tradition, inherited values and philosophic perspectives on life. Television is one of the things that filled the vacuum. And then it promptly made the vacuum bigger.

For some reason, television, and all non-ancient media as far as I can tell, brings out the worst in us, not the best. It preys rather than elevates.  But blaming television is silly; it is a mirror.  We have seen the enemy and it us is. We ought to suck it up and admit it.

JG: Okay, so we suck it up and admit it. Then what? Life gets faster, not slower; media proliferates, and so on.

DM: Wisenheimer. We admit that blaming television, "the media" or politicians is, in the final analysis, juvenile and a cop out. The culture and the institutions of public life reflect the society - the truth of who we are. So here's how an individual 'sucks it up and admits it' - use the off button.  Consume less media -- period, spend more time with homo sapiens and less with screens, control the crazy busy pace of life and lobby your family, friends and colleagues to do the same. (Jeffrey, this may mean you need to stop blogging and write another book.) What's the alternative? A revolution that changes the dignity and brainpower of Hollywood and Washington.

JG: f I didn't know better, I'd say you were a social conservative. Are you in denial about your basic conservative impulses? Or have conservatives stolen language (and predispositions) that used to belong to liberals?

DM: Neither, sorry. My impulses are absolutely conservative in the Edmund Burke, Tory sense that political philosophy must vigilantly conserve the wisdom and values of the past before getting cocky about inventing a new future. The paramount bit of wisdom and value in human history, in my view, is the idea of freedom, the core notion of classical liberalism. I am a value pluralist, a disciple of Isaiah Berlin and the belief that there is nothing more important than preserving the freedom individuals need to pursue the good, and tolerance societies need to tolerate and respect that.

JG: Is the frenetic pace of life today causing us to lose our manners and civility, or is it technology that causes this? I've been enmeshed in a bit of a scandal at the magazine over the past few days, and I've received hundreds of angry e-mails, some of which drop the c-bomb on my head. How has it come to this? Are we not raising our children right? Does technology enable our innate meanness?

DM: See: that's bad manners right there. This is supposed to about ME and MY book, Why We Hate Us, not your petty tribulations, Jeffrey. Though, I'm sorry for your troubles, of course.
Technology and speed-living are secondary causes of atrophied manners. One primary cause is the 1960s-era indulgence that manners are repressive and for phonies only; it was thought to be more important to be true to yourself, to let it all hang out, than to be polite. Manners were for squares, conformists and weaklings. The other cause is that it is easier to be polite to people you know than to strangers (which is exactly why humans invented manners - to signal respect to strangers); we live with less community than we have, unknown to the merchants we deal with and without aunts and neighbors watching us every day.

Now, sociologists have found that technology when used in public fosters "social obliviousness."  Someone with music pods in their ears on the sidewalk tunes out the other pedestrians. Someone talking on a cell phone at CVS will talk louder about matters concerning physical hygiene than he or she would in their cubicle at work.  And because we are also attached to home and office by device, our pace is more frenetic and stressful, which leans to bad behavior. Quite literally, it is a vicious circle.

JG: So, what's the one-sentence answer? I'm not being facetious. I want to know the antidote to "speed-living." I know you talk about turning the TV off, and logging-off, and shutting down your blog. But it's deeper than that, isn't it? Maybe there's a one-word answer? Religion? Thoreau? Anti-capitalism? Every so often I think I want to go live on a mountaintop. Then I realize that I'd be bored after two days. Maybe it's too late to change. Maybe we've been stimulated past the point of no return.

DM: I'll take my one-sentence answer from Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "My personal feeling is that this is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that's all."