Some weeks ago, when I happened to ask a good friend who was volunteering at the Pequot Lakes Library if he knew of any thought-provoking books to read, he led me to the nonfiction section and pulled a volume titled, “Them,” off the shelf.
“Here’s one,” he said. “See what you think.”
As it turned out, everything about the book was new to me. I soon learned the author, Ben Sasse, is a United States senator from Nebraska. He’s a Republican, and a very conservative one, in the classical sense of the word “conservative.”
But the book is not about politics.
Subtitled “Why We Hate Each Other-And How To Heal,” the book is about what’s gone wrong in America, and it offers steps toward healing our hurting nation. Sasse is an excellent writer with other books to his credit and holds a doctorate in history from Yale.
He’s also a deeply caring man with a firm ethical base and an equally firm sense of humor, and he refuses to pretend that our nation is not in trouble.
An explanatory blurb on the back of the book frames it this way: “American life expectancy is declining. Nearly half of us think the other political party isn’t just wrong; they’re evil. We’re the richest country in history, but we’ve never been more pessimistic. Stable families and enduring friendships - life’s fundamental pillars - are in statistical free fall.”
But Sasse argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, our crisis isn’t really about politics.
“It’s that we’re so lonely we can’t see straight - and it bubbles out as anger. As traditional tribes of place evaporate, we rally against common enemies so we can feel part of a team. No institutions command widespread public trust, enabling foreign intelligence agencies to use technology to pick the scabs on our toxic divisions. We’re in danger of half of us believing different facts than the other half, and the digital revolution throws gas on the fire.”
At the core of our problem is the shriveling-up of community. The changes brought about by digital technology have turned us increasingly inward, more focused on our electronic devices than upon the real life around us. Declining membership in churches, the waning influence of volunteer groups, suspicion and fear of immigrants and others who don’t look or talk or believe the same way we do - all add to what Sasse believes is a pervasive loneliness that leads in turn to the creation of what he calls “anti-tribes” - of news consumption more than political activism (Fox News vs. CNN, for example) - which have sprung up to fill the void left by the collapse of the natural, local, embodied, healthy tribes people have traditionally known.
(In this regard, it is worth pointing out, the book was published before COVID-19 commenced, doing even more damage to our shared sense of community.)
So how do we begin to fix what’s gone wrong?
Sasse suggests it has to do with a radical rediscovery of real places and human-to-human relationships. Even as technology nudges us to become rootless, Sasse believes only a recovery of rootedness can heal our lonely souls. We need to set aside the issues that divide us, at least long enough to concentrate on remembering the many shared values that unite us, and to work at caring about one another and the community in which we live out our lives.
“We’ve let our loneliness, our fears, and our anxieties swallow up the better angels of our nature. A republic can’t survive if it’s filled with fanatics. We need to be able to identify and then to resist the habits that are driving us toward fanaticism.”
He concludes the book by saying, “Ultimately, it’s not legislation we’re lacking; it’s the tight bonds that give our lives meaning, happiness, and hope. It’s the habits of heart and mind that make us neighbors and friends.
“At the end of the day, it’s love. And when a bunch of ‘them’ are joined by love, and by purpose, ‘they’ can become ‘we’.”
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.