Them: Why We Hate and How to Heal
© 2018 Ben Sasse
The tenor of civil ‘discourse’ in America today is disheartening and distressful, in part for at least over a decade there has been little discourse at all, only yelling. We seem less a nation and more a mob of three hundred million people who happen to have some connection with DC. Ben Sasse’s Them reveals the author (a fairly new senator from Nebraska whose hope has not been ritually smothered in subcommittee meetings) to be similarly disturbed. Despite his occupation, however, this is not a book on politics. It is, rather, a citizen’s thinking-over how things deteriorated to this degree and what, if any hope there is for finding our way out of the darkness. It is a profoundly thoughtful and touching book, and although I don’t know if the course Sasse recommends will necessarily be adequate, his description of the problem, with his heart fully on the line, is insightful.
The greatest problem, Sasse argues, is loneliness – a profound, sickening loneliness that is undermining our physical, mental, emotional, and civic health. We are living in a profoundly disruptive moment in history, in which the snowball effects of technology are making any sort of vocational stability a joke for many Americans. A vocation is an important thing: it isn’t merely a means of putting food on the stable, it is a source of meaning for people, even for people who don’t have jobs that allow them to have a profound effect on people, like a teacher, nurse, or artist. For someone to know that others need them is a vital piece of our interior lives. Technological change is radically eroding the ability of many people to hold on to it. This is especially the case in America’s poorer segments, who don’t have the material or social resources to adapt quickly to the need for change. The other major source of our civic loneliness is the fact that so much of civic society has been destroyed, especially the family. A poor child born to supportive family can climb their way into financial stability, but not one born into chaotic circumstances. A supportive family is not just the means to a financial end, however: families give us deep roots to our places, and meaning to our lives.
Our loneliness, alienation, and frustration are only part of the problem, says Sasse; what makes matters far worse is that we are trying to meet our needs for meaning and community by embracing anti-tribes. We sit at home in front of the television, attaching ourselves to ideological stories and personalities, or lose ourselves for hours on and throughout the day in the constant roar of social media activity. We are engulfed in a roar of online chatter, and those voices that we hear above the din are the loudest and the angriness. We do not hear the still, small voice of grace or reason — we hear only rage. And it doesn’t matter if we’re raging against something, or we’re being raged against: either way, our emotions are quickened, our minds are stirred, and , we are engaged in poisonous rapture, and kept addicted. It’s good for the professional politicians, and it’s wonderful for the hack journalists — but it is woefully bad for America.
What can be done? First and foremost, unplug from the noise. Sasse argues that we can and must redefine our relationship with the technology that has overtaken so much of our lives in this past decade, and re-prioritize the people who are physically in our lives. (He and his family have scheduled ‘tech sabbaths’.) Second, people must reject anti-identities — defining themselves by who they oppose — and put politics in its place. The government should not be used as a bludgeon to attack one’s enemies, and each of us should labor to hold everyone to the same standards — even if they’re on “our” side. More importantly, however, Sasse calls readers to be “Americans, again”: to re-affirm our common identity, rooted in the fundamental belief in human dignity declared with our independence on July 4th, 1776. If we truly took one another’s dignity to heart, we could not rail against one another or ignore our mutual sorrows. Tying all these together is the need for humility. Each and every one of us need to admit to acknowledge that we have our limits; to our knowledge, to our personal virtue, to our ability to control things or fate or one another.
We Americans are plainly in a dark place now, and this earnest plea from Sasse is a welcome reminder that there are people groping in the darkness, trying to find others and a way out of it. He is very much the citizen-writer here, earnestly nonpartisan — quoting from liberals and conservatives alike, acknowledging his own biases as he entreats the reader to consider theirs. We cannot know now how modern democracies will adjust to the volatile effects of social media, or to the industries of the 21st century. Continuing to linger in mobwar will only lead to some nightmare like the cultural revolution in China, or greater tyranny still.