American Discontent Or 'Why We Hate Us'

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In his new book Why We Hate Us, Dick Meyer argues that for the most part Americans are dissatisfied with their own society. But he offers a solution: "a return to some traditions that predate the '60s."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the Knight Studio at the Newseum, Washington D.C.'s newest museum devoted to journalism and the news business. There's a lot in our culture to critique, but Dick Meyer argues that a lot of us find many things we truly hate - MySpace, culture wars, bridezillas, red states, blue states, tattooed obscenities, Paris Hilton, Wall Street, big things and little things - all combined into a cacophony that accompanies our increasingly shallow and lonely lives.

After Vietnam and Watergate, he says, we've developed exquisite bull detectors, except where it comes to ourselves. Yes, he said, we hate us, too, and rise more and more quickly to the attack. Dick Meyer's book, "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium," diagnoses our communal disease, and it's got prescriptions, as well. So, drop your BlackBerry. Turn up the radio. Later in the hour, silver medal, why we're more likely to celebrate bronze and brood over silver.

But first, a challenge. Tell us how and why you find meaning in the more hateable aspects of modern life. Is there real fulfillment on your Facebook page, authenticity in your reality show, commitment? Tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org, and you could comment on our blog as well. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation. Dick Meyer is NPR's new editorial director of digital media. He was for many years a reporter, producer, online editor, and columnist at CBS News in Washington. His new book is called "Why We Hate Us." And Dick Meyer, welcome to the Newseum.

DICK MEYER: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And I - we came up with that question because there was a fascinating exchange when you are online at CBS News and you wrote a column about the loneliness of people's lives and how more and more it's easily documented that fewer people have more intimates - they talk to fewer and fewer people. They don't live intergenerational lives. And then you got a bunch of interesting email responses.

MEYER: I did. I wrote a column about what to me was this stunning and very successful study that showed the number of people who reported having absolutely no confidantes in their life - nobody who they talked about intimate affairs with - had tripled from, I think it was, '85 to 2004. And so I wrote a column about that, and I was deluged by responses by people who said, hey, I'm isolated by choice, society has gotten so toxic, and people have gotten so boorish and so aggressive, and the prevailing culture is so tacky and unfriendly that I choose to withdraw. Now, I don't kid myself that these were average people. These were exceptional people. But nonetheless, I was stunned by it, and I started taking the complaints about everyday life more seriously from that point on.

CONAN: You're right. We are morally and existentially tired, disoriented, anchorless, and defensive. That is why we hate us.

MEYER: I think that's true. I mean, I think that for a number of reasons, we have developed what I might call a low-grade but constant infection towards the prevailing culture. And the hate that I use in the title, though it's an aggressive word, impolite in many sectors, I don't mean red-meat hate. I don't mean that we hate America, the idea of our country, nor do we hate each other, our neighbors, other families.

It's the kinds of hate where you say, don't you hate it when you're in a quiet restaurant and the lady at the table next door to you is blaring into her cell phone about the latest details of her dermatologist appointment? Or don't you hate it when people on cable-television - supposedly - news shows are just yelling at each other and arguing? What I say is these dislikes, these allergies, that we encounter in everyday life and in public life are enduring and they're significant. In everyday life, these are real obstacles to our contentment. They're real frustrations. And in public life and social life, they're genuine obstacles to society solving our collectible, yet solvable problems.

CONAN: Because they reflect also a distress in institutions. Nobody trusts Congress, nobody trusts politicians, and nobody trusts the media, and nobody trusts Wall Street. Nobody trusts anything.

MEYER: Precisely. And what we've been really slow to figure out in this society is that this has going on since the mid-1970s. Trust in the large institutions of American life, the ones you just listed, started ebbing after Vietnam and then Watergate, and it has really not corrected itself in all the decades since then, and occasionally now, in the past year or so, it sets new records. Approval of Congress plummets to new lows. Feelings that the country has headed in the wrong direction, new lows this summer.

CONAN: Look at the economy.

MEYER: Right. But people say, look at the economy, or look at the mortgage scandal, or look at the unpopular war in Iraq. All of that's true, but nonetheless, the phenomenon that I have been talking about has been stable since the '70s. It's a fundamental fact of both political and social life in this country right now.

CONAN: To what degree is any of this, you should forgive the expression, cranky-old-guy stuff?

MEYER: Well, you know, I had to take a hard look at that. When I was walking around and started, you know, noticing, you know, how come clerks in stores don't want to take my money and be polite to me even though I want to pay for something? Or how come people are always cutting me off? Or isn't that stuff on TV awfully violent? Or isn't the potty humor on TV absurd to be showing our kids? And I thought, what, Meyer, are you becoming, you know, a mini Andy Rooney? So, what I decided to do is try to write about these things and think about them with a little bit of intellectual rigor, and what I found is so many people shared my complaints, that it wasn't just cranky-curmudgeon-middle-age syndrome.

CONAN: And is it nostalgia for Mayberry?

MEYER: Well, it - I would be less than forthright if I said that I probably didn't have a nostalgic personality by bent, by proclivity, but no, it's not. It's being honest about what society has lost in four or five decades of radical and rapid social change. And it is not being unrealistic about the flaws in American communities and small towns before '60s. I mean, if you were somebody who was different in a small town of Mayberry, if you were black, if you were homosexual, if you were marginal in any way, it was bad, and it's better now. But we have lost a lot in our society because of our mobility, because of our rejection of inherited wisdom, and also now because of the changes that have come about in the pace of life, thanks to technology. It's been a lot of change, and we have been slow on the uptake in coming to grips with it.

CONAN: And one of things, you say, is that a lot of this new reality that we live with is phony, and we see it as phony. Nevertheless, a lot of people would argue that we see wonderful things in virtual communities. We - the atomization of society that you talk about forms new communities of people who are able to find each other through places like the Internet. There were people who you talk about, politically very upset that they could not find anybody who they agreed with them in their communities, and again, the Internet and other technological marvels have enabled them to reach out and locate other people.

And what we're asking for is, what kind of authenticities do you find, listeners, in these new worlds that Dick Meyer is complaining that we hate so much? Do you find some places wonderful in the strip mall? Do you love your MySpace page? Do you find a community on the Internet? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And those kinds of things, if you are interested in Azerbaijani bikini backsliders, you can find people on the Internet who do that.

MEYER: Absolutely. I mean, I think the debate about whether the new technology is either morally or socially sociologically good or bad, it's like arguing about whether the pencil is good or bad. These are merely tools. They can be used for good, and they can be used for, as they say, evil. We are in control of that as individuals and we shouldn't seed that kind of control. We shouldn't talk about - we should be careful when we talk about the media. We should realize that God invented the off button for a reason.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MEYER: Now, there are...

CONAN: Don't listen to him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MEYER: Ignore the man behind the microphone. No, there are good real communities and there are bad real communities. If you're a member of the White Aryan Nation or a hate group, you have social capital, you're in a community, but nobody would argue that's positive. And that can be the same thing with virtual communities. I mean, a column that I'm publishing tomorrow is about cancer in virtual communities. Now, that's a great opportunity for people, 40 years ago, cancer patients could not connect to each other.

CONAN: And...

MEYER: That was sort of a taboo, and now they can, and that's a wonderful thing. But if you're not careful as a media consumer, it's very risky, because this technology does have an aspect that's very immersive. It's almost addictive and you just have to be careful with it.

CONAN: And it is also virtual. You can go outdoors now without ever leaving the house.

MEYER: Correct, and that can create social isolation. This technology also tends to be a timesink. It's just - you know, you'd get online and the time has gone. Once upon a time, if you wanted to go shopping, you had to get off your keister and either walk or drive or pedal to a store. Now, you can do it, you know, from your den. It gives us all sorts of ways not to have real human contact and there's not a substitute for face-to-face talk.

CONAN: There is no substitute for face-to-face talk, yet we do find new communities and new ways of contacting each other all the time. And this idea of phoniness, well, who gets to decide what's phony and what's authentic?

MEYER: Well, I think if you cede that to anybody else, you're making a mistake. You have to decide it for your own life, and you'll have to decide it in what you consume and how you perceive the world. I mean, there is not a national commission of phoniness detection. If there were, I would probably ask to be nominated, and I'm sure I would be kicked off.

CONAN: We wouldn't trust you, anyway.

MEYER: I am - nobody has so far in my life, believe me. It's - you know, there is no objective measure of phoniness, but I would say, like pornography, we all know it when we see it, as Potter Stewart, the Supreme Court justice, said. I mean, there is nobody in the world, when they're on hold with a...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MEYER: Large corporation and the recording says, please hold for Amalgamated...

CONAN: Oh, the...

MEYER: Potting Soil, because we care about you. There's not a Homo sapiens alive who believes that they really care about us and that's phony.

CONAN: Your call is important to us.

MEYER: Exactly.

CONAN: Please hang on for the next 40 minutes!

MEYER: Exactly. Nobody believes that. Nobody believes when they watch a Budweiser commercial that the actual connection between a beer and American flag and a hoof of a Clydesdale horse is going to make you a happier person, but we sit through that.

CONAN: The Dalmatian, I love the Dalmatian. Anyway, we're talking with Dick Meyer about his book, "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium." And when we come back, we'll start with your calls, 800-989-8255. You can send us email. The address is talk@npr.org. In the modern life that we all now lead, or so many of us lead, where do you find authenticity? I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the Knight Studio inside the Newseum in Washington, D.C. It's Wednesday. The opening line of Dick Meyer's new book reads, "There is something rotten in the state of America. We're mad as hell," he says, about the phony, belligerent and toxic in our culture, and he offers up some solutions for it. Dick Meyer is the author of "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium." The first chapter is called the "Land of the Fake." It's online at npr.org.

How and why do you find meaning in the more hateable aspects of modern life? Is there real fulfillment in your Facebook page, authenticity at the strip mall? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. We'll also hear from members of the audience here at the Newseum as well. And you can email us, talk@npr.org. Now, let's get Wes on the line. Wes is calling us from Marietta in Georgia - excuse me, in Ohio, wrong Marietta.

WES (Caller): Wrong Marietta. Well, I actually am a member of an online parenting community called Punky Moms. And it was set up as a kind of an alternative-parenting resource for tattooed and pierced and punk-rock parents. And I found quite a bit of - I don't know if you want to call it validation necessarily, but it's a very strong community. I mean, if someone has any troubles, everyone's always willing to give advice, and I mean, it - I think that's wonderful.

CONAN: And so these people all get together and you email each other or blog to each other and explain your problems and any proposed solutions.

WES: Oh, absolutely. But I mean, it's more than just like talking about our problems. You know, we tell good stories about our kids, and you know, how much fun we had going out with friends, away from the kids, and on one occasion we have actually got together. In fact, we're going to Seattle here in about a month, and we're going to meet up with some of them - some of our online parenting friends there. So...

CONAN: A convention?

WES: No, not a convention, probably a barbecue.

CONAN: A barbecue, OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's completely different. And how many do you expect to show up?

WES: I don't know, probably four or five. I would think, I mean, whatever ones are in the Seattle area and want to go, Punky Moms, go!

CONAN: Go, Punky Moms. All right, Wes. Thanks very much for your call.

WES: Thank you, too, very much. I enjoy your show, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that. And well, tattooed, punk parents, that would be one of those groups that might have been marginalized in Mayberry.

MEYER: I think they probably would've and they probably still would be, depending on the degree of the tattoos. I mean, there are a couple of things...

CONAN: Barney Fife, I think, would fit right in, but...

MEYER: I think you're probably right, and Otis certainly would not have noticed. But you know, I guess the question is, if this fellow and his wife keep it in perspective, you know, and this is something they do, they don't think that this is their primary community, it's not a substitute for more, you know, actual family relationships or talking to their neighbors over the fence, fine. In moderation with a little bit of thoughtfulness, none of the stuff has cause to be harmful.

I mean, I am certainly intrigued by the phenomena of big-time tattooing. I will confess to you, I don't understand it as a form of self-expression, because it's awfully permanent, and I do find violent imagery in tattoos very, very disturbing, you know, barbed wire and things like that. I don't quite get what's going on in that, and I don't quite know why people would want to signal that kind of information about themselves to total strangers.

CONAN: Well, one of the things that you also write about in your book is the degree to which we overlook things that we ought to have in common. I mean, the right/left, divide, for example, wildly seems to overstate the case. I mean, you, for example, cited the case of a pastor out in Virginia whose concerns a lot of liberals would automatically, you know, empathize with.

MEYER: Absolutely, I mean, I think one of the reasons why I feel that there is something quite optimistic in this book with this negative title is that when people get together and talk about the stuff we and they hate, I think there's a lot of common ground, and nowhere do you see that more than parenting. Now, my guess is that these punky, tattooed parents, when they get together and they're talking about what kinds of stuff they let their kids watch on TV, violent video games, the kind of sexual exploitation that's in a lot of marketing, I bet that they will sound very similar to yuppie, urban parents in New York or home schooling Christians in Loudon County. It's just that we have found it hard to listen to each other at a time when we feel that we're so polarized. But the story of polarization is phony. We are not polarized in this country.

CONAN: Now let's go to Kristen, Kristen with us from Denver, Colorado.

KRISTEN (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

KRISTEN: Everybody says that. Your person indicated that what you wanted to hear from my part of the story is that we can't really talk about this too much without falling back on spirituality and the new spirituality, but how to turn within from what seems outer chaos - I'm a Christian Scientist and I haven't always followed it. I was raised in it, and just lately I have fallen back to that discipline, but I find my practitioner - and online they have a spirituality.com as a Christian Science online service, and I do an awful lot of research and reading online as well, and so we're kind of amalgamating a very, kind of, older religion with new technology.

CONAN: I assume that there are Christian Science reading rooms and churches there in Denver. Why online? Why don't you go meet people?

KRISTEN: Well, as a matter of fact, I'm a singer. I'm a soloist at my own Christian Science church.

CONAN: Oh, I see. So, you do, though?

MEYER: So, you do?

KRISTEN: So, I'm very well-acquainted with reading rooms and so forth, but I also spend a lot of time online, and it's very accessible, and very up-to-date. And it's just one other way that I keep myself spiritually centered and sane in a pretty crazy world.

MEYER: Well, I would suggest, if I may, that what you're talking about is using the Internet as a tool, no different than the library, or no different than the bookstore, and that it's, in that regard, not a great change from where we've been. There was one phrase that you used that I would pick up on just a little bit, which is, when you were talking about spirituality, you talked about turning in on yourself, but in fact, it sounds like you've turned to a traditional practice of religion and a practice that involves others and that involves community. In the sort of post-'60s world, the - our general approach, not just to spirituality but to finding recipe for life, is that you need to discover yourself, reinvent yourself, that somehow the roots of contentment come from the self. And that I think is - I don't think that's true.

CONAN: It's hard, for one thing.

MEYER: It's very difficult, and I think what we really know is that it's much easier to get contentment and meaning from the outside world, from others, from traditions, and from giving to others, that when you turn in on yourself, it's very, very difficult and it is much...

KIRSTEN: That wasn't my point.

MEYER: No, I understand. I do understand that. I was just...

KIRSTEN: Turning in on yourself and turning against yourself, or turning in on yourself, are two different things.

MEYER: Absolutely.

KIRSTEN: If we talk about what Jesus said about the kingdom of God is within you, you know, it is said in all religious disciplines down the line, that the outer changes the, you know, your inner spiritual self does not. And I think people are turning more and more to within where there is some continuity and some divinity, maybe.

CONAN: Kristen, thanks very much for that thought. Appreciate it.

KIRSTEN: Thank you.

CONAN: And we have a question from somebody here at the Newseum, holding a very old - is that a newspaper printed in cuneiform?

SARAH (Audience Member): I beg your pardon, Mr. Conan. This is today's newspaper record of...

CONAN: Of Washington, D.C.

SARAH: Of this particular city, yes.

CONAN: OK, go ahead, please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SARAH: I'm a former print journalist. My name is Sarah. I'm from Silver Spring. And just within the last 24 hours, I've enjoyed both the benefits of what the Internet has given us in terms of a very much richer and renewed contact and ongoing conversation with my high-school classmates. You know, it used to be just at reunions, now it's just constant debates, discussions, you know, get your act together, you know, I'm tired of hearing that.

But at the same time, last night, I had a kind of conversation I wouldn't necessarily have online and that was with several new housemates who happened to be - one works for the Army and the other is a, you know, former Army himself - about the Second Amendment. And I mean, I'm not a person who's generally a proponent of Second Amendment rights, but it was - to listen to these people talk and to hear what they had to say about gun laws, it gave me something that I wouldn't necessarily have even gone into a conversation about with anyone online.

CONAN: That's interesting.

SARAH: So, I think that, you know, we - both sides have had their points.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much for that. It's interesting to correlate that with the statistics that show more and more of us live alone.

MEYER: Well, it is. And if that's true, then it's natural that more and more of us would look for contact in those, you know, in virtual ways, or through email, where we once might have written letters, exactly.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the thought. Let's go to Joe. Joe is with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

JOE (Caller): Yeah. I was speaking just the other day about the idea that - I'm in the Woodstock generation of baby boomers. And baby boomers, with along the Woodstock revolution, were promoting spiritual growth, self-awareness, love and peace, and all of that. And then, of course, as the revolution began to die with a number of years and my generation began to sell out and open businesses and became CEOs and whatever, I like - what happened was, we discovered that all of that spiritual growth, self-awareness stuff could be sold to people. And I think in selling it through Madison Avenue and everything, I think we became somewhat cynical about each other and the rest of the world. And then we passed that along to our children, and I was wondering what you thought about that.

CONAN: What do think, Dick?

MEYER: Well, I sort of think you've nailed it. I think that - how to put it? People who want to sell recipes abhor a vacuum. And there was a lot of genuine and productive idealism in the 1960s. And I think there was a sense that in Americans, that the inherited wisdom of our elders, of our parents, of our communities, of our religion, was prejudice, was small-minded, was cramped. And it took a very rebellious spirit to get the civil-rights and the voting-rights legislation passed, to the pass the landmark legislation.

It happened then to push feminism and other sort of liberation ideas through, and that entailed a philosophy of sort of radical individualism, let it all hang out. But that was also otherwise directed. It was part of a community. I think then what it was followed by was what Tom Wolfe famously called "the Me Decade," and I don't think it was the people sold out. I think that what happened was people - we as a society - undervalued what I call social inheritance.

It undervalued the sort of collective wisdom about organizing life that has passed on through the ages, and of looking at your life as part of a community, part of a history, part of a country, part of a family for many generations, and the idea of the self-made man which started in America with the idea - you know, Benjamin Franklin, you can throw off the shackles of old Europe, of class and vocation and invent yourself.

But that was accompanied by an ethical code that dictated, at least a little bit, about how you treated others. And I think that was lost in - it morphed into a kind of self-ism after the 1960s. I don't think it was selling out, but I do think that there was a vacuum in how people organize their life with the rejection of the traditional, and it was filled by the merchants of self-help, by the mega-churches or by just commercial marketers of all sorts. And I think that's what your callers really pegged.

CONAN: Joe, thanks very much. It's a good thought.

JOE: You're welcome.

CONAN: We're talking with Dick Meyer about his new book, "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium." You are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And Pat is on the line, Pat calling from Charlotte, North Carolina.

PAT (Caller): Hello. This is Pat. Yes. I am very interested in the show. I just wanted to make one comment. My father was 96 years old and he died several years ago, but he kind of had this comment on modern - the modern view, saying that that ultimately, he seemed to sense that there - we've always been ultimately lonely, always had this struggle, always had to struggle with superficiality.

And that this technology, what we are presenting, it's really maybe a window that's opening it up more. It's not something that you knew. It's just something that's a lot more exposed because we have this technological venue that can present it a lot more powerfully. I just want to point that out. I don't think this is something new that's becoming. Maybe it's something that's always been there, yet this is showing it a lot more powerfully.

CONAN: Yeah, well, Jean-Paul Sartre didn't have the Internet.

PAT: Yeah.

MEYER: I think that there is a difference between quality and quantity, and that's sort of what I would emphasize. There is nothing new under the sun in the form of human maladies, complaints, irritations, and disgruntlements. That's absolutely true. But no society has been as geographically mobile as America by choice. I mean, generally, when people have moved in human history, it's because there are Vikings or Huns or something throwing you out of town or because there's a famine or a dust bowl. In America, in the past 50 years, people move by choice for a better job, for a better education, because they don't like their hometown. It is naive to think that when people don't live among people that they know that they don't get squirrelly. Similarly, technology has changed the pace of many things.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Pat. And I want to just get in this email from Adam. I'd like to know if your guest could discuss how we as individuals are going to recapture a sense of self in this artificial society. I tend to find most television media, government officials, and daily grind to be most depressing. We live in a gloom-and-doom world that is painted in dark colors that limits us from signing a sense of positive reality. This is my question. How do we find authenticity?

MEYER: Take control of it yourself. There is a great tradition of American blames-man-ship. I mean, we often are called the litigious society.

CONAN: That's your fault.

MEYER: The media?

CONAN: Yeah.

MEYER: Yeah, it is. I'll let you take some of the responsibility for that, but not all of it. But much of what we hate in the world comes to us in mediated form. It comes from machines. We are in control of that, and I think the best way to start to fix things is to sort of do an audit of your own media consumption of how you spend your time. Be thoughtful, and then make an effort to change it according to your own values. Now, that's difficult. It's hard. We're busy. We're making livings. We're caring for people. But it takes effort, and there is no substitute for it.

CONAN: Are you suggesting the 12 hours I spend every week playing solitaire, is that useless time?

MEYER: I am.

CONAN: Dick Meyer, thanks very much for being with us today.

MEYER: I appreciate it. Thanks.

CONAN: Dick Meyer's book is "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium," and he joined us here at the Newseum. Coming up, the Silver blues, why winning bronze may feel better to us than silver. Stay with us. I am Neal Conan. You are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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An Uneasy America: 'Why We Hate Us'

Dick Meyer, the head of NPR's digital media unit.

hide captionDick Meyer, the editorial director of NPR's digital media unit, writes about politics, culture and media for various Web and print outlets.

Marion Ettlinger

Read Meyer's Column

Dick Meyer is a man with a list of hates. Meyer, NPR's new editorial director of digital media, can rattle off plenty of examples: corporations that profess to care about you, the words "managed care," and reality shows that promise a shot at love with a celebrity called Tila Tequila.

Those are some of the gripes to be found in Meyer's new book, Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium.

All those little complaints are indicators of something bigger, Meyer told Steve Inskeep: a lack of trust in public leadership and an overall weakening of public morality.

"The 1960s was a symbolic turning point," Meyer said, citing the decade as a time when personal choice became more important than following tradition.

"It became much more important to make all these choices as a witting, conscious consumer of life," Meyer said of formerly tradition-bound elements like religion, where people live, whether they decide to get married.

"And deeper than that, there was a sense that if you did follow a traditional route," Meyer said, "you were an existential weakling."

The realm of personal choice has only expanded since then.

"Now, it means choosing your breast size. It might mean choosing the way your nose looks. Almost every discrete element of our lives now can be looked at as a consumer choice," Meyer said.

It's enough to make Meyer nostalgic for the days when a sense of community and belonging, he says, were not so rare as they are now.

"We accepted, naively, a bill of goods about how one forges an identity and happiness in life. And it doesn't come in a vacuum — it comes in a community with the help of others."

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