STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're about to introduce you to a man who has a sort of a list of things that he hates. He's NPR's new editorial director of digital media, and he has a list of plenty of things: corporations that say how much they care, when his kids say that sucks, and a reality show that promises a shot of love with Tila Tequila.
Before joining NPR, Mr. Meyer sometimes riffed on his complaints in a column that he wrote for CBSNews.com. It introduced him to readers who had many of the same complaints, and it prompted him to write a new book called "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium," which leads to this question: Do you ever look at yourself in the mirror and say I've turned into one of those aging guys complaining that things always used to be better when I was young?
DICK MEYER: Absolutely. I don't even need to look in the mirror. All I need to do is look across the dinner table and see my children and my wife making the same point every time I say something cranky and curmudgeonly.
I think I'm not advocating going back to the stone ages, although I'm open. I mean, if you want to make that argument, I'm here for you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: Dick Meyer argues that the cultural revolution of the 1960s and the technological revolution that followed set people adrift. They can't count on communities like the one that his mother, Jean Meyer, grew up in.
MEYER: She lived physically near people who she'd known all her life. She lived in a community of extended family and friends over many generations. This was not the great, you know, Italian neighborhoods of Brooklyn that you read about. This was pretty much a regular suburb of Chicago.
It wasn't that intimate, but nonetheless, people stayed put more, and they followed in their parents' broad footsteps.
INSKEEP: So people had a community identity, a religious identity, an ethnic identity and perhaps a stronger historic identity, in your view, 50, 75 years ago - more so than today.
MEYER: I think they absolutely did, and I think it helped generate a lot of meaning and a lot of identity in their lives. Now, there was a downside. I don't want to be a Pollyanna about history. I mean, there were plenty of people who grew up in small towns who didn't enjoy it because maybe they were marginal people. They were minorities. They were homosexuals. They didn't enjoy the full bank of rights that they should have.
INSKEEP: Now what about the 1960s still has you thinking about them 40 years later and the way that they've changed the country?
MEYER: Well, because the 1960s was a symbolic turning point, and it was a time when the basic thing one did in life was to fit into your community, to fit into whatever religious tradition you may have come out. And it became much more important to make all these choices as a witting, conscious consumer of life. And deeper than that, there was a sense that if you did follow a traditional route, you were an existential weakling.
You weren't kind of living up to the new ideal of choosing your own route, choosing your religion, choosing where to live, choosing whether to get married or not. And 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.
INSKEEP: Is your basic complaint that people have been invited, in the last 40 years, to make a lot broader choices about their lives and who they want to be, and it turns out that we're just not all very good at that?
MEYER: That wouldn't be my basic complaint. I mean, I think my basic complaint would be that we have become lackadaisical at insisting in the best from us in the way we comport ourselves in public and the way we collectively do through our institutions and through public life.
I think my basic diagnosis about why this has come about is that 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. And the idea that a smart, independent-minded individual can cobble together a deep and happy, meaningful life turns out to be enormously difficult.
INSKEEP: Do you think we're lonelier, collectively, than we were a few generations ago?
MEYER: Well, I can make the argument to you that empirically, we are. There was a fantastically important study of loneliness in America that was conducted a couple years ago that compared two surveys, one done in the '80s, one done about four or five years ago. And the way they measured loneliness in America was to count the number of close confidantes that people reported. And the number of people who had no confidantes at all or only one increased enormously, something on the order of 25 percent.
It's not brain surgery. When you move around and you don't have an organic community, it's harder to get close, enduring personal relationships.
INSKEEP: You can think about that if you live in a small town of 10,000 people, you can come to know the faces of all 10,000 of those people and something about their history. And if they do something stupid, you have it in context. Ah, he always steals a little bit from the cash register. And it's easy to imagine someone today who doesn't know thousands of people, who knows hundreds of people, maybe only dozens of people or even less.
MEYER: Exactly right. And it's - I mean, it's - I came to this in a stark way one day when I was waiting for lunch at a chain lunch place. And I was standing there, and the guys behind the counter had nobody else there they were serving, and they just looked at me kind of smiling. They couldn't care less whether I was standing there and getting mad.
They couldn't have cared if I left, and I finally got - you know, I coughed, finally got my sandwich, got back to my office. They'd put tomato on it, and I didn't want tomato. And I said that's it. I said I am never buying lunch from a stranger again. So for the rest of my time at my previous employer, I only bought lunch from three guys who were my friends. It improved every single day that I was at work.
INSKEEP: You went out of your way to find people to buy lunch from that you know. And since then, you've changed jobs. You're in a different part of town. Are you going back across town to find the same guys again?
MEYER: I have, but I'm in a lunch crisis. There was one lunch place here that I've been going to for over 20 years. It was open in Washington since 1897.
INSKEEP: Go ahead and name it.
MEYER: It's called Hodges. It's one block from this building, and after I had my first interview here, I walked over to Hodges, and they were famous for roast beef sandwiches that they carve from this huge steamship round - it's a little shack - and butter beans and collard greens. And I promised my first week here, my treat to myself was on Friday, I was going to get out of the building and go to Hodges, and this was going to be my regular lunch place.
I walk over there, and it's boarded up. It closed the week that I started at NPR. I'm a man without lunch.
INSKEEP: The man without lunch is NPR's Dick Meyer, and the book is called "Why We Hate Us." You can find a chapter online at npr.org called "Land of the Fake." It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.