Them - A Review

Every generation has its share of people lamenting the loss of the good old days. Products were better before. Bread was only 5 cents a loaf. The cent symbol was still on a standard keyboard. People used two spaces after periods.

But at the same time, we are told that history is also fairly consistent and people are generally just people. In a recent Smithsonian Magazine article, the author claims that the ongoing Fortnite craze and the concerns of parents about their children’s excesses are no different than concerns about Pinball back in the early days. These are just fads. People that are concerned about the new thing are just clutching at pearls, and so the world spins on.

What if there really are some seismic shifts going on though? What if something is changing our culture and altering the way people view each other? And, what if some of those changes aren’t making things better?

Ben Sasse’s recent book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, asks some of these basic questions about the increasingly divided America. He’s not arguing that America was once great and needs to be made so again. In fact, throughout he notes many of the ways that America has failed to live up to her founding ideals. But without wishing for the restoration of a mythical past, Sasse does note that there have been fundamental changes in what it means—especially in the ideal sense—to be American.

According to Sasse, who is now a politician, the solution is not political. No election or new law will fix what is ailing the United States. Instead, the solution is found primarily through a restoration of a sense of community.

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If we can trust surveys, we know that people are lonelier now than they were previously. Multiple studies, some of which Sasse cites, correlate the loneliness to the rise of social media and even more significantly, the spread of smart phones. These devices that are supposed to keep us connected all the time seem to be making us less content and desperately disconnected. Add to that the shifts in work, not least of which is the increase of automation, which is replacing a lot of low skill labor, and you have a recipe for dislocation, disorientation, and breakdowns in communities. Sasse describes all of this as a break down in tribes.

Political anti-tribes are rising up to replace the geographic and more heterogenous (at least ideologically) tribes of the past, and they are being fertilized by the merging of politics and entertainment. This is the world that Neal Postman predicted in Amusing Ourselves to Death. But the perpetual IV drip of outrage and often misrepresentation is taking a toll on people’s ability to see others with different views as human. Sasse spends a chapter outlining many of the techniques that news organizations and pundits use to create and spread clickbait, fanning a tiny sliver of devoted followers into an addicted frenzy. His argument is both well-supported and frightening.

It’s no surprise, given Ben Sasse’s attitude toward Tocqueville and ideals that the country was supposed to represent, that he points toward building community and regaining a sense of place as solutions to the virulent divisions of our times. He urges readers to remember what the ideas of our liberal democracy were supposed to fulfill: free debate, opportunity, and a sense of the common good. There have certainly been gains in racial equality and equity between genders, but those gains should not require us to remember what it is supposed to mean to be American and teach our kids why that is important. Part of what will enable us to do that practically is limiting our tech exposure. Get off the continue flood of social media and enjoy the people you are around. Don’t click on clickbait headlines and read books, not just short articles. He commends building into communities and buying a cemetery plot. Find someplace to put down roots if possible. And, since many of have to move for one reason or another, look for ways to connect wherever you guy, find communities that you can become part of, and maintain permanent friendships through regular gatherings.

There is no panacea for the widening schism between our anti-tribes, but there are steps that we can take to begin to mend the rift. There are ways that we can begin to regain a sense of common ground, to build toward a common vision, and to seek the welfare of the city even when we disagree with many of the residents.

Sasse’s book is part of a bigger conversation that is happening and needs to happen. His analysis is solid and he makes a number of important points. As a Christian, he could have spent more time talking about the value of local congregations and the importance of the church being a family. However, all in all, this is an enjoyable volume that would make a good place to begin a discussion, especially between people of different ideological persuasions.

A Community Environmental Project

A few weeks ago, I found myself standing with my son, thigh deep in the River Raisin. I had given up keeping my feet dry when the water had gushed over the top of my rubber boot during my struggle to get the used tire out of the muck of the river bed. I held my phone and wallet above my head to ensure a sudden dip beneath my feet did not entail a premature replacement of my iPhone 5. It was a fun day, a productive day, and a day that is symbolically more significant than the moderate sized pile of trash the group piled onto the bank.

The River Raisin runs through the small city of Monroe, MI, where I live. In the mania of damming during the Works Progress Administration’s existence, a number of small dams were put up across it. Throughout the years of growth of population and industry along the river’s banks, the waterway has been polluted by PCBs and other harmful chemicals. In human memory, the pristine, healthy condition of this river is a vague memory.

As prosperity increases, though, people begin to pay more attention to the flourishing of the world around them. Residents whose property borders the river become more vocal about the woeful condition of the natural resource we all share. This has led to the River Raisin Legacy Project and an annual cleanup day.

Environmentalism and Localism

At its worst, environmentalism leads to the centralization of government authority. To solve localized problems, sweeping national regulations are enforced that can unnecessarily harm property owners and even lead to environmentally negative outcomes. Some level of regulation is necessary so that polluting corporations cannot raise to the poorest locality, desperate to have any industry, to spew poison into the water and air. The destruction of acid rain and its eventual abatement in the past century is a test case for the benefits and necessity of regulation. In some cases, that success and the simplicity of imposing regulations at the highest level, have led to attempts to nationalize more environmental rule making.

At its best, environmentalism is a local endeavor. Cities with polluted waterways work to eliminate the hazards. Zoning ordinances require that corporations replace wetlands they pave over. Communities gather on a Saturday morning to fish tires, cups, and chunks of metal out of the river.

The River Raisin Cleanup Project is just that sort of local effort. Though it boasted a relatively small contingent––just 60 people from a population of over 20,000––it is the sort of project that is necessary if we are to see real change in our communities and the environment.

Community Catechesis

Several hours into picking up other people’s trash, one begins to wonder what sort of person throws a Styrofoam cup out their car window. This is the first step in teaching our children that the world is not simply a giant landfill ready to receive their waste.

The reporter from the local newspaper chats with people, joking about the various items recovered from the shallow river bed. She congratulates me on winning my battle with the truck tire, which left me wet and muddy, but triumphant.

People from around the community gather together to hear the instructions about what to pick up and where to put it. We divide into groups with complete strangers, transient teams thrown together with a common purpose. A local man––a stranger––asks about my shirt, which bears the word “Shawnee.” A city of my former residence was named after a tribe of Native Americans. They were residents of this region of the world until they were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. These conversations chisel away at the barriers we build between ourselves and the community.

After a few hours of wading in the water, a delightful way to spend a warm, cloudy morning, we gather again to share pizza under a picnic shelter. Eating together is a humanizing activity.

With a common focus, there are no arguments about red or blue politics. Unlike the awkward avoidance of a large family gathering there were no sidelong glances or barbered side comments. Instead, since everyone had the common goal of doing discernible good in our community, we were able to do a great deal in a short time and make a visible, positive impact.

Localism Against Tribalism

National political debates have consequences, but they are not everything. By allowing the vitriol of the life and death struggle for power in Washington, DC to take over our lives, we have abandoned the real power of American society.

Over pizza from a local restaurant, we are unlikely to solve the opioid crisis in West Virginia, but a handful of teens that wandered in from the rundown neighborhood next to the park, looking for something to do on a Saturday morning, may make a connection that provides a future opportunity. In a smallish city, it is likely the people gathered on the river bank will see one another at the YMCA, in the store, or at a local festival. Even small connections increase the humanization of the world.

Getting wet and dirty for the local river is much more powerful in teaching the importance of recycling and reducing consumption than a thousand public service commercials. It also costs a whole lot less.

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Although some problems require national solutions, much of what ails our nation will not be solved by a federal election. The ability to live and let live, or, better yet, to live and help flourish, can only be nourished through close personal contact. This is the very sort of contact that my introversion, contemporary media, and our community planning are designed to eliminate.

The River Raisin cleanup project happened. It will likely happen again next year. It alone won’t solve the larger problems of climate destabilization or world hunger, but it points us in the right direction and helps to strengthen the fabric of community needed for authentic human flourishing.