Pig Man boarded with a heavy black roller bag. While stowing it in the overhead compartment, he smashed my soft carry-on without hesitation or apology. Pig Man sat down and immediately got out his cell phone and began shouting into it. Using a cell phone on a plane before takeoff is, sadly, common and apparently acceptable. Many, but perhaps not most, airplane cell talkers will try to talk softly, cover the phone, or hunch over as gestures toward the surrounding humanity. Not Pig Man. He sat up straight and barked. I learned that Pig Man barely had time to shower before the flight, the he had had an athletic morning at the club, that some buddies were having fun at a picnic, that he expected whomever he was talking with to stock up on liquor before he got to his destination, and a few spicier things I will not repeat. Pig Man ignored polite but dirty looks from at least three neighbors besides me.
On takeoff, Pig Man immediately removed his shower slippers and crossed his legs so that his bare foot and its five heinous toes grazed my left arm. One doesn’t have to be Emily Post to know that one does not touch a stranger with bare feet. He responded to my instant swivel and heartfelt scowl with a dismissive wave that said, “Sorry, pal, don’t be so uptight.” My evil eye also spotted one of his testicles that had squirted loose from his gym shorts. Pig Man kept his grotesque foot in the aisle but moved the offending appendage closer to my wife and her considerable olfactory gifts. She reported the foot to be stinky.
Hasn’t something like this happened to all of us? Don’t you hate it? Ever wondered why Americans feel like this kind of behavior is acceptable and justified?
In Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium, Dick Meyer shares countless examples that illustrate his thesis that Americans have grown to hate us–not America, and not each other, but the culture we have created and in which we actively participate. We have private conversations in public places, we are constantly attached to electronic devices and often choose them over in-person contact with the people that are right in front of us, and we are suffering from a “lack of social self-respect.” Meyer diagnoses America with a chronic case of low self-esteem and concludes that we are acting out. He couldn’t be more right.
Meyer’s central thesis is that we hate us because phoniness—-that bane of Holden Caulfield’s existence—-has become “the emblematic malady of our times,” along with a lack of manners and “the decline of organic community.” He explores the irony in the fact that Americans are inundated with phoniness and know how to recognize spin—-basically, we know when we’re being bullshitted—-but we have become so steeped in it that our lives have begun to reflect the very things we hate.
It is a paradox that our society creates so much cultural product that so many people consume so gluttonously but also dislike so ferociously. it’s a cultural obesity syndrome.
Meyer states that the lack of rules governing social behavior stems from the fact that “the social superego has been silenced or at least muted [because] it comes from shared boundaries and conventions, and they are disappearing.” We are barraged by OmniMedia and OmniMarketing, which put pictures in our heads of the lifestyles we think we should be living and which promote products and “communities” that separate us from our social inheritance and thus rob us of crucial opportunities to teach character and pass down wisdom. We have so much, but
we miss the seeds of happiness, which are simple: people and useful connections to people.
Though we hate us, we are united against the common enemy that is the prevailing culture, though we are often hesitant to act. We all hate the fact that things like this happen:
Most of the time we try to tune out the boorishness. But the resentment, the offense, and the anger stew. This makes public life subtly more malignant. You silently note a tattoo of “Fuck You” on a man’s pumped-up bicep. You listen to the unembarrassable woman at the next table at a restaurant blather into her cell phone the details of her latest gynecological checkup. You go to live theater among men in gym shorts, T-shirts, and baseball caps. At night, you hear people drive by with bass blasting so loudly that your liver jiggles. If you complain about this stuff out loud (or in print), you’re a snob. Or a nut. Or a Behavior Nazi.
It’s no wonder we hate us. According to Meyer, “the prevailing culture is rotting our conscience and uprooting our common sense,” and it is this culture that shapes our identities, values, and conduct. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Meyer suggests that we can begin by cultivating our character, both individually and collectively.
Building in ourselves the character we wish leaders had, and then practicing the habits of behavior—the manners—that express character, is the best way to hate us less and to contribute less that is hateful to our communities.
He challenges Americans to take on Two Difficult Projects: First, we must nurture authentic commitments in our private and community lives. Then we must cultivate a guiding “moral temperament” (a consistent set of ethics) by which to live our daily lives. And we must support each other in doing this.
Meyer shares all of this information and analysis in a delightfully intelligent, insightful, and often humorous fashion. He is not preachy or partisan, and his examinations of the various aspects of the prevailing culture—politics, marketing, media, education, etc—are thoughtful and well-developed. His anecdotes are universal and representative of things we’ve all witnessed or fallen victim to (if you read my Sunday Salon post a few weeks ago, then you know why I don’t like most people).
I loved this book for being so smart when it would have been very easy for Meyer to dumb things down. I’m so proud of him for resisting the temptation to go the route of trying to entertain the reader rather than asking difficult questions and forcing us to reflect on our own behavior and our role in perpetuating and now fighting against a culture that is sick and in need of help. I saw myself in many of the things he described, and I didn’t like it. I felt inspired to reexamine my ethics, my consumption of media and products, and my social conduct and relationships.
Though there are many chuckle-inducing statements in this book, Why We Hate Us is definitely not a light read, and that is a very good thing. This is a sociological analysis of modern culture, a rallying cry, and a call for social change. It is a rather balanced look at how things are and why they are that way, and Meyer is not afraid to lay blame where it is due. The bad news is that we are all guilty. The good news is that “it is not a sign of terminal social disease that we do hate us,” because we can all participate in rebuilding our culture and repairing our national self-esteem.
And we can start by not clipping our toenails in public.
I give Why We Hate Us a very happy 5 out of 5, and I wish to send a shout-out to Stephen Colbert for featuring Meyer on a recent episode of The Colbert Report and to the folks at Random House for responding to my request so kindly (and quickly) with a gorgeous edition of the book. There’s a lot of information in this book, and there’s a lot that I couldn’t fit into my review. You should read it. Everyone should read it. We should make Why We Hate Us required reading for all Americans. It would be a good start.
UPDATE: Click here to listen to an NPR interview with Dick Meyer.
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