I mean, what they’re talking about has nothing to do with issues or governing, but it’s just like another bit of noise that goes on. And this campaign has been 23 months long. It is literally a sign of social insanity to take 23 months to elect your leaders. I mean, the Brits can do it in six weeks, and we’re – so we’ve replaced everything with this bizarre sort of horse race.
-- Dick Meyer, Author of "Why We Hate Us"
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We got to know Dick Meyer through the Internet when he was editor of the online CBS news site. Now, he is over at NPR. He would send us a weekly column from time to time, and many of them we would post.
Meyer wrote about politics quite a bit, but was an equal opportunity cynic toward both parties. His true calling is as a sociologist, which becomes abundantly and refreshing clear in his new book, "Why We Hate Us, American Discontent in the New Millennium."
Meyer takes the longview toward the American society, and that means he understands our cultural and social context supersedes our politics. That is to say that we might accomplish more by looking inside ourselves and our dependence on a consumer culture than looking to D.C. to make change. The most important advancement we can make may be an attempt to find the authentic moments in our lives.
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BuzzFlash: Dick, you have this new book, Why We Hate Us, American Discontent in the New Millennium. Now let me be devil’s advocate. We all remember Jimmy Carter saying, "There is a great malaise in America." Doesn’t the title of your book lend yourself to a lot of Americans who are American Exceptionalists, who think that we’re the greatest country on earth, and there’s nothing wrong with us. There’s just something wrong with the rest of the world, and that’s their problem.
Dick Meyer: Now, I suppose it’s an aggressive title that lends itself to all sorts of criticism, and people might have all sorts of knee-jerk responses. That actually hasn’t been the response that I’ve gotten from anybody who’s taken a look at the book. And the reason for that is I think what I’m trying to describe is a phenomena that really almost everybody feels. It’s not a partisan thing. It’s not an anti-American thing. It’s not a malaise, like Jimmy Carter was talking about, and certainly not anything that is unpatriotic.
It’s a very different phenomenon that I think has more to do with a distaste, almost an allergy, people have developed towards American culture, especially American public culture. So if I can dissect the title a little bit – who is the "we" in Why We Hate Us. I mean, "we" is just normal us – you know, people’s parents, or aunts or uncles, or employees or bosses, colleagues or consumers. And who do we hate? Well, we hate the kind of collective us.
Americans have come to hate the media, politics, Wall Street, Hollywood, Madison Avenue, the marketers, the corporate "they," the big "they." And we’ve also come to really not be proud of the way we ourselves comport ourselves in public, sort of the public side of us – the way that we drive and cut people off, and road rage has been – a kind of callousness that we display sometimes when, you know, people are in restaurants talking on cell phones – just a kind of boorishness that we see in our own behavior when we’re in public. So I don’t think it has much to do with this not being the great country or the strong country or proud country. But I think that anywhere you go in the country, you find that people have very strong pet peeves about what I’m calling public culture. And everybody doesn’t hate everything. But you can’t find anybody who doesn’t really detest something, and who doesn’t have a strong wariness about culture that I don’t think existed forty-fifty-sixty years ago.
BuzzFlash: But people have different complaints. I mean, that’s why politically, in some ways, we’re a 50-50 society, and culturally perhaps we are.
Dick Meyer: I don’t think we are. I mean, I think that the notion that we’re a 50-50, red-blue polarized nation is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated on the American people in many years. I mean, I think our entire narrative of American politics, really since Pat Buchanan at the convention in ’92, is a myth. We’re not a polarized nation. There’s a very different thing between being a 50-50 nation and a red-blue nation. What we have now is a situation where the vast majority of people don’t like either political party.
And they’re – they might describe themselves as independent or moderate, or they might say they’re a Democrat or something. But most people are rather inconsistent in their political philosophy. They have a liberal view on X issue, and a conservative view on Y issue. What they share is a mistrust of the political parties and the system.
So if you take a group of people who dislike choice A and dislike choice B, but those are their only choices, they’re going to divide themselves 50-50. It’s called sorting. And that’s why you have close elections. That’s why you have Congress closely elected. It’s not the size of the wings – the great extreme conservative wing and the great liberal wing. Those populations, those demographics, haven’t grown very much. Their intensity’s grown. In other words, liberals dislike conservatives much more than they did twenty years ago. Conservatives dislike what people they call extreme liberals more than twenty years ago. But those numbers of people haven’t increased.
BuzzFlash: Now in your book, you deal with many of the contextual circumstances that affect us or influence us as Americans. The media – you mention that as an avenue. And when you were talking a few minutes back, my English literary – literature major past kicked back to me. And rememberingThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, there’s a passage – I believe it’s the last paragraph – someone will call me in the BuzzFlash Comments if it’s not – where the protagonist, after Gatsby has died, is looking across the bay on Long Island and sees a green light.
Dick Meyer: Right.
BuzzFlash: And the green light symbolized, if I recall – and I’m sure I’m paraphrasing here – the orgiastic future that each year recedes behind us as Americans. And what comes to mind to me, often when I see a credit card commercial – any credit card – is the credit card is offering the expectation of a certain type of lifestyle – trips to the Caribbean, and cruise ships -- but simply having this credit card creates this orgiastic future for you, this aspirational lifestyle, and somehow fulfills a desire that you may or may not have. It almost creates a desire in you that you need the credit card to do these things.
Dick Meyer: Exactly.
BuzzFlash: And can we ever have enough of that? Because we’re constantly being bombarded by things that tell us, well, if we just had this, we’d feel better.
Dick Meyer: Right. You know, there’s like eight mongo themes in your question, so hopefully I’ll have the memory to come back to all of them. But the simple answer to your question is: no, that is insatiable desire. Perhaps the biggest theme that I try to deal with in the book is not the sort of petty complaints about cell phones or road rage and bias in journalism that we’ve talked a little bit about, but it’s about what happened – what has happened, and how Americans specifically have tried to cobble together meaningful and important paths over the past fifty years. And that process has changed enormously and it’s changed rapidly. And by historic measure – it’s important and swift change.
Oddly speaking, people obtained their sort of paths through life through tradition and social inheritance, up until about the sixties. In other words, we kind of inherited the values, the traditions, the religion, the habits of the heart, not just from their families, but from their communities. And socially, and kind of existentially in the 1960s, that came to be seen as a sign of being an existential weakling. And this is where I thought you were going with the Gatsby thing – that the real existentially honest person, the authentic person, the person who wasn’t going to cop out and just become a conformist, was going to form their own way, make their own choices. Now the opening symbol of that, the great symbol of that – let’s put it that way – in American literature was Jay Gatsby, a totally invented person. And that’s what I thought you were talking about.
But we threw out a lot of the recipes that had worked pretty well for homo sapiens up until then, and we said: no, we can do it all.
Well, it’s really hard for people to do that stuff. And it’s especially hard for people to do it when they’re doing it apart form an organic community. And by that, I don’t mean something super-idealistic. I just mean living around people that you know, living around family, and having a lot of lifelong relationships and intergenerational relationships. In the absence of that, I think what has filled the void for people, for Americans, is marketing – is an image of what life – a picture of what life quote-unquote should be. That’s what we get from the people who have credit cards, and the people who buy ads on every conceivable surface we can touch in American life.
And I spent a lot of time with an Evangelical minister in Loudoun County, Virginia, which is the fastest-growing county in the United States. And he’s a young guy, grew up in Washington suburbs. Really brilliant – his name is Chris Eaves – a fabulous guy. And his congregation is pretty much young people who haven’t found a form of being religious that they’re super-comfortable with yet. They’re kind of seeking the light. But they’re looking for spirituality. And what Chris was constantly describing to me was that these people had pictures of what their life needed to look like in order for them to be good parents and good spouses, and good citizens, that involved what you’re talking about. It involved the mini-van and big-screen TV. And it’s kind of a marketing that has filled the vacuum on how to put together a life that is meaningful, somewhat content, and that contributes to other people.
BuzzFlash: Well, I don’t want to make us two literature majors here sitting around the table of a café. But I got to go back to Gatsby. The thought at the end by the reporter who befriended Gatsby – the only person, I think, to show up at his funeral…. His point was here Gatsby was authentic to his ideal of this woman, Daisy. But Daisy and her husband went around recklessly spewing damage in their wake. And that although Gatsby was a figure who self-invented himself, he was authentic in his love, unlike Daisy’s husband. But in the end, Gatsby could never achieve his ideal love because the American society was such that there was that green light out there, and you can try and swim closer to it, but you only get farther away. The desire can never get satisfied because the desire that’s put out there is really one that’s unobtainable. Because we’re constantly consuming things – oh, they’re going to make us better. Coke – the Coke was the great original international marketer. You know, you become more satisfied with Coke. You become more refreshed with Coke. A beverage can do that to you – not that you can do that, you know. But a beverage can make you feel that way. And all the marketing we see around us for clothes, for cars, for big-screen TVs, as you said – they’re all to make products. They’re all to make us feel better. This is not something that emanates from inside. It emanates from outside.
Dick Meyer: I understand your point, and I don’t want to debate the meaning of Gatsby, because, to be perfectly honest, it’s been awhile since I read it. I do think that the major theme of the book is self-invention. But I think what you’re getting at and what you’re saying about marketing relates to what is kind of the greatest philosophic or maybe sociological puzzle of the early 21st Century, which is very few groups of people in human history have the kind of material well-being that Americans have had.
BuzzFlash: That a certain segment of Americans have had.
Dick Meyer: A certain – obviously. I mean, I’m talking in broad sweeps. There are whole chunks of society that are completely left behind. Speaking broadly, few groups of people have had, longer lives, better shelter, better food, better health, more options in life, more material well-being, than Americans at this time in history. We’re safe, we’re prosperous, we’re abundant. And yet it is not creating contentment. It’s not creating happiness.
Social scientists have tried to measure this very closely in all Western industrialized democracies since the Second World War. And you obviously can’t measure human happiness in any precise and objective way, but you can do it broadly. And what they found is that consistently in Western industrialized democracies since the War, as material well-being goes up, spiritual and emotional well-being does not go up proportionately. And in fact, in many cases, it’s going down.
So you’re exactly right – I mean, the Nike, the Coke – anything – things like that can’t buy satisfaction and meaning and a sense of contribution. I mean, it’s pretty simple. You can’t buy you love, right? But it’s an argument that we often have in highly politicized terms. It’s often an argument that we have in terms of evil capitalism and evil corporations doing evil upon unwitting people. And certainly my book, every issue that I’ve tried to address, I’ve tried to talk about, in completely unpartisan, unpoliticized terms, because I think it’s often the way society is now, when people talk to each other in political ways, communication has become almost impossible. People almost cannot hear things they disagree with anymore. And the name of your site – BuzzFlash – well, I think buzzwords are dominating our thinking, and people just turn off to each other.
So we’ve been talking a lot about marketing. That is something individuals can control. I mean, you can’t control it perfectly. Most marketing comes to people through media – mediated events – you know, things that you are not likely to witness with your eyes directly, like a tree falling down but see that through a computer screen, a television screen, a radio, a device that you can carry on your belt like a Blackberry or your cell phone. All of these are things you can turn off, you know? You can hit the off button. You can have choices about where you invest your time and your energy, and what’s important. And I think the conversation about what society can do as a whole to change all of that is, you know, it’s kind of a vicious circle. It is something that individuals can control.
Now I recognize that for people who don’t have enough abundance, people who are poor and struggling – these issues are not that relevant for them. So of course, we’re talking about a subset. And these are sophisticated ideas. And it’s hard to earn a living. It’s hard to be a parent or whatever in America. It’s not like an easy time to think about these things and have discipline. But putting together a content life in America right now takes a lot of effort.
And the marketing takes you in the wrong direction.
BuzzFlash: What about a word that’s used in marketing a lot – it’s been used at least implicitly in politics for at least the last three election cycles. Whether it’s stated or not in the political world, it’s underlying the character issue a lot, and you deal with the character issue in your book. You deal with this word in the title chapter, which is "authentic." What about that word? Give me your reaction.
Dick Meyer: Well, I think marketing is the opposite of authentic. It’s synthetic. Marketing is always intended to persuade. It’s what the linguists call crafted speech. It’s not informal communication. It’s meant to be persuasive in some way.
I think what’s happened is that a lot of institutions in our society have lost their authenticity. Politics, to me, is the most obvious example of that. After the confidence-breaking events of Vietnam and Watergate, the political system tried to reform itself. And literally it tried to reform itself to weaken political parties and change the campaign finance system. But what happened as a result of that was the candidates needed to run elections themselves. In other words, they needed to start marketing themselves. That became – and the first job was to get the money to raise campaigns.
So pretty soon after all these reforms started in the 1970s, politicians’ jobs became constant campaigning. And the campaigning became more important than the governing. You know, Sidney Blumenthal invented the phrase "permanent campaign" at about that time. What’s authentic about what a politician does for a living is governing. It’s getting power and then using power. It’s governing. Eventually campaigning replaced governing. And campaigning is really just another form of marketing. So the activity of politics in this country has become inauthentic in that way.
And that explains a lot – why people just don’t like politics. E. J. Dionne had a book that was very similar – Why Americans Hate Politics – about ten years ago. I think they’re right to hate politics in that it’s not authentic. One of the key ingredients to life is encountering authentic things. People don’t like to encounter BS and phony things. But it’s very, very hard to cobble that stuff together.
Shifting gears, there’s one area where I talk about authenticity in life that has to do with kids’ applying to colleges.
Dick Meyer: It’s gotten to be so hard to get into college, and where you go to college matters so much, that you have educators and consultants, and college counselors and pushy parents basically teaching kids how to market themselves so they are attractive commodities to college admissions officers. You have kids grooming themselves through their summer activities, their extracurricular activities, the courses they take. Nobody gets to pursue what they love to do as fifteen-year-olds, but what’s going to look good on their applications. So we’re teaching teenagers to market themselves the same way. Jolly Green Giant markets green beans. And it’s a terrible thing.
BuzzFlash: I don’t have it in front of me, but I recall reading it in your book. You might have been quoting a college counselor. You said these kids are overwhelmingly qualified to be admitted [to college], but there seems to be some joylessness in the process.
Dick Meyer: Believe me, I spent a lot of time with a guy who is a paid college counselor. Wealthy people can hire him. He’s paid like $40,000 to help get your kid in. It’s a joyless way to be a teenager when you’re acquiring credentials to get into the school of your parent’s choice. It’s not what anybody – with any reflection -- wants kids to be doing, and yet we’re doing it en masse and we’re doing it without even thinking about it. And the relationship of the colleges and the applicant is deeply inauthentic. It’s phony. And phony is one of my favorite words in the book.
BuzzFlash: Your book is just out. And of course, we’ll be carrying it on BuzzFlash.
Dick Meyer: Good.
BuzzFlash: But let me ask you something. To apply the analysis you’ve had in your book, which, you know, is very provocative and very insightful about a society that is going through, whether we admit it or not, an identity crisis in a sense.
Dick Meyer: Yeah.
BuzzFlash: Okay, so let me ask you something. Applying it to the political, although you deal with the political world in here and you certainly deal with the media world and the advertising world, and the celebrity world…. When I go to the supermarket and I look at those tabloids, and I say – Brittany Spears is on the cover every week – and I’m saying, what is this?
I do know that there is something in being famous and then seeing the famous fall, so we can feel, okay, we’re not famous, but they’re just as flawed as we are. You know, I understand that sort of paradigm. But it’s kind of like Groundhog Day – I mean, seeing Brittany Spears up there every week.
Dick Meyer: That’s the idea.
BuzzFlash: We know she’s flawed. She walks out of a limousine, she’s not wearing panties. Okay, we got it, man. But do we need this every week? Or do we need Brad Pitt tossed out, Brad Pitt back in? Who knows that anything’s true. People don’t read it for whether it’s true or not. They read it because it’s like what’s happening on their block?
Dick Meyer: Yeah, it scratches some spiritual itch that they have, that it’s really hard to understand what’s going on with that.
BuzzFlash: We take all these issues in your book. And it’s kind of a stew about stimulation without authenticity, of unsatisfied desires where desires are promised. Needs created for things we don’t need, and then we’re disappointed because our needs aren’t met for something we never needed in the first place.
So apply that to this very culturally bizarre thing that just happened. You had a Presidential candidate put out an ad [with Brittany Spears and Paris Hilton] that wasn’t aired in many markets, which has kind of become a standard practice in politics for both parties, often creating ads, not airing them a lot. Knowing they’re provocative and then getting the free media without spending a lot on the actual airing of the ads. So you had an ad that was created, in this case, by the McCain campaign. There’s much analysis about what it was meant to do. We won’t get into all the controversies. But clearly, I think everyone would admit one of the things it was meant to make Obama seem like a flash in the pan celebrity. Everyone would agree to that, I think, on both sides.
Dick Meyer: Right.
BuzzFlash: It may have been meant to do other things. We won’t get into that. So then Paris Hilton, on a site that does humorous video, releases a video in which she kind of tells off McCain for the original ad, but then gets into a discussion – a very weird discussion – of energy policy that is seriously spoken and actually brings in points that have been brought up by both campaigns. And today, this morning, I read in the Chicago Tribune, on the Chicago Tribune editorial page, that maybe Paris Hilton has the right answer to our energy policies.
Dick Meyer: How can you look at the kind of things you have just described as anything other than totally absurd? I mean, it’s – I hate the word post-modern, but this really is a post-modern campaign moment. It literally gives the politically theater of the absurd. And to me, it was profoundly, profoundly disappointing.
I mean, first of all, the idea that the campaign would run this ad with goofy media figures who are these bimbo figures, and compare somebody like Barack Obama with that – it’s a level of sort of self-consciousness, that the campaign is about the campaign. I mean, what they’re talking about has nothing to do with issues or governing, but it’s just like another bit of noise that goes on. And this campaign has been 23 months long. It is literally a sign of social insanity to take 23 months to elect your leaders. I mean, the Brits can do it in six weeks, and we’re – so we’ve replaced everything with this bizarre sort of horse race.
Now I had high hopes, naively, for this campaign. First of all, it was destined to be historic, at the point where we were going to have either a first female or a first African American nominee of a major political party. Any way you look at it, that’s history. That’s exciting, regardless of whether you like them as individuals and candidates. And to me, Obama is an impressive figure and John McCain is an impressive figure. I think we’ve literally become so partisan in our society – some people have – that it’s just hard to see people sometimes. And regardless on their positions on every little issue, I think these are two impressive guys. And I really felt like they were trying to campaign differently – you know, that they were immersed in the system, immersed in this 23-month campaign, but somehow they were trying to be a little bit more effective, to cut through a little bit of the BS that has come to dominate campaigning. But I don’t think I can argue that anymore. I’m really worried that I can’t.
For a guy like John McCain, who’s been through so much in his life, to essentially try to degrade Obama, you know, who has been a fine public servant, you know, who has comported himself really well in public, and to just say he’s another Brittany Spears or Lindsay Lohan – a cheap shot ad like that – I mean, it’s trying to degrade Obama. It absolutely degrades McCain. And then, of course, what happens next is Paris Hilton comes in and tries to get a little free publicity.
BuzzFlash: Well, and the Chicago Tribune –
Dick Meyer: And the Chicago Tribune is going to take her seriously. So basically, you know, she is a serious figure to think about energy policy as John McCain or Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney? Yeah, I suppose so. And everything gets put in the Cuisine-art of celebrity and the Chicago Tribune can’t distinguish between Paris Hilton trying to get some spin and a candidate for the highest office in the land. We’re in pretty deep trouble.
BuzzFlash: Okay, finally, everything is not all bleak. Your book – you do offer some recommendations for returning America to its authenticity and to our social compact. Can you mention a few of those?
Dick Meyer: Yeah, well, I think the biggest thing I talk about is when looking at solutions, it’s wrong to look to the government, to politics, to the media, to corporate America for solutions. The place to look, you know, is in your own house, in your own life. And to take responsibility for your own choices. And I don’t mean that in a Libertarian or hyper-conservative way. I just think it’s reality. And the one thing we haven’t talked a tremendous amount about, but we’ve talked about it somewhat, is community. And we talked about the decline of happiness in society.
So the key factor in that is the increasing level at which Americans live among strangers and don’t live around people that they’ve known for their whole lives, and relatives and intergenerational relationships. So step one is sort of acknowledging the importance of that and figuring out how to bring that into your own life – how to create community – because that is something which was automatic for most of human history, and it’s not automatic for people now. We take it for granted. We live in suburbs and exurbs where we don’t know anybody. And it takes effort. I mean, one example I gave was lunch. You know, I decided once upon a time I was never going to buy lunch from a stranger again, and I would only buy lunch from these three guys that I knew, and it changed my life. Only buying lunch from people I knew and having that encounter every day was just delightful. So there were little things like that.
That was sort of part one about my basic message about how you as individuals can get on top of that by taking responsibility and making the effort. We’ve already talked about making the effort via the media. A lot of what we don’t like in the society comes to us through the media. And we can control our own media diet, and most people are very unselfconscious about what they consume – how much television, how much Ipod, how much computer time, how much Blackberry time. All the time that we use those devices, that we see the world in its media form is time that we’re not spending with real meaningful pursuits and with other people. So those are sure efforts – things that can make our life better.
The other thing is I think we need to be a little more contemplative. And I think there’s not a great broad workable philosophy that people have right now.
When societies are stressed – and we are stressed now by the pace of social change – they tend to try to go off into their groups and hunker down. But we don’t really have authentic groups right now. Very few people can hunker down with people who are just like them in their neighborhood, because they don’t know them. So people are finding strange ways to become clannish and become vulcanized. As I said earlier, liberals become more liberal. Conservatives become more conservative. Bears fans become more avid Bears fans. Knitters become more rapid knitters. And we’re sort of turning into pods. And what’s happening is that we’ve lost a kind of political tolerance, and we’ve lost an appreciation for the pluralism, for human ideals, and for the different kinds of conflicting notions of the good life, and values that people generate. People generate all kinds of things that are deeply important to them and they come into conflict. In a democracy, they clash.
And what’s happened lately is that we haven’t appreciated the diversity. We’ve become belligerent. We’ve become kind of an argument culture – a phrase from the linguist Deborah Tannen. And I think we need to look back at a spirit of tolerance and a deeper understanding of our own pluralism and diversity, and focus more on the unum and less on the pluribus.
So what that boils down to is I think we need to be a little more contemplative and to look into having a more thought-out philosophy of life, and then saying: you know what? There’s nothing to replace hard work to making our lives better and to contributing to other people. So it’s kind of corny. You know, it’s not very sophisticated. It amounts to thinking about things harder and trying more. And I’m not eligible to talk about it but I’ll give it a shot.
BuzzFlash: Well, it is a return, as you point out, to the authentic. By that I mean that we are in direct relationship to other people rather than to promises held out by advertisements, credit cards and the fantasies of a lifestyle.
Dick Meyer: Nobody’s going to help us fix those things except ourselves.
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