Monday, February 08, 2016

Why I Hate Why We Hate Us

This book is really two books--one a great commentary on the current ills of American society, the other a terrible, self-indulgent, winking exercise in autohagiography--that got shoved in the same blender and thoroughly mixed. So while I don't hate the entire thing, the parts I hate, I hate intensely, because it is impossible to separate them from the parts I like.

Meyer is a weird mix of very old and very young. The very old part is the insufferable crank. He is full of stories of the "and one time I had to tell off some punk no-good-nik for being dressed like a slob" variety. At one point he throws in the thought, "I don't understand tattoos at all" (126). Um, okay? That kind of has nothing to do with the point you're making (that crass tattoos signal a contempt for others) and just makes you sound really, really old.

Balancing this seeming decrepitude is his love of all things Holden Caulfield. Now, I've noted before that The Catcher in the Rye should be the favorite novel of every 17-year-old, and that it shouldn't hold that distinction anymore by the time you're 27. Oh, you hate phonies? Grow up.

Well, Meyer hates him some phonies. And I can relate: I hate when a telephone robot says to me, "Give me a moment while I look that up." It's fake. It's phony. But where he loses me is where he tries to justify this as a stand against hypocrisy. I've written before about the false definition of hypocrisy that most people hold. In short: it is NOT necessarily hypocritical to support values you do not follow. What determines if it is hypocrisy is WHY you don't follow them. Succumbing to human weakness isn't being a hypocrite. Embracing a new value you do not yet follow is how we become better. Meyer bemoans the demise of public morality but then contributes to it by supporting the idea that you better not support any moral doctrine that you have not, are not, and will not follow 100 percent.

I hate the way Meyer complains about boorishness, citing public vulgarity as an example, and then includes the F word at least 10 times. I hate the way he complains about free-agent politicians using media to go over the heads of party bosses and directly access the people, and then praises Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a senator who defied his party leaders time and time again. I hate the way he complains about phonies and then praises Tiger Woods and John Krakauer, two people definitely open to their share of criticism regarding authenticity. Meyer loves Ernest Shackleton, but conveniently forgets that, in his day, Shackleton was criticized as a media-loving phony.

This book accurately describes the ways in which an amoral society becomes irksome, but Meyer can't bring himself to prescribe morality because it would be too judgmental or--worse yet--phony. He's blind to ways in which he spends 90% of the book prescribing behavior (don't dress like a slob in restaurants, at live theater, or on airplanes; don't swear where unnecessary unless it's in a book you're writing entitled Why We Hate Us; don't be named Sheila and follow your conscience unless you want an author to mock your belief in "Sheilaism"; don't commute; don't over-identify with your personality traits or favorite hobbies; don't have large weddings; don't drive Bentleys; don't subscribe to Real Simple magazine; don't have breast augmentation) before concluding with a call to "value pluralism." So which is it: should I give others the benefit of the doubt and trust their ability to value things differently from how I do, or should I hate the depictions of wealth in the Sunday Times?

Here's my take on why we hate us: we hate that we're unevenly yoked with people whose values are antithetical to our own. Some of us despise our shortcomings and want to be better, and we can't escape those of us who embrace our shortcomings in an annihilistic celebration of crapulence. Meyer sees the crapulence and can identify it as such, but--like so many other products of the 60s--he lacks the self-assurance to oppose the annihilism behind its celebration. He can't say, "That's wrong," he can only say, "I don't like that." But without God, whence moral authority? "Here's a value system that has worked for thousands of years" is insufficient, because its opponents respond, "We hate those very values." And too often in human history, such value systems were used as cudgels against the heterodox.

Authority and plurality must be blended. Plurality without authority becomes relativism. But to most believers in authority, there's no room for plurality. "God says 'do this,' so why should we make allowance for other behaviors?" they ask. They are leery of plurality because it seems a tacit admission that their understanding of God is incorrect. God's not handing out 18 different dietary codes, right? Either mine is right or it's wrong, and I believe mine is right, so why should I allow you to follow yours?

For Christians, the obvious answer is, "Because God told you to." This is where Christ's command to "judge not" comes in. Because even if your God is perfect, your ability to understand and implement His will is NOT perfect. So give others the benefit of the doubt. You can have your religion, and you can follow it as explicitly as you are capable of doing, and you can still allow others to not follow it, because you don't know yet if you are correctly interpreting your religion.

None of this is in the conclusion of Why We Hate Us, but it should be. After all, how do you write a book about everything wrong with America that is getting everyone riled up, and then end with a chapter that says, "Chillax"? Are you saying my concerns are meaningless? But you articulately expressed that you share many of the same concerns, so are your concerns meaningless? This book should have been one chapter on what's wrong with America, one chapter on what value pluralism is, and the rest of the book on how to implement value pluralism, why it's hard to do, and why it would be worthwhile. Instead, it's eight chapters of what's wrong with your fellow Americans and one chapter of advice to calm down about it. It's a missed opportunity to talk us through how to calm down about it, and for that, I hate it.

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