A grizzled quarter-century veteran of CBS News, now with NPR, attempts to plumb the post-post-9/11 national mind-set and comes within shouting distance of succeeding.
Meyer has no difficulty summarizing his premise: “We are morally and existentially tired, disoriented, anchorless, and defensive. That is why we hate us.” In the chapters that follow this angry opener, he tries to provide a more detailed explanation of why Americans seem (at least from his journalistic perch) so filled with loathing, both of self and others. In his more successful passages, heavily referencing texts like Robert Putnam’s sociological inquiry Bowling Alone (2000) and Richard Ford’s novel The Lay of the Land (2006), Meyer relates the free-form aggressiveness of modern American life to a brand of rootlessness and isolation that has become particularly prevalent in the last few decades. Meyer portrays a country overflowing with desperately lonely citizens who have few personal connections to anything substantive and so “over-identify emotionally with almost random objects of desire and interest…grasping for belonging.” It’s a potent argument that has been more thoroughly analyzed elsewhere (as Meyer would seem to agree, given his generous way with quotes). Trolling through the outrages and banalities of contemporary life, the author begins to seem less social scientist and more Andy Rooney, griping about rude store clerks and abrasive cell-phone talkers. He hits the occasional fat target: a marketing industry that seems unable to depict men as anything but violent, stupid, overweight, immature jerks, for example. He also makes sharper points than those found in Lee Siegel’s similar screed about the lousiness of modern culture, Against the Machine (2008). For the most part, however, Meyer sticks to the curmudgeon’s handbook—until he jarringly shifts gears to close with a fuzzily argued coda about turning back the tide by adhering to an Isaiah Berlin–inspired philosophy of “value pluralism.”
A potent lament that loses steam due to an overly tangential approach.