The good news is that when we listen to voices as diverse as Rich, Putnum, Obama, Trump, Carlson, Brooks, the other Brooks, and almost every lawmaker and commentator in American life, they all recognize the same problems in society and all want to figure out some way to make Americans feel more connected to each other; to feel like we have a strong support network around us to help us get through life’s rougher moments. If there’s consensus over the problem, then just maybe someday we could have a consensus over the solutions.
He’s speaking of the fact that increasing numbers of conservative intellectuals and politicians are echoing populist themes recently, complaining of “the market’s” inability to heal us and make us whole. I, being an ornery li’l cuss, would argue that this doesn’t indicate any sort of consensus (let alone the desirability of consensus); it’s not necessarily any more significant than the fluttering of windsocks in a strong breeze. Careerist intellectuals and politicians are capable of recognizing trends and jumping on bandwagons in pursuit of power, influence, and maybe even wealth; even professional conservatives can think of no permanent thing more worthy than getting their hands on the steering wheel of state. When did we feel connected and supportive of each other in society? Pre-1960’s? Pre-20th century? Pre-agriculture? Wherever your time machine lands, there you find professional thinkers and doers lamenting the same perennial themes and flaws in human existence. Pull the blanket up to nestle under your chin and complain about your cold feet. Put on woolly socks and complain that your feet get sweaty.
My personal trainer deplores the trend of people wearing headphones in the gym. She wishes they would make eye contact with each other, and say supportive things like, “Nice set!” She’s old enough (as am I) to remember when parents and mores didn’t allow you the option of placing that audio barrier between yourself and the world; you had to be sociable, or at least be open for conversational business during normal hours. She also has a prickly side to her personality, though, as evidenced by the bitchy little asides she’ll make about other members in particular, or about people in general getting on her nerves, which seems to happen regularly. This person makes small talk about stupid things like the weather. That lady sings too loud while working out. This guy stands around too long flapping his yap in between sets, blocking the way. There’s always something petty to attract her critical notice. (Interestingly, she also seems to be a devout Christian, which raises the obvious question to an ornery li’l cuss like me: would she be even worse about it without religious exhortations to be a better person?)
In Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome illustrates this contradictory aspect of human nature by means of a hilariously ironic scene in a picturesque churchyard, where the narrator finds himself swept up in beatific thoughts about his fellow man:
It was a lovely landscape. It was idyllic, poetical, and it inspired me. I felt good and noble. I felt I didn’t want to be sinful and wicked any more. I would come and live here, and never do any more wrong, and lead a blameless, beautiful life, and have silver hair when I got old, and all that sort of thing. In that moment I forgave all my friends and relations for their wickedness and cussedness, and I blessed them. They did not know that I blessed them. They went their abandoned way all unconscious of what I, far away in that peaceful village, was doing for them; but I did it, and I wished that I could let them know that I had done it, because I wanted to make them happy.
His reverie is broken, however, by the appearance of the old groundskeeper, who thinks that he wants to be let in to see the tombs. Naturally, he heaps abuse upon the old man for disturbing him, the first individual he’s encountered after embracing humanity in the aggregate. “Go away, and don’t disturb me. I am chock full of beautiful and noble thoughts, and I want to stop like it, because it feels nice and good. Don’t you come fooling about, making me mad, chivying away all my better feelings with this silly tombstone nonsense of yours. Go away, and get somebody to bury you cheap, and I’ll pay half the expense.” Ivan Karamazov, with the bitter self-awareness that J. lacks, noted the same discrepancy. One might love those at a distance, in the abstract, but one’s neighbors? How can we seriously love our neighbor, who has a stupid face, who once stepped on my foot, who voted for Trump, who talks too much and sings too loud and…
Our beautiful and noble thoughts make us feel nice and good. It’s pleasant to fantasize about life in a society without dead-end jobs, or opioid addiction, or declining church attendance, or whatever other trendy signifier the sociology-minded are prattling on about today. Who knows, maybe they will weave a blanket policy to cover our sense of disconnected anomie. But then we’ll start complaining that our desire for novelty is left cold and remember just why it was that we didn’t want to have anything to do with our neighbors and their stupid faces and their suffocating, woolly embrace in the first place. “Only connect,” said E.M. Forster, quoted by countless undergrads online looking to capture the spirit of our time. And yet, Forster didn’t mean the phrase the way it’s commonly interpreted in the age of social media. It turns out that the type of “connection” he had in mind, being in touch with our hidden erotic desires, is the sort of thing we’re actually lamenting these days, a symptom of our atomistic malaise. Even the hyper-individualism being attacked by Catholic integralist culture warriors might have its roots in…guess where? The dividing line is not between parties, or states, or individuals vs. communities, but right through every human heart, indeed.