Book Review

Them: Why We Hate Each Other – And How To Heal by Ben Sasse. St. Martin’s Press. 2018.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska isn’t somebody that was on my radar. If it weren’t for Amazon.com recommending this book, I wouldn’t have known that it existed.

I start out this review with that observation because it is illustrative of one of the points that Sasse makes clearly and convincingly in this must-read for everybody over the age of 15. We’ve reached a point in this country where we are working against each other in ways that are counterproductive and dangerous.

When I say the book is a must-read for everyone old enough to take or to have taken a high school civics class . . . I’m not trying to be hyperbolic, I’m not being compensated, and I am most certainly claiming that this book has all the answers . . . but it’s a good starting point and that’s another point I agree with Sasse on – before you can solve a problem you need to understand what the problem is.

Sasse’s book is timely. It addresses an issue that has been snowballing for some time but it does so in a way that asks “where are we now” and offers steps that we can take from “here” toward where we ought to go.

It is also thorough: it presents an argument that is clearly laid out, including multiple examples, each of which is supported by evidence that ranges from personal, to technical, to anecdotal, to statistical. Beyond that, I found his style of writing and his approach to presenting the argument to be measured, realistic, self-aware and even sometimes self-deprecating.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that my political preferences lean toward the Progressive end of the spectrum. That being said, what does a conservative have to do to earn my respect? First, they would need to agree on the fundamental importance of the foundational principles underlying American democracy. Without that, we can’t contest our opposing views. Second, they would need to give me the sense that, despite our political disagreements, they respect me enough to engage fairly in a contest of ideas. Finally, when it comes to their own positions, they would need to take a stand and stand by it . . . no waffling or mealy-mouthed equivocating in anticipation of a shift in the winds of public opinion. On those three measures, Sasse doesn’t fail to impress.

A brief overview of his argument is called for here . . . but it definitely shouldn’t be allowed to take the place of reading the book for yourself.

In setting out the problem, Sasse notes that the “tribes” we used to belong to when we lived in less industrialized and hyper-mediated times gave us something that we haven’t figured out how to replace. That sense of community that so many of us are missing now, when coupled with the constant bombardment of cable network news and social media tends to divide us into anti-tribes.

Even as we are dividing ourselves into these self-selected groups that are defined by what they are against rather than what they have in common, socio-economic factors are dividing us another way: into classes that can be recognized as mobile, rooted, or stuck. While the mobile might be at the top of the heap, it is the rooted that we should envy – they have something money cannot buy.

At the end of the day, one common malady effects everyone who is lacking rooted-ness . . . Loneliness. It is the hole that needs filling into which the bile of the carnival barkers’ funnels.

All is not lost though. There are things that we can do to arrest the momentum and eventually change the course of our ship of state. Sasse invites us to “Become Americans Again”. This involves recognizing the value of others’ positions and the limitations of our own perspectives. He advises us to set limits on the time we spend with technology. He suggests that we buy a cemetery plot – as a way of rooting ourselves to the community we are in – even if we are pretty sure we aren’t going to be staying put. Finally, he argues that we need to find ways to “Be A Smarter Nomad”.

I definitely wouldn’t agree with Sasse on many items if we were discussing policy. But after reading the book, I’m convinced that both I and my argument would get better as a result of a discussion with him. When I said at the outset that everyone should read this book . . . it wasn’t because I think everybody should vote for him if he runs for President or because I think that we should all hang on his every word when it comes to tough policy questions. I’m impressed with the care he put into making the argument in this book. But, I’m more impressed with the care he took to make it an open invitation to anyone who reads it to join him on common ground that we should all be able to occupy. That’s the place where all of the important discussions about what comes next have to take place.

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