It was said of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) that he had written more books than most senators had read. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) seems to aspire to follow in Moynihan’s footsteps. Like Moynihan, Sasse has an academic background. With a doctorate in History from Yale, Sasse split his time between the academic and the business worlds before entering politics. His last job before running for Senate was as president of Midland University in his hometown of Fremont, Nebraska. This experience sets Sasse apart from most of his Senate colleagues. Sasse often points out that he is one of a few members of the United States Senate who had no political experience before entering that august body.
Sasse is carrying on Moynihan’s tradition of coupling political life with thoughtful and timely writing on the issues of the day. Sasse’s first book, The Vanishing American Adult, was an attempt to grapple with the problems created not by scarcity but by affluence. While recognizing that the challenges of affluence are preferable to those of scarcity, Sasse wisely senses that the contemporary prejudice which sees material progress as an unmitigated good represents a dangerous myopia. Material wealth and relative comfort present dilemmas that occupy the thought of many a modern philosopher and novelist. These are namely the problems of ennui, complacency, an exaggerated sense of our ability to control all things, and the soul-deadening belief that a peaceful, commodious life in this world is the summum bonum of existence. In this first book Sasse argued that the ease of modern life makes it difficult to raise adults, as adulthood is defined by the willingness to take on responsibilities and fulfill them. Today we are too used to having our problems solved for us, by government or by gadget.
As in this previous work, Sasse’s new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal, confronts the problem of affluence, especially problems dealing with the rise of technology. In this book, Sasse addresses issues of loneliness and the frivolity of much of modern life. The ills of the American soul, in Sasse’s estimation, lie in a rootlessness, a lack of human connection to place, history, and people. “Our world is nudging us toward rootlessness,” writes Sasse, “when only a recovery of rootedness can heal us” (emphasis in original). Devotees of Wendell Berry will certainly perk up their ears at such language, surprised perhaps that someone in high office might speak such localist language. Indeed, it was with disappointment that upon perusing the book’s index I saw no citation of Berry, a thinker who has spoken as deeply and eloquently as anyone about the issues Sasse brings to the fore. As Berry writes in the essay “Conservation is Good Work,” found in the book Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, “In a healthy community, people will be richer in their neighbors, in neighborhood, in the health and pleasure of neighborhood, than in their bank accounts.” (Note that this book, currently out of print, will come out in a new edition soon).
Today’s economy, says Sasse, with its emphasis on automation and mobility, is the enemy of rootedness. Berry, of course, is in complete agreement, only he presciently noticed this phenomenon decades ago. “Private life and public life,” says Berry, “without the disciplines of community interest, necessarily gravitate toward competition and exploitation. As private life casts off all community restraints in the interest of economic exploitation or ambition or self-realization or whatever, the communal supports of public life also and by the same stroke are undercut, and public life becomes simply the arena unrestrained private ambition and greed.” This is a world not of neighbors but of competitors. This is not a community, i.e., a group that holds things in common, but a conglomeration of individuals who happen to live in the same area. Much of the bitterness—“hatred” as Sasse’s subtitle has it—that typifies our contemporary political discourse arises precisely out of a people who hold less and less in common other than a mutual dedication to the pursuit of wealth, comfort, and, increasingly, power.
To form a community people must have something in common.
In many of his public interviews promoting the book, Sasse has emphasized the book’s documentation of the increasing loneliness of Americans. We live in houses that are three times as big as those of sixty years ago, while the number of people in each household is far fewer. Families might live together, but they don’t see each other. Sasse provides evidence that Americans have fewer friends, are less likely to entertain in their own homes, and are less optimistic about their future. Our emphasis on diversity, far from being our strength, exacerbates a sense of division, a sense that the people who live next to me are not really my neighbors. Again, to form a community people must have something in common. This echoes the recent work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who argues that our political divisions would be ameliorated by a rhetoric that honors what we hold in common rather than that which separates us. Sasse draws heavily on the work of Harvard’s Robert Putnam. Putnam has documented the ways in which hyperpluralism sows the seeds of distrust, and his seminal work Bowling Alone illustrated the decline in membership in civic organizations.
Sasse devotes considerable space to denouncing what he derides as “polititainment.” Influenced by Neil Postman, Sasse decries the way in which political actors, both in office and in the media, reduce politics to performance art, seeking to entertain rather than promoting deliberation on the deepest problems of the day. Contributing to this pathology is the tendency to pull back into our political “tribe,” preferring confirmation bias to considering the slightest notion that our beliefs might be wrong. While Sasse spends a little too much time on the tired argument over media bias (however valid such arguments might be), his ultimate point seems to be that our media landscape has become an archipelago of isolated islands. Ideological isolation is a kind of loneliness. Unable to make true human connections, we retreat to the comfort of ideological categories and tribes.
Digital technologies allow us to be passionate about that which has little connection to our lives while ignoring and abstracting the person next door.
The problems Sasse identifies reminds one of the Houyhnhnms, the strange race of intelligent horses in Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The Houyhnhnms are a strictly rationalist breed, so abstracted from each other that they care little for their own children and fail to grieve when one of their number dies. It is not an accident that they deliberate over whether it would be just to commit genocide against the bestial Yahoos, whom the Houyhnhnms find so uncouth. The Houyhnhnms, seemingly devoid of any human affection, have turned the Yahoos into an abstract construct. It is easy for us to hate those who are strangers to us. For example, at my institution when we went to online evaluations of instructors many of my colleagues reported that the number of vulgar, insulting comments noticeably increased. Of course such evaluations have always been anonymous, but there was something about doing them alone on a computer screen, as opposed to on paper in the classroom while surrounded by classmates, that brought out the viciousness of some students. Adam Smith famously opined that losing one’s little finger causes more distress to an individual than if the entirety of China were swallowed by an earthquake. Sasse seems to be saying that now the opposite is the case. Digital technologies allow us to be passionate about that which has little connection to our lives while ignoring and abstracting the person next door.
Sasse has diagnosed our symptoms quite well. Loneliness coupled with anger. Technology that amuses us, distracts us, angers us, but does little to improve us. He also gives useful solutions. Limit one’s use of technology (he provides good practical guidance here). Buy a cemetery plot as a sign of rootedness. He even argues that we should “resurrect the front porch”! (Sen. Sasse, if you are a closet Porcher, put an X here ____).
But Sasse, unlike Wendell Berry, seems unwilling to challenge some of the core commitments that underlie the sickness of the twenty-first century American soul.
But Sasse, unlike Wendell Berry, seems unwilling to challenge some of the core commitments that underlie the sickness of the twenty-first century American soul. Berry states that “the business of the American government is to serve, protect and defend business; and that the business of the American people is to serve the government, which means to serve business.” Berry continues, arguing that “when the interests of local communities and economies are relentlessly subordinated to the interests of ‘business,’ then two further catastrophes inevitably result. First, the people are increasingly estranged from the native wealth, health, knowledge, and pleasure of their country. And, second, the country itself is destroyed.” Berry says that “if one is going to destroy a creature, the job is made easier if the creature is first reduced to an idea and a price.”
Sasse hints at the limitations of a pure free market mindset, such as when he argues that automation and technology are enemies of rootedness. Further, he states “Most of the commitments are like this: easy to understand, difficult to implement in a culture shaped by technology and consumerism.” But he fails to come to grips with the fact that the media and technology worlds that so worry him are the natural products of a capitalist mindset that worships consumption and liberation as predominant over any kind of moral good. This is a mindset that sees maximization of profit as the solitary commercial responsibility. Vulgarization of technology and media are perfectly logical outcomes of the free market.
Perhaps a better approach to these questions is that suggested in Patrick Deneen’s recent book in his discussion of the Amish approach to technology. As Deneen notes, the Amish approach to adopting a new technology is to ask whether it hurts or harms the community, not whether it enhances an individual’s power or autonomy. Sasse, unwilling to challenge core liberal commitments, does not take this step. He will not forthrightly state that the good of the community takes precedence over profit, efficiency, and consumer choice. He does not say what his own data describe—Americans were once poorer, but happier, that maybe it’s more important to have functioning communities than to have 4% GDP growth, and that at some point there is some conflict between worship of economic growth and functioning communities.
The notion that government should stick to little truths is itself a big truth. It is not a politically neutral position.
Sasse balks at the notion that statecraft is, in part, soulcraft. “Government isn’t in the business of setting down ultimate truths,” Sasse writes. “Part of what it means to be a human being is to have a soul that exists beyond the reach of government,” he argues, “And that means that the big questions are forever above the government’s paygrade.” But the contention that big questions are above the government’s paygrade is precisely to answer a big question. To borrow a phrase often used by Mars Hill Audio Journal’s Ken Myers, Sasse is vainly trying to find an epistemological Switzerland. To slightly alter Sasse’s terms, there are big truths and little truths. Government, in Sasse’s view, should stick to little truths as there is too much disagreement about big truths. But, as stated, the notion that government should stick to little truths is itself a big truth. It is not a politically neutral position.
Sasse argues at one point, “Deep, enduring change does not come through legislation or elections.” While one takes Sasse’s point, this statement is obviously false. The Emancipation Proclamation, the 13thAmendment, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act all brought about enduring change. Barak Obama’s presidential victories changed the Supreme Court and presto! we have a Court ruling that same-sex marriage is constitutionally mandated. We have a redefinition of the fundamental unit of society because of an election. To be sure, one does not get to the governmental policies mentioned above without some kind of cultural preparation, but not only is the law reflective of previous cultural commitments, it also shapes cultural commitments. Statecraft is soulcraft. The fact that most everyone believes murder is wrong in part precedes legal proscriptions of murder, but such proscriptions also serve an educative purpose. Similarly, part of the reason for the widespread belief that racial discrimination is an evil is that the law treats it as such. Surely the legal notion that marriage is the union of “two people who love each other” will influence how future generations view marriage.
Sasse, too content with the easy belittling of politicians, gives insufficient attention to statesmanship.
But Sasse seems to blanch at the notion of virtue formation as a fundamental goal of law, hollowing some of his complaints regarding our cultural condition. Sasse cites Lincoln to the effect that “the republican project of liberty could not truly flourish” until we were “bound together in a creedal commitment to freedom for everyone, regardless of color.” Yet such a commitment requires some backing in education and law. People do not automatically pursue the way of virtue; usually we are conflicted. So we need cultivation. Sasse, as a former educator and university president, should take seriously the role that institutions have in shaping character. Sasse seems to grasp the character shaping nature of informal (meaning non-governmental) institutions, such as family, church, and civic organizations. But his latent individualism balks at codifying such character formation in law. Sasse, too content with the easy belittling of politicians, gives insufficient attention to statesmanship.
Education has a key role to play in this formation but the former university president has little to say about it. He does note that those lower on the socio-economic ladder often struggle to navigate the complex college admissions system, a system the wealthy and educated know well. This leaves the lower classes unable to access opportunities that would otherwise aid them in their quest for a more fulfilling life. More to the point, Sasse favorably quotes Andrew Sullivan saying, “When elite universities shift their entire worldview away from liberal education as we have long known it toward the imperatives of an identity-based ‘social justice’ movement, the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy as well.” This statement cries out for discussion. The chief threat to education today is not from “social justice” professors, whatever chaos they may sow. The threat is an overly technological and bureaucratized education, one that promotes STEM education at the expense of the liberal arts. One that promotes credentialing at the expense of wisdom. One that says the purpose of education is to keep the country economically competitive rather than valuing education for freedom. One that can only defend the liberal arts as promoting some vague notion of “critical thinking” rather than promoting liberty as defined by wisdom and virtue. (The most edifying moment of the recent discussion between Patrick Deneeen, Jonah Goldberg, and Charles Kessler at Notre Dame occurred right at the end when Deneen said pithily and accurately, “Screw critical thinking”).
Education that emphasizes quantifiable outcomes—oh, the horror of Student Learning Outcomes!—rather than actual content is a deficient education.
Sasse has clearly read the work of Nicholas Carr—he specifically cites Carr’s excellent work The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. One of the lessons of that book is that the more someone knows, the more they can know. Gaining knowledge requires context, so the more context someone has the easier it is to associate new knowledge with the old. This, I believe, is essentially a neuroscientific defense of E.D. Hirsh’s cultural literacy program. To reference the above discussion of critical thinking, critical thinking is not a skill one learns that can be neutrally applied to any subject. It is something that occurs when one actually learns things. To “critically think” about something one must have something to think about! Education that emphasizes quantifiable outcomes—oh, the horror of Student Learning Outcomes!—rather than actual content is a deficient education. Sasse understands this in part. “We don’t primarily lack technology, we primarily lack wisdom,” he says. But how is wisdom cultivated? He doesn’t address this question, certainly not in terms of education.
Sasse is correct when he states, “We’ve come to assume that the American idea can be neglected year after year after year and nonetheless endure. It can’t. It’s an idea—and as such, it needs to be taught and learned. It needs to be passed on and lived out.” As Leo Strauss notes in his essay on liberal education, just as a garden needs cultivation, so do humans. That’s why we speak of a “cultured” person, with direct allusion to agriculture. We do not cultivate a garden in any old manner, such as by simply throwing garbage on it. We do so intentionally, thoughtfully. We cultivate our gardens by composting, planting foods that are appropriate to our climate, paying attention to the sun, the soil, and other factors. Similarly, we cannot educate citizens in any old way—not if we want healthy citizens. But today’s approach to education is based more on economic competitiveness than it is cultivating citizens. In my own state our legislature openly asks our university governing board if the principles of America and Western Civilization are still taught at our universities, while at the same time pressuring the public university system to eviscerate its general education and dumb down the curriculum so students can concentrate more on their majors and get out of college fast, credentialed, and entertained. Oh, and if they happen to acquire wisdom along the way, well that’s nice, too. Whether it is Barack Obama mocking art history or Marco Rubio (and my own Republican governor) ridiculing philosophy, there is bi-partisan agreement—backed by Bill Gates’s billions—that “higher” education is about jobs and credentials. Again, college president Sasse should speak to these concerns.
One is grateful that someone who asks the deep questions that Ben Sasse does is in a position of high office. May he use that office for good.
But these criticisms are bit too hard on the senator. Sasse’s book, with its defense of rootedness, its questioning of consumerism, its applause for New Urbanism, show that Ben Sasse is asking all the right questions. He actually gets the cultivation metaphor, albeit in a different context. “If we really want to be happy, we must plant roots and tend them,” he says. He draws from Robert Putnam that, like pulling up plants, uprooting human beings causes harmful stress. One is grateful that someone who asks the deep questions that Ben Sasse does is in a position of high office. May he use that office for good.
Patrick Deneen once described Wendell Berry as a “Kentucky Aristotelian,” riffing on Flannery O’Connor’s self-description as a “Hillbilly Thomist.” Perhaps we can provide Nebraska’s Ben Sasse with such an appellation: he’s a Cornhusker Berryian. He just doesn’t know it yet.