Janie B. Cheaney: The alienation of America

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, July 3rd. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Janie B. Cheaney now on when too much focus on self disintegrates everything else.

JANIE B. CHEANEY: Author Tim Carney has a new book titled Alienated America. It’s the most recent examination of our culture’s loss of community bonds.

That loss could be the end game of one of the great dilemmas of human history: self vs. others.

We need to be ourselves. But we need to belong. We stage revolts to be free and then mourn our loneliness. We chafe at limits and drift aimlessly without them. At the most extreme, we create our own realities—and go nuts.

From that moment in the garden when a man and woman decided to assert themselves, separation fell like a knife: first between humans and God, then between man and woman, brother and brother, king and nation.

Community existed because it had to. Without family or tribe, an individual could not survive on the cursed ground.

But the I has always pushed against them, and the conflict intensified with the rise of the individual in the west, starting around the year 1500.

That’s when the Protestant Reformation broke the bonds of tradition and set men and women free to read the Bible for themselves. From there it was only a step to the American Revolution, where the self won a victory against absolute rule.

Individual liberty did not mean individualism—or not yet. As de Tocqueville noted, America was the land of voluntary associations and clubs and reform movements. In Europe, another spirit was rising.

Self against Society. Romanticism swept through music, art, literature, and politics. It threw itself against all that hindered free expression and personal choice. This was the age of new religions and free-love communes, leading to…

Self against Family. The Industrial Revolution took fathers out of homes and villages and put them in factories. Splitting families was not the aim of industrialization, but socialism answered the abuses of the machine age: It took responsibility from the family and gave it to the state. At first, government only picked up the slack. But then it created the slack, as the sexual revolution pitted…

Self against the Other. With sexuality cut loose from responsibility, why feel an obligation to spouse or child—especially with personal happiness at stake? Abortion on demand followed logically on no-fault divorce; if legal bonds no longer held, bonds of blood were vulnerable too. Still, it wasn’t obvious that extreme liberty would lead to…

Self against Self. But that’s where we are.

What is transgenderism but individuals at war with themselves? And what is identity politics but retreating from the self? An obsession with “identity” turns people into political causes and robs us all of what makes human personality so rich and varied.

How far can alienation go? It could be that the widespread despair of people without hope and without God in the world will drive us back to a more tradition-based or rule-based culture. Back where we started, in other words. But what tradition? And whose rules?

For WORLD Radio, I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

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