How We Became Me

America was built on shared experiences, not solitary enterprises. After the most divisive election in the country’s history, is there any way back to E pluribus unum again?
american flag illustration

Illustration by Vahram Muradyan

When I was in grade school, I was a Girl Scout. To be in the Girl Scouts, you had to buy a uniform. You went to Sears and you bought your uniform and you wore it to meetings, even though it was bunchy and uncomfortable and weird (what was with that necktie?), because that’s what all the other girls in your Girl Scout troop did, and you wanted to fit in. You wanted to belong. As I recall my adolescence, in fact, it was all one mighty heaving haul toward belonging, toward deliquescing into the melting pot, slipping sideways into the streaming mass of humanity without standing out or sticking forth or even particularly being noticed. The goal was assimilation—being subsumed completely, without causing a ripple.

This is not the goal anymore.

Once upon a time, American children were routinely thrown together into public schools that served to wear away their kinks and rough edges and turn them into good citizens. Private schools were rare. Charter schools were unheard of. Today, so many parents are obsessed with finding the right “fit” that it seems no one educational institution can possibly serve the needs of every child. We don’t shovel all our kids into the same classroom; we search for one that’s comfy and accommodating, that brings out our child’s best. And even then we tailor, tucking and trimming for maximum flattery: She’s good at science? Let her go to a STEM school! Into art? Send her to art school! And art summer camp, and art afterschool programs, and a tour of Europe that hits all the museum hot spots. I got a story pitch recently about a new private school that’s just for gifted children. This is the age of the individual; instead of smoothing out those rough edges, we etch them ever sharper, until they gleam.

And what could be wrong with that? America is the land of the rugged individual, right? Didn’t we always do this—celebrate our singularity, make a cult of the lone cowboy riding west? Well, yeah, we did—but what the cowboy did when he got there was find a town that had a place for him, that needed a hero (or a shoemaker or a chef) to make it whole. And so we spread across the continent, forming outposts that became communities (from the Latin for “shared by all”)—a state, a commonwealth, “a unified body of individuals,” as Merriam-Webster defines community. Sharing common interests and goals. Hoping for the same future. That was America.

It isn’t anymore.

Instead of coming together, we’re coming apart, declaring our individual Brexits—from churches, from social and civic organizations, from all the clubs and affiliations and institutions that used to make up the fabric of our nation. It’s as though, two and a half centuries after the American Revolution, we’re ready to tell Benjamin Franklin: Never mind, thanks. We’ll hang separately.

 

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when E pluribus unum was inverted—when the drive to coalesce was replaced by the urge to splinter. Maybe it was when the Supreme Court ruled that the school day couldn’t begin with prayer, or that students could sit through the Pledge of Allegiance, in respect of their individual differences. Maybe it was Vietnam. Maybe it was when three networks plus PBS exploded into cable’s jungle land, or when the Internet began. What I do know for sure is that my parents were joiners: of bridge circles, the PTA, Kiwanis. Me, I don’t belong to anything. I was a Girl Scout leader for a lot of years, but in our troop, we never emphasized uniforms or marching in parades. All of that seemed strange and retro, reminiscent of the Cold War, back when the nation was united in militaristic paranoia. That same sense of obsolescence clings to Rotary, and the Elks, and the League of Women Voters, with their agendas and guest speakers and good works. Who has time for meetings? It’s easier to just say yes when the supermarket clerk asks if you want to donate to the March of Dimes.

This phenomenon has also infiltrated the workplace. When I started working in magazines, back in the Dark Ages, at lunchtime we all met together at a table, rookies and old heads, pulled out our sandwiches and chips and sodas, and enjoyed a meal together, discussing the news of the day. We still have a lunch table, but it’s rare for anyone to gather there. Instead, we’re sequestered in our cubicles, wearing our headphones, eating our choice of sushi or vegan tacos or avocado toast while we read the on-screen news sources we individually prefer. In another half century, our vocal cords will become vestigial from disuse.

The fraying of our social fabric may be a natural consequence of the technological revolution. Back in the ’60s, there was much wringing of hands over the threat that corporatization posed to individual identity. Everyone was worried we’d all be subsumed into one featureless mass. Those fears accelerated as computers submerged us in a sea of data. The world was so big, and we were so small! Who would send a helpless infant out into that world with a commonplace name like Tom or Bill or Susan? Our offspring would be unique: Cayleigh, Kaylee, Kaily, Kaelie, Kailee, Caleigh, Keighley. The only child like her ever, anywhere. One of a kind.

You’d do anything for a kid like that, wouldn’t you? Push to get her into AP courses? Agitate for more time for her to take her SATs? Buy her a bed shaped like a princess’s castle, argue with her soccer coach for extra playing time, hire tutors for her, confront the mom of the mean little bitch who calls her names on Facebook? Tag along on her job interview?

The trouble with our preoccupation with our own kids is that it’s made us less interested in children as a whole (except for when they threaten Caeghlee’s presumptive spot at Yale). Bye-bye, neighborhood schools everybody walked to. Hello, William A. Kiester Charter School for Weaving and Textile Design! When our kids are picked on or bullied, our reaction nowadays isn’t to help them learn to stand up for themselves or get along with others. Our reaction is to swaddle them, home- or private- or cyber-school them, protect them from the harsh, cruel world.

 

You’d think all that special attention would result in happy, healthy young folks, wouldn’t you? You’d be dead wrong. According to Psychology Today, college students are currently experiencing “an epidemic of mental illnesses,” with one in three suffering from depression and one in four having contemplated suicide. (At least seven MIT students have reportedly killed themselves since 2014.) The number of female freshman students nationwide who say they frequently feel overwhelmed has doubled (to 40 percent) since 1985. Thirty percent of college kids meet the criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse; one in five has had an eating disorder.

We’ve been in this country long enough, apparently, that our renowned pioneering spirit has evaporated. With Roomba vacuums, Keurig coffeemakers, online banking, our takeout and groceries and laundry and new shoes delivered on demand, life is pretty damn cushy. So what’s the human instinct when life gets easy? To make it hard again. If there aren’t any mountains to climb, by gum, we’ll raise our own ranges. We’ll plaster labels on every xenophobic, manarchist, slacktivist virtue signaler in sight. We’ll pick our own personal pronouns. We’ll marshal against microaggressions like they’re poison darts. We’ll discover mysterious illnesses like chronic Lyme, diagnose one in five high school boys with ADHD, put other children at risk for dying of measles and mumps to protect our own precious snowflakes. Herd immunity? My kid’s not one of the herd!

What the mental-health stats appear to be telling us, though, is that lone wolves are lonely. Sure, I want to tell my special story, and I demand that it be heard. But I don’t expect you to be able to empathize, or to understand it. How could you? You’re not me. The triumph of individuality over commonality has resulted in what Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein has dubbed “the rivalry of suffering.” How dare you try to culturally appropriate my unique, irreproducible pain? Go away; I’m busy wallowing.

 

Church attendance is down. Movie attendance is down. Football-game attendance is down. By 2014, Girl Scout membership had plummeted 27 percent since 2003, and Boy Scout membership has also fallen precipitously. It’s the same story with the Odd Fellows, the Loyal Order of Moose, even the once-mighty Masons, who, if you believe some conspiracy loons, are running the entire world, though if they were, surely they wouldn’t be dying out. We no longer even join political parties. More of us are identifying as independents—40 percent, according to the latest Pew poll—than as Democrats (30 percent) or Republicans (24 percent). And in November, in the most tumultuous presidential election in human memory, just 52 percent of eligible American voters bothered to make it to the polls. These are not auspicious signs for democracy.

You know who was a joiner? Benjamin Franklin. The Boston-born founding father belonged to a long list of civic and other organizations in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia: a college, a library, a fire company, a book club, a philosophical society, a hospital, a militia, a gentlemen’s club…. He was also a member of the Freemasons, the Royal Society of the Arts, the Lunar Society of Birmingham, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, among others, as well as serving as a councilman, a justice of the peace, a diplomat, and the president of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

It’s not that he was lonely. It was, according to Oxford historian Peter Thompson’s book Rum Punch and Revolution, because Franklin—like William Penn before him—was a firm believer that the public welfare depended on citizens’ regular exposure to their remarkably heterogeneous fellow citizens in Penn’s “holy experiment.” Penn grounded his settlement in freedom of religion; Franklin made a point of contributing to the building funds for churches of every sect. Both men valued, rather than feared, exposure to differing viewpoints; they were frequenters of taverns, where the rich and mighty and literate rubbed shoulders and hoisted pints with the workingman. Diversity matters! But not for the reason our society currently celebrates it—because it points up the differences between us. Diversity matters only because despite it, beneath it, we’re all the same.

That’s what we’ve lost. That’s what our current cultural insistence on diversity has cost us—our commonality, the shared thread that underlies even such seemingly definitive differences as gender and political persuasion and race and class. Out of many, one. We’re more alike than we are different, in our humanity.

 

I said I’m not a joiner. But there are two appointments I keep every week, as faithfully as my parents went to church. I belong to two sports leagues, one for volleyball and one for pickleball.

Actually, calling them “leagues” way overstates their degree of organization. These are the loosest of fellowships, made up of players of all ages and ability levels, with no regular set teams, no rosters, no planning other than the occasional “You gonna be here next week?”

Still, they require the establishment of common ground. We all have to agree on rules: Where’s out of bounds? What if a ball hits the basketball hoop? Beyond that, there’s a level of unspoken obligation: You help set up the nets. You wait your turn to rotate in. You chase balls when you’re not actively playing. You’re expected to be polite. No, more than polite: comradely. You applaud extraordinary shots by your teammates and your opponents. If you don’t do these things, you’ll be ostracized. At the least, we’ll talk about you behind your back. Nobody mentions politics. Nobody wears message T-shirts (beyond “World’s Best Grandpa”). The only battles take place on the court.

In the midst of this year’s ugly, vituperative election season, there was a welcome two-week hiatus: the Summer Olympics. During this respite in Rio, blood enemies on either side of the political divide swallowed their differences and celebrated common heroes of all races and ethnicities: Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Laurie Hernandez, Katie Ledecky. We weren’t single-mindedly jingoistic, either; we cheered for Syrian refugee swimmer Yusra Mardini and South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk and Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, too. For a fortnight every couple of years, we manage to overlook our differences and honor the human spirit as it strives for gold.

We could do that every day.

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks was a protégé of William F. Buckley. He and I don’t see eye to eye on much. But I did note something he pointed out in a column lately: that only 19 percent of millennials believe other people can be trusted. Brooks lays this remarkable statistic, along with plenty of other dire woes, at the feet of “a decline in community bonds.” The less we have to bind us together, the farther apart we move. The farther apart we move, the more suspicious of others we become. Or, as Brooks puts it: “The true thing about distrust, in politics and in life generally, is that it is self-destructive. Distrustful people end up isolating themselves, alienating others and corroding their inner natures.”

Even in the wake of this dreadful, divisive election, with its accusations of lying and cheating and murder and treason, we can reach for that common thread and pull it. We can follow the lead of Ben Franklin and join something, anything. Even a darts league is democracy in microcosm; it requires weighing the opinions and beliefs of others, forming compromises and consensus instead of just withdrawing from the fray.

Over the dozen or so years I’ve been in my leagues, I’ve found out what some of my fellow players do for a living, where their kids go to school, even the occasional political bent. We have our differences, but they’re not dwelled on or discussed. I try not to look at the bumper stickers in the parking lot. Here’s what I know: Some Republicans are really good pickleball players. And you have to admire that.




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