American Anxiety: Interpersonal Engagement and Our Failure At It

by Kevin Carty

There is a fascinating and far-reaching anxiety gripping America today. It is managing, counter-intuitively, to unite the libertarian Charles Murray, the liberal Chris Hayes, the dark comic Louis C.K, the communitarian Michael Sandel, the socially conservative Ross Douthat, the popular and ever-pertinent Lena Dunham, and sociologist Robert Putnam. It is expressed in many great books, a number of good articles, and a couple of amazing television shows. It is focused on an issue that is as opaque as it is essential to human flourishing, and it very well may prove itself to be the chief domestic challenge to America’s youngest generation.

So, what is the subject of all this worry? Each one of the thinkers above has different priorities and partisanship with regards to the aforementioned anxiety. Putnam, Sandel, and Murray are concerned with social and communal involvement, Dunham and Douthat worry about sex, and CK and Hayes, among many of the others I’ve mentioned, focus on self-evaluation. Once one looks upon these various priorities, and once one digs beneath the different ideologies that abound in this group, one begins to realize that there is a common thread running between each one of these critiques. Each of these thinkers is anxious about how the modern movements of their various focus areas (social involvement, sex, and self-evaluation) have begun to erode Americans’ capacity for worthwhile interpersonal engagement.

They all think, and with good justification, that Americans do not interact with each other in meaningful enough ways. This thought, expressed by so many diverse corners of the American intelligentsia, a thought that is strangely managing to unite conservatives and liberals and comedians and social commentators of every stripe, is a thought worth following, a thought worth exploring.

The first and easiest to identify is social and community involvement, which traces its roots to Robert Putnam and his 2000 classic, Bowling Alone.  Putnam was not the first to tackle the topic, but he is the most well-known and systematic documenter of the decline of American community. In his 400-page magnum opus of smart sociology, he chronicles the many ways in which America’s social capital (a catch-all term for the social connections that facilitate and improve our lives in the same way that physical and human capital drives businesses) has deteriorated into a shell of its post-war self.

As he writes, Americans are “35% less likely to attend public meetings,” 10-20% less likely to formally join civic organizations, “going to church less often than we did three or four decades ago,” “less likely….to join with our coworkers in formal associations,” and less likely to engage in casual social interaction than our parents and grandparents. As Putnam demonstrates, 21st Century Americans are not the highly communal, civically minded citizens that once inspired Tocqueville and led to the political potency of America’s early mass democracy. They are different: more privatized, more atomized.

Putnam’s work would mean little – indeed it would not mean very much at all – if he was the only person who cared about this decline. It is possible, yet unlikely, that the rush of modernity that has undermined American communal life in the last few decades would just be accepted by America at large. But, the history of American sociopolitical life is characterized as much by progress as it is characterized by backlash and regression. If the state of communal life in America were to decline, it is inevitable that some group would appear to lament, prevent, or at least raise concerns about that decline.

In response to the changing and dwindling nature of American community, a number of thinkers have come forward to weigh in. Of course, some of them are little more than nostalgists engaging in the uniquely American tradition of the Jeremiad. Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Lost City is a decent example of such a boorish view.

But some of the thinkers who have weighed in are really on to something, just as Robert Putnam was on to something in 1995 when he first started investigating bowling leagues and social capital. Putnam accurately identified the problem, that much is certain, but Michael Sandel and Charles Murray have carried Putnam’s thought to fruition by exploring its relevance and expanding it beyond a singular focus on civic engagement.

Take Sandel, for example. A left-communitarian, the Harvard professor of political philosophy endorses a “politics of the common good” that views virtue and disputes about our conceptions of the good as essential to the functioning of any just political society. His book Justice, the print-version of his ridiculously popular class by the same name, delves into the arena of social and civic engagement in its final pages, as he pledges his belief in a moral imperative to “[reconstruct] the infrastructure of civic life.” And, he digs further into an explanation of the topic in his most recent publication What Money Can’t Buy. Sandel argues, with examples that range from organ sales to the disposal of nuclear waste in Switzerland, that unfettered “market values”, specifically those that have been extended in recent decades with the marked rise and success of Western capitalism, “crowd out nonmarket norms worth caring about.” Proceeding from his liberal communitarianism, the norms that he cares it about, it should be noted, are those that buttress civic and communal life, those norms that encourage strong networks of meaningful social interaction and connection.

Similarly, let us consider Charles Murray. A social scientist of a conservative libertarian bent, Murray is certainly the most unpopular thinker to be referenced in this piece. But Murray’s infamy should not stand as a distraction from his ideas, especially with regard to his 2012 book Coming Apart. This work focuses on class and social inequality, notably the ways in which America’s upper and lower classes have begun to vastly diverge in their social habits to an unprecedented extent. Murray demonstrates that America’s white lower classes are less likely than their middle and upper-class counterparts to marry, become active in their communities, or attend church on any regular basis. In respect to these findings, Murray’s Coming Apart is, in some ways, an addendum to Bowling Alone that examines the role of class in the collapse of American community.

However, Charles Murray goes beyond Putnamesque sociology in the final third of his book as he reasons, on two levels, about the significance of a lack of social engagement among so many Americans. On the first level, Murray writes that a populace must be seriously socially engaged if its members wish to “be functioning members of a free society.” On a second level, Murray notes persuasively that the new upper class, a group that has, nonetheless, maintained strong traditions of civil and social interaction, is “so isolated that they are often oblivious to the nature of the problems” that affect their fellow citizens.

It is easy for some to wish away or devalue the opinions of these writers. Some like to chalk their thoughts up to the wistful nostalgia of older white men. Michael Sandel, despite his great popularity, is not exactly the toast of the political philosophy community, a result of his sometimes-simple-seeming communitarianism and the great popularity of Rawlsian liberalism among the academy. Charles Murray has been ignored, ridiculed, and smeared by many on the left since the publication of his inflammatory book on achievement,The Bell Curve.

That being said, there are several things worth noting about these three thinkers. First, What Money Can’t Buy and Coming Apart were each incredibly popular, garnering praise, criticism, and discussion from pundits and academics across the country, and both Bowling Alone and Justice are far-reaching bestsellers. Such is no guarantee that any of these men is right about anything, but quite a few million Americans seem to care about the topic of social and communal involvement.

Secondly, though one may disagree with the causes and implications that they provide, the methods of Putnam and Murray (Sandel makes no descriptive study in his book) are strong. Each of their books have withstood methodological criticism. Putnam’s data is deep and carefully collected, and Murray uses the General Social Survey collected by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago for most of his data. No matter what their other arguments, it is nearly impossible to authoritatively say that American communal involvement has done anything but decline, and it has declined substantially.

And thirdly, as written above, it is significant that three popular academics, each proceeding from different ideologies explaining their findings in wildly different ways, have all arrived at the same conclusion and found that conclusion important: America’s life of community engagement and social involvement is not at all like it used to be, and that is a problem. This concern, that communal and civic participation has deteriorated in the last few decades, is the first prong of the engagement anxiety. Neither Putnam, Sandel, or Murray will explicitly say that they are worried about interpersonal engagement. No, they are concerned with the health of America’s many communities, and they tend to only care about interpersonal engagement within that specific context.

Our involvement with the groups and communities of which we are members is an essential part of our social lives. If that involvement is nonexistent, or even weak, then we Americans have already demonstrated a serious change in the area of interpersonal engagement over the course of the last few decades. That change may be worth worrying about, as Putnam, Sandel and Murray argue, or it may not, but it is unambiguously true that Americans are neither as communally or civically active as they once were. Of course, group involvement is only one of many areas in which we meaningfully engage with other people. Another area, indeed the second prong of the engagement anxiety, is that of sex and relationships.

It might qualify as understatement to say that Lena Dunham is popular. She has been called “the voice of a generation” by several writers and journalists (WSJ). She has been compared to the likes of Bret Easton Ellis, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Douglas Coupland (it is fitting that one of today’s generational voices is finally a woman). And, her HBO show Girls has produced enough weekly analyses and think-pieces that such articles are almost a joke among Twitter commentators.

There is quite a bit of cultural meaning to glean from Girls, but Dunham’s commentary on the state of her generations’ sexual habits is among her best. The characters of Girls are not the proud, independent recipients of the sexual revolution in the vein of Carrie Bradshaw and her crew. No, the lives of Hannah, Marnie, Shoshana, and Jessa are more fraught and certainl multidimensional.

Their job situations are poor. Their friendships appear incomplete, often on the verge of temporary dissolution, and it would be an outright lie to say that any one of the women is happy, at least in any long-term, self-actualized sense.

Furthermore, and most interestingly to me, when any of the characters does experience sexual or romantic success, it tends, more often than not, to be unfulfilling, characterized by an experience-and-object-centric narcissism that stands at the heart of the show.

For instance, in the fifth episode of the second season, as she lays in the arms of a man with whom she is having a short affair, Dunham’s character Hannah bursts into a tearful confession. Hannah half cries, half gasps that she had once “made a promise…[to] take in experiences, all of them, so that [she] could tell other people about them.” This exposition makes sense, as Hannah has spent a fair amount of the show using her body and life as a means to pursue exciting yet somewhat self-destructive escapades. She goes on, explaining:

 

“What I didn’t realize before I met you was that I was lonely in such a deep, deep way. You know I was reaching for all this stuff but all I really needed to was to look at someone and be like that person wants to be there after I’m dead.”

 

Hannah, after spending a season and a half sleeping with various kinds of men, taking cocaine for the first time, and living ararely-boring life, realizes her highest level of happiness when she is doing nothing more than lying safely in the caring, loving arms of another human being. Her many hook-ups, experienced with men who run the gamut from hip and brash to urbane and Republican, experienced through sex that ranges from awful to amazing, pale in comparison to the simple experience of loving, and being loved, by another individual. Her self-concerned desire to individualize and isolate herself in search of textured, fascinating personal experience reveals itself to be broken, not conducive to her own happiness.

Similar is the case of Marnie, the attractive, put-together gallery curator and friend of Hannah’s. After breaking up with her long-time boyfriend Charlie, Marnie pursues a relationship with haughty artist Booth Jonathan. She appears happy, but when confronted in the sixth episode of the second season, she reveals that she merely “fell in love with the idea” of the young artist. Marnie, who had claimed to “really like” Booth, could not appreciate, let alone love, him in any anything other than a superficial way. That sort of selfishness is different from Hannah’s focus on her own experiences, but it is indeed a form of narcissism to view another person as anything other than an individual, to seem them as an object or an “idea.”

What is one to draw from these two episodes? Sex, all of it before marriage and most of it outside the context of a committed relationship, is omnipresent in Girls. Sex drives the plot of the show and the life of each main character, but not once in either season do sexual experiences lead to any significant amount of happiness for anyone involved. And, when the characters do engage in sexual relationships that last beyond a few encounters, they are often limited by the selfishness that Marnie and Hannah demonstrate in the above quotes. For all the sexual freedom that the characters on Girls have been granted in the progress of the last five decades, they have not found a way to leverage that freedom toward improved happiness or more fulfilling lives.

Ross Douthat, the young, socially conservative opinions writer for The New York Times, has watched Lena Dunham’s work and has reached similar conclusions. In a piece entitled “Daughters of the Revolution,” Douthat details the practical and personal challenges that abound for Dunham’s generation in the wake of a sexual revolution that popularized and de-stigmatized premarital sex. But, Douthat’s key strength in this arena is not his ability to analyze the subject from the single frame of America’s current twenty-somethings. No, he fits the trials that Dunham portrays in her show within a larger framework of America’s current culture of sex and relationships.

Writing in February 2012, Douthat agues that the long-term effects of the sexual revolution (the increase in casual, non-commital sex, the rise of single parenthood and the concomitant decline of the two-parent family structure, etc.) have “conspire[d]s to keep some of the crucial ingredients of long-term happiness out of reach for a larger and larger share of the population.” Those “crucial ingredients” are the benefits of serious, committed relationships (particularly marriage, and especially reproductive marriage) and the great value and meaning that such connections can bring in the long run.

Douthat’s point, though aimed at an older sector of the American population, is nonetheless valuable in relation to Girls and the faction of American life it is documenting. Hannah, Marnie, Shoshana, and Jessa are living lives filled with sex that they are free to pursue, and yet they are not happy.  They are living lives defined by a great deal of individual freedom, yet they are not satisfied. They are living lives mostly devoid of any committed relationships, and not a single one of them is at all fulfilled. In light of this fact of the show, as well as the fact that Girls is aiming for hyper-realism in its subject and presentation, it appears safe to say that Douthat’s argument about those “crucial ingredients of long-term happiness” holds some power.

Dunham and Douthat may not precisely be arguing that the state of America’s interpersonal engagement is poor, or even that it is a result of the cultural mores surrounding sex and relationships. All they are arguing (and I should say that they are nowhere near alone in arguing this*), is that America’s youngest generations are trending toward free, apathetic sex and away from meaningful relationships, and that that movement is hurting them and their happiness. To put it in the terms of this piece, one of the most crucial areas of meaningful interpersonal engagement within all of our lives – the area of sex and relationships – is stricken with flaws, failing to deliver meaning to nearly enough young Americans.

Now, that point may either be false or of smaller consequence than Dunham and Douthat believe. But if it is true and important, and if Putnam’s, Sandel’s, and Murray’s point is true and important as well, then Americans have shown great, progressive failure in two essential areas of interpersonal engagement.

If those failures are a fact, perhaps Americans have improved in their own individualism. Perhaps they have taken advantage of this alleged atomization as a means to improve their own self-concepts or to view themselves more holistically and appreciatively. Such individual success might be a worthy tradeoff for these changes in other areas, and the examination of that concern brings us to our next, and final, focus of the engagement anxiety.

This final prong of the worry I am hoping to document is more elusive. Self-evaluation, and thoughts on it, are hard, wide-reaching things to track. In a way, it would make sense to write about how almost all of the above-mentioned thinkers have talked about self-evaluation. Sandel has written about modern liberalism’s great individualizing tendencies. Murray has written on seeing oneself as personally responsible and socially useful. Douthat, somewhat like Sandel, has a certain conception of people as virtuous, teleological beings. And Dunham, as already mentioned, is interested in the narcissism evident in many of her characters, characters who are based on, and meant to tell something about, her own generation

However, for the purposes of this section, I think it makes sense to bring in two more thinkers who have written about self-evaluation in modern America: Chris Hayes and Louis C.K.

Christopher Hayes, former host of Up on MSNBC and current host of All In on the same network, is somewhat of a young demigod in the world of liberal punditry. The political commentary on his show is wonkier and more diverse than the brand delivered by most other network talking heads; his Twitter following is substantial; and, in 2012, he wrote his first book, the well-reviewed Twilight of the Elites. Hayes argues that meritocracy, a veritable idol among an America that commits itself to equality and the American Dream, is far from perfect, and often destructive in its institutional, long-run tendencies.

He writes that as Americans become more and more devoted to the concept of rising through a meritocracy that rewards the smart and able, many of them will inevitably become captivated by “the pull of the inner ring.” The inner ring, a result of the fractal inequality that currently characterizes the United States, is a “social hierarchy that extends ever upward,” so that as one advances, she can only better see the higher reaches of elite society in which she would like to reside. This has a nasty effect on all Americans who engage in any amount of aggressive meritocracy, where “there is always another height to which to ascend, more competitors to vanquish, more money to obtain.” Hayes sums up the point in a telling paragraph:

 

The obsession with rank reflects a deep cultural anxiety over and simultaneous addiction to the ceaseless war for top status, the never-ending treadmill of competition and achievement that we’ve set as our ideal…. We have jettisoned any vestigial affection for civic equality in exchange for the false promise of a hierarchy for merit.”

 

All in all, Hayes argues, our national infatuation with meritocracy has encouraged us to evaluate ourselves through the lens of meritocracy itself. We come to view ourselves in the context of a constant competition, characterized more by our abilities to rise, skills to sell, and brands to market, than our civic identity or our capacities for life and love.

Louis CK’s thoughts on self-evaluation are also worth examining, but they are of an entirely separate category than Hayes.’ In his show, Louie, CK writes, directs, and plays a parodied version of himself, a middle-aged, overweight, balding, divorced comedian and father of two. Louie bumbles through his life in the show, oscillating between fits of joy and lengths of boredom and depression. As the narrative of Louie progresses, CK’s character occasionally searches and hopes for more excitement to have in his life, but inevitably, Louie fails in those searches.

In the ninth episode of Louie’s first season, Louie goes on a date that begins with success and ends with embarrassing failure. As he is sitting at a small donut and coffee shop with his date, having an entertaining conversation with her, a group of young, loud teenagers barge in. They make such a racket that Louie, unable to talk, yells at them to stop. In response, one of the young men approaches him and threatens to fight him unless Louie implores him to stop. Louie, frightened by the youth and his heavy, bruised knuckles, relents, saying “Please don’t fight me.” But, his willingness to “debase himself” to avoid fighting disgusts his date. She says, visibly annoyed, that it was a “turnoff,” and Louie’s formerly successful date ends then and there.

In yet another episode (Season 1, episode 13), Louie pursues romantic success when he goes out to a club with a number of younger, hipper comics. But Louie, overweight and much older than the club’s clientele, leaves feeling dejected and unattractive. And, in a similar episode (Season 2, episode 3), Louie, unsatisfied by the apartment in which he has lived through his divorce and his unhappy middle-aged years, sets out house-hunting. He falls for an enormous, mansionesque house that is vastly out of his price range, but he continues to fixate on it, and become depressed by his current apartment, though he knows the large house is out of his reach.

To those who watch the show on a cursory level, these unsuccessful pursuits define the show. When people write that CK’s show is ‘dark,’ these are the episodes of which they write. But, such an understanding of CK’s vision is too simple. Louie experiences redemption with himself, and reaches happiness in the show, through a certain brand of self-evaluation. Each one of the instances above – the date, the trip to the club, Louie’s house-hunt – ends with Louie conceptualizing himself as a father, to view himself in a fulfilling social role rather than just as a man chasing women or hunting wealth.

His reasoning for avoiding a fight on his date is parenthood, explaining to his date “I have two kids.” After his vain trip to the club, he goes home to his early-rising daughters to buy them a pancake breakfast while the sun dawns over New York City. And after he realizes that he cannot purchase another house, Louie makes an event out of it, teaching his kids to paint by re-painting his own apartment.

That sort of self-concept, much different than the meritocratic ideal Hayes describes, much different than self-evaluation defined by women, wealth, or material concerns, is the nugget of truth within CK’s show. See, Louie is not defined in a negative sense like Girls or Twilight of the Elites. Culture, though destructive as it is portrayed in the show, is not nearly as central as CK’s character’s response to that materialist culture. Louie’s self-conceptualization is built upon his social role, determined by his purposeful interpersonal engagement with and love for his daughters.

In these ways, Hayes and CK manage to make two very different claims about self-evaluation. Hayes pillories the long-term tendencies of meritocracy, our American affection for it, and the wretched, selfish, competitive self-concept it encourages. CK engineers a positive, valued reply to a broken, hollow world.

So, what makes them worth bringing up? Well, one of the great problems of the “treadmill of competition and achievement that we’ve set as our ideal” that Hayes identifies, is its solipsism. If one is obsessed with their own status and advancement, as the meritocracy encourages us to be, one can not meaningfully engage with or care for others. Louie’s happiness as a father derives the exact sort of behavior that Hayes’ meritocracy and the larger culture in Louie discourage.

That concern for engagement is the link between Hayes’ and CK’s visions, and it is that concern which makes them such an invaluable addition to American’s engagement anxiety.

Putnam, Sandel and Murray lament the decline of American community, but what are they lamenting but the loss of meaningful interpersonal engagement that community and group involvement provide? Dunham and Douthat take issue with the state of American sex and relationships, and their biggest critique is that such a ‘hookup culture,’ is unfulfilling, because it is so isolating, and accordingly, loneliness inducing. Hayes and CK provide criticism of Americans’ trends of self-evaluation, and those trends have a number of issues, chief among them, their tendencies against fulfilling interpersonal engagement.

They are all saying different things while simultaneously managing to say the very same: the cultural biases at the center of modern American life are leading us away from meaningful interpersonal engagement, and that direction is of great concern.

Now, it is up to the reader to decide whether this engagement anxiety has any base to it. Does American life indeed undermine meaningful interpersonal engagement among its citizens? If the answer is no, then the mechanisms identified by everyone from Putnam to CK may go on unmolested. But if the answer is yes, if the engagement anxiety is more than unfounded, jeremiad-esque worry, then it deserves a serious response.

What would such a response look like? It would involve some re-valuation of community and group involvement, re-validation of the value of romantic relationships as so much more than just sexual, and rejuvenation of a self-evaluation that eschews narcissism and cherishes social utility. In short, the correct answer to the engagement anxiety would be to become the sociopolitical version of the “weird bunch of anti-rebels” of which David Foster Wallace wrote twenty years ago:

 

“The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point.”

 

Maybe Putnam, Sandel, Murray, Douthat, Dunham, Hayes, and CK are right. And if so, maybe that kind of rebellion, “single-entendre….untrendy…[and] sincere,” is exactly the kind of response that their justified anxiety deserves.

 

photo of Lena Dunham by David Shankbone