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An Age Of American Self-Loathing

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

In the opening of his new book, Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium, Dick Meyer checks off a list of gripes and social ills of our time. From vulgar t-shirts to the demise of independent stores, the list is, indeed, annoying — even infuriating. Meyer, NPR's editorial director for digital media, sees it as a reflection of the fall of western civilization. He's only half-joking about this.

Meyer is troubled by what he sees as an exponential increase in rampant rudeness, corruption and the valuation of getting ahead at others' expense. He identifies the 1960s as the starting point of a great shift in the American psyche, a time of wonderful progress and enlightenment in such powerful realms as civil rights, but also the beginning of a descent into unfettered me-ism.

"Christopher Lasch, a historian and social critic, was one of the first to worry that the worldview revolutions of the sixties could truly threaten people's ability to build and lead productive, unselfish adult lives," Meyer writes. And in his 1978 book The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch blamed selfism, or narcissism, for the decline in American confidence.

Meyer has warned of the societal slide from individualism to narcissism for some time. In a December 2007 essay in the Washington Post, Meyer outlined his outrage upon attending an NFL game. Belly-baring teenage girls performed a dance that made him cringe, and a man "who looked like Cpl. Klinger from M*A*S*H glared at Meyer's son, who was wearing a jersey for the visiting team.

"There's a place and purpose for public aggression, drunkenness and lewdness," Meyer observed. "Certainly the Romans enjoyed it in their decline."

The author calls himself a "phoniness vigilante." Fortunately for all of us, he's "fairly well trained to spot fakery and fraud in the public realm." A longtime newsman for print and television, Meyer has covered presidential conventions and produced an award-winning investigative report about the true identity of the man who once lay in the Tomb of the Unknowns.

In his NPR column, Against the Grain, and in previous columns at CBSNews.com, he has written about the absence of what he calls a "social superego." His work picks up the lament of the much-heralded 1995 social study Bowling Alone, but Meyer believes that things have gotten worse even since then. When it comes to popular culture, sports, movies and TV, increasingly, we're driven to "watch alone."

This reading of Why We Hate Us took place in August 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.