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Us against ourselves

A brief history of alienation

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Alienated America, by Tim Carney, is the latest book (following Bowling Alone in 2000 and Coming Apart in 2013) about our culture’s loss of community bonds. That loss could be the endgame of one of the great conflicts in human history. The conflict has taken many forms: the one and the many (philosophical), the pluribus and the unum (political), the id and the other (psychological).

We need to be ourselves. 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 crazy.

“No man is an island,” wrote John Donne. “I am the master of my fate,” wrote William Henley. Who was right? Could it be both, or neither?

Ever since the Garden, when a man and woman decided to assert themselves, separation fell like a knife blade: first between the 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 never without conflict. The I has always pushed against them. Humanity can be oppressed, but only individuals can be alienated, and the march to widespread alienation followed the rise of the individual in Western culture, beginning around 1500. A rough sketch of that progression might look something like this:

Self against tradition. The Protestant Reformation signaled a break with a thousand years of encrusted church doctrine and central authority, creating the greatest impulse toward individual freedom the world had known since Jesus declared, “The truth shall set you free.” The truth rediscovered by the Reformation set not only individuals free but entire cultures, leading to 1776 and another milestone of separation:

Self against absolute rule. George III was probably the least absolute ruler in Europe at the time, but restrictions set from 3,000 miles away chafed the Protestant-born, liberty-nurturing colonists beyond endurance. Individual freedom, the linchpin of their new nation, did not equal individualism, or not yet. The voluntary associations that impressed Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited in 1831 indicated mutual dependence in meeting individual goals. In Europe, another spirit was stirring, pitting …

Self against society. The Romanticism that forever changed music, art, and literature also led to revolutions against all that hindered free expression and personal choice. This was the age of new religions, free-love communes, and wildly romantic poets who died young—perhaps too impractical to last, leading to …

Self against family. The Industrial Revolution would eventually create wealth beyond the wildest dreams of Louis XIV, but not before taking fathers out of homes and villages and putting them in factories. Splitting families was not the aim of industrialization, but socialism answered the abuses of the machine age by taking huge chunks of responsibility from the family and giving 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 the most intimate family relationship, the one that creates family in the first place, freed 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 in order to shelter in the group? An obsession with “identity” turns people into political causes, and false solidarity robs us all of what makes human personality so rich and varied and fascinating.

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? Whose rules?

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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