Colum­nists share their thoughts

The Record (Troy, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - George Will’s email ad­dress is georgewill@wash­

Find out what peo­ple have to say about lo­cal and na­tional is­sues.

IF SEN. BEN SASSE IS RIGHT >> he has not re­cently been wrong about any­thing im­por­tant — the na­tion’s most-dis­cussed po­lit­i­cal prob­lem is en­tan­gled with the least- un­der­stood pub­lic health prob­lem. The po­lit­i­cal prob­lem is fu­ri­ous par­ti­san­ship. The pub­lic health prob­lem is lone­li­ness. Sasse’s new book ar­gues that Amer­i­cans are richer, more in­formed and “con­nected” than ever — and un­hap­pier, more iso­lated and less ful­filled.

In “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” Sasse’s sub­ject is “the evap­o­ra­tion of so­cial cap­i­tal” — the sat­is­fac­tions of work and com­mu­nity. This re­flects a per­verse phe­nom­e­non: What has come to count as con­nect­ed­ness is dis­plac­ing the real thing. And mat­ters might quickly be­come dra­mat­i­cally worse.

Lone­li­ness in “epi­demic pro­por­tions” is pro­duc­ing a “loneli- ness lit­er­a­ture” of so­ci­o­log­i­cal and med­i­cal find­ings about the ef­fect of lone­li­ness on in­di­vid­u­als’ brains and bod­ies, and on com­mu­ni­ties. Sasse says “there is a grow­ing con­sen­sus” that lone­li­ness — not obe­sity, can­cer or heart disease — is the na­tion’s “num­ber one health cri­sis.” “Per­sis­tent lone­li­ness” re­duces av­er­age longevity more than twice as much as does heavy drink­ing and more than three times as much as obe­sity, which of­ten is a con­se­quence of lone­li­ness. Re­search demon­strates that lone­li­ness is as phys­i­cally dan­ger­ous as smok­ing 15 cig­a­rettes a day and con­trib­utes to cog­ni­tive de­cline, in­clud­ing more rapid ad­vance of Alzheimer’s disease. Sasse says, “We’re lit­er­ally dy­ing of de­spair,” of the fail­ure “to fill the hole mil­lions of Amer­i­cans feel in their lives.”

Symp­toms large and small are ev­ery­where. Time was, Sasse notes, Amer­i­cans “stocked their imag­i­na­tions with the same things”: In the 1950s, fre­quently 70 per­cent of tele­vi­sion sets in use tuned in to “I Love Lucy.” To­day, when 93 per­cent of Amer­i­cans have ac­cess to more than 500 chan­nels, the most-watched ca­ble news pro­gram, “Han­nity” has about 1 per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion. In the last quar­ter of the 20th cen­tury, the av­er­age num­ber of times Amer­i­cans en­ter­tained at home de­clined al­most 50 per­cent. Amer­i­cans are hy­per­con­nected but dis­con­nected, with “fewer non­vir­tual friends than at any point in decades.” With the me­dian Amer­i­can check­ing (ac­cord­ing to a Pew sur­vey) a smart­phone ev­ery 4.3 min­utes, and with nearly 40 per­cent of those 18 to 29 on­line al­most ev­ery wak­ing minute, we are “ad­dicted to dis­trac­tion” and “parched for gen­uine com­mu­nity.” So­cial me­dia, those “ten­drils of re­sent­ment” that Sasse calls ac­cel­er­ants for po­lit­i­cal anger, cre­ate a nu­ance-free “out­rage loop” for “pro­fes­sional rage-ped­dlers.” And for peo­ple for whom en­e­mies have the psy­chic value of giv­ing life co­her­ence.

Work, which Sasse calls “argu-

ably the most fun­da­men­tal an­chor of hu­man iden­tity,” is at the be­gin­ning of “a stag­ger­ing level of cul­tural dis­rup­tion” swifter and more rad­i­cal than even Amer­ica’s trans­for­ma­tion from a ru­ral and agri­cul­tural to an ur­ban and in­dus­trial na­tion. At that time, one re­sponse to so­cial dis­rup­tion was alcoholism, which be­gat Pro­hi­bi­tion. To­day, one rea­son the av­er­age Amer­i­can life span has de­clined for three con­sec­u­tive years is that many more are dy­ing of drug over­doses — one of the “dis­eases of de­spair” — an­nu­ally than died dur­ing the en­tire Viet­nam War. Peo­ple “need to be needed,” but McKin­sey & Co. an­a­lysts cal­cu­late that, glob­ally, 50 per­cent of paid ac­tiv­i­ties — jobs — could be au­to­mated by cur­rently demon­strated tech­nolo­gies. Amer­ica’s largest job cat­e­gory is “driver” and, with self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles com­ing, two-thirds of such jobs could dis­ap­pear in a decade.

This fu­ture of ac­cel­er­at­ing flux ex­hil­a­rates the ed­u­cated and so­cially nim­ble. It fright­ens those who, their work iden­ti­ties erased and their com­mu­ni­ties at­om­ized, are tempted not by what Sasse calls “healthy lo­cal tribes” but by po­lit­i­cal trib­al­ism of griev­ances, or

by chem­i­cal obliv­ion, or both. In to­day’s bi­fur­cated na­tion, 2016 was the 10th con­sec­u­tive year when 40 per­cent of Amer­i­can chil­dren were born out­side of mar­riage, Amer­ica has “two al­most en­tirely dif­fer­ent cul­tures,” ex­em­pli­fied by this: Un­der 10 per­cent of births to col­legee­d­u­cated women are out­side of mar­riage com­pared to al­most 70 per­cent of births to women with high school diplo­mas or less.

Re­pair­ing Amer­ica’s phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture, al­though ex­pen­sive, is con­cep­tu­ally sim­ple, in­volv­ing steel and con­crete. The crum­bling of Amer­ica’s so­cial in­fra­struc­ture presents a daunt­ing chal­lenge: We do not know how to de­velop what Sasse wants, “new habits of mind and heart ... new prac­tices of neigh­bor­li­ness.” We do know that more govern­ment, which means more sat­u­ra­tion of so­ci­ety with pol­i­tics, is not a suf­fi­cient an­swer.

Sasse, a fifth-gen­er­a­tion Ne­braskan who ded­i­cates his book to the Ki­wa­nis and Ro­tary clubs and other lit­tle pla­toons of Fre­mont, Ne­braska (pop­u­la­tion 26,000), wants to rekin­dle the “home­town-gym-on-a-Fri­day-night feel­ing.” But Amer­i­cans can’t go home again to Fre­mont.

George Will Colum­nist

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