The Nation's Pulse

Beside Ourselves: The Lonely Lost in Our Social Labyrinths

A stunning new report shows Americans are more isolated than ever, but the ugly truths get lost in the statistics.

By 7.25.06

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ROBERT PUTNAM WROTE the book on loneliness. More precisely he wrote the latest book on the latest version of American loneliness, following David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1961), William Whyte's The Organization Man (1956), and Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Putnam's contribution is called Bowling Alone; it came along six years ago, and it was covered in glory this month when a Duke University study proved by sociological research that we all are increasingly cut off from true fellowship and real community.

This unpleasant vision has been mined outside of sociology -- in literature, like Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and theatrically, where Death of a Salesman is the standard. Later, the corporate loneliness of the late '50s made way for the postmodern anomie of Christopher Lasch and Jonathan Franzen. The failure of modern man and his descendants to keep the basic bonds of society together has in fact been the central subject of the humanities since the old culture first began crumbling in Europe around 1850. The names change, the story progresses and worsens, but the plot is singular, and it has led us to the understanding that neither email nor MySpace nor Blackberries has brought us closer to durable communion.

This is astounding because we live in a West where more people have their grubby mitts on one another than ever before. Privacy -- that thing we thought we Americans thought we'd been fighting for -- is dead; publicity is king. It is our leviathan, and within it encurl a multitude of labyrinths, social networks that close the distances of culture, geography, and propriety to create an unprecedented society of hookups. How, so close, can we stay so lonely?

THE QUESTION IS on everyone's lips in the public prints: The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, and Boston Globe, to take a representative sample, ran major stories. Putnam got interviewed. A lot. The news of Duke's study was not lost on the Concerned Women for America, whose Dr. Janice Crouse remarked in Human Events the other week that

the self-centeredness that results from a culture dominated by the values of radical individualism is not a pretty thing; it does not contribute to the maturing of individuals, the strengthening of family, the growth of friendship or the development of communities.

It is too easy a mark to pin our embarrassment of empty riches on the rise of an unfettered individualism where it's every man, woman, and child for him or herself. The same undoing of local community that sweeps America has been replicated in the individual: our interiors are often a mania of multiple and even contradicting identities, and our serial intimacies often mirror broken spirits and incoherent souls. We want to have our cake and eat it too, and in the process we become legion. Then we charge ourselves off of cliffs.

Why? Three vast forces of publicity are at work. "All your life you live so close to the truth it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye," Tom Stoppard wrote. "And when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque." May I present our grotesques.

First, Community. Since Robert Nisbet we have spoken overtly of Western man's quest for community. Community endures as the anchor of the catchphrase of our times. No one wishes to be without a community -- black, gay, retired, handicapped, gun-toting, transgendered, undocumented, medical, business, ad infinitum. But the nature of these communities is often virtual. Often only such efforts as the sending of regular checks to a national interest group result in access to that other catchphrase, a "sense of community." Because we live in a time when feelings matter more than facts or faith, no one wants to be without a sense of community -- even more than they wish to be without a real community. This is not to denigrate the very real questing for meaning among others that surely propels AIDS Walks as much as church fundraisers. But we are learning to settle for less than the real thing. We lead busy lives. We work to afford the pleasures we have learned to need; there is little time to spare. For efficiency's sake, we have nationalized community, privileged it over the local organisms that once ordered the pace of lives lived in consensual real proximity. And we have permitted professional advocates to set the agenda of these so-called communities, and in the process we have allowed the quintessentially frontier mentality of America to turn inward.

Second, Identity. Since the triumph of the therapeutic in America, the self has become an open system, an amusement park and haunted house within which we wander endlessly, searching. We search for a string of satisfactions, arrayed like bread crumbs to take us nowhere further than from one to the next. We have taught ourselves how to follow several paths at once; in our supposed freedom, we can take on cultivated schizophrenia and call it freedom of identity or personal choice. We pile on lifestyles, shifting when it suits us. This makes us both more open to any lifestyle and more incapable of constancy and consistency in any particular lifestyle. We can touch anyone but endure with no one. In the vanguard, right at this moment, is the hegemonic and utterly revolting spectacle of a huge Vegas sex party, where the one commandment is stated succinctly by one of the orgiasts. "I like to participate in life as much as possible," Reuters reports her as saying "with a broad smile." All distances must be closed, because now distance is oppression.

Third, Propriety. One reason why some people may find themselves, despite their strongest hopes, in a headlong retreat from community is that all around them propriety is in retreat, too. Divorcees are everywhere, but so too are married couples with vague or sham fidelity, people in knowingly and unknowingly "open" marriages, ditto people in "open" relationships. The propensity toward kink puts everyone into potential play. The fevered sexual imagination opens intimate friendships between couples to even more dangerous possibility than human nature makes standard. Nothing -- that is, no one -- is good enough, because someone could be better, at the drop and for the duration of a whim. It is very difficult to convince someone not to hit on your significant other without causing a scene. Secondhand impropriety, too, is everywhere. The frankest and most banal conversations about former lovers and passionate possibilities become inescapable. The soundtrack of our lives is thick with the sex-obsessed of every race and class. The drumbeat makes the titillation of the civilized so hard that general nausea turns the refined into the antisocial. In spite of themselves, such people turn against community along with publicity. In a world where proper social distances cannot be observed, what recourse is there?

The statistics now at our fingertips are the details of the symptoms of our disease. They are not diagnoses. They are certainly not prescriptions. But it is not too late to learn quickly and well to restore the rituals of distance that make the closing of distances a ceremony of social order. When eventually closed, uniquely and sacredly, it is loneliness that is lost, and true intimacy refashioned again.

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About the Author

James Poulos is a doctoral student at Georgetown and the former Political Editor of Culture11. His writing has been published by The American Conservative, The National Interest, The New Atlantis, Partnership for a Secure America, and The Weekly Standard. In addition to AmSpecBlog, he has blogged at The American Scene, Doublethink, and Postmodern Conservative, which he founded. With degrees in political science and law from Duke and USC, he is currently at work on a dissertation about life after Napoleon.