Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal — Ben Sasse
Senator Ben Sasse has the antidote to heal our broken society, and it has nothing to do with politics
This week, I sat in a presentation from the Dallas Holocaust Museum (soon to be the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum) entitled “The 10 Stages of Genocide”. The stages were laid out by Dr. Gregory Stanton and popularized by Genocide Watch. The first two stages, as explained in the presentation, are natural and not too big of a problem if seen in isolation: Classification and Symbolization. As these first two stages were described, I thought of our political parties. We classify ourselves by political party, or sometimes others do the classifying for us. We even symbolize our political parties: blue/donkey for Democrats, red/elephant for Republicans. We do these with our favorite sports teams too. Relatively normal. The third stage, Discrimination, has thankfully not happened in relation to our political parties because they have been relatively balanced in their power. But what amazed me, when the presenter reached Stage 4, was that we in American politics are in the process of skipping right over Stage 3 completely. We are entering, if not already in, Stage 4 of the “10 Stages of Genocide”: Dehumanization. We think of our enemies as less than human. As enemies to be conquered. As Them.
Stage 6 is even more scary, as we see more than just shades of this one as well. Polarization drives everyone to one side or the other, as people are forced to choose. “You’re either with us or you’re against us”. “If you don’t support the Republican no matter what, you’re supporting the Democrats”. I am thankful that, in this time of massive polarization, there are still people in our government like Ben Sasse. This is not to say that Sasse is a moderate on the political spectrum; he one of the most conservative people in the Senate. He votes with President Trump only 87% of the time according to FiveThirtyEight, which sounds high but outlines his willingness to swim upstream: he falls in the same Trump Score range as Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and the late great John McCain. This is because Sasse is conservative but not in the nebulous way that is defined by the whims of the two major political parties and their collective Us vs. Them mentality. Without a return back to normalcy that Sasse describes in his new book, Them, one of these two political parties will eventually consolidate power and we will continue our slide through the “10 Stages of Genocide”. Along the way, we will have lost what made us American.
In Them, Sasse makes a wonderful argument against what he calls the Anti-Tribe mentality (“the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, or basing your beliefs purely on what you are against) and makes a case for real, local tribes: those you can see, conversate with, and belong to. Sasse explains:
It turns out that the massive economic disruption that we entered a couple of decades ago and will be navigating for decades to come is depriving us psychologically and spiritually at the same time that it’s enriching us materially. The same technology that has liberated us from so much inconvenience and drudgery has also unmoored us from the things that anchor our identities. The revolution that has given tens of millions of Americans the opportunity to live like historic royalty has also outpaced our ability to figure out what community, friendships, and relationships should look like in the modern world. As reams of research now show, we’re richer and better-informed and more connected — and unhappier and more isolated and less fulfilled.
This is extremely important when all media is pushing us in the exact opposite direction, and America needs to listen before it is too late. I believe this is an important book for just that reason. Sasse has put a finger on exactly what everyone knows is the problem but no one has done anything about. Instead, we have just pointed fingers at the other side. “What-about-ism”, says Sasse, “is an intellectually vacuous way to live life — not to mention being a morally bankrupt way to raise children.”
That is what it always come back to for Sasse: how we are raising the next generation. His 2017 book, The Vanishing American Adult, laid out the many ways that Americans are failing in this regard, and Them continues the theme. Sasse has an answer to all of these issues and it is rediscovering our roots as Americans and humans:
What we need are new habits of mind and heart. We need new practices of neighborliness. We need to get our hands dirty replenishing the soil that nourishes rooted, purposeful lives. But how?
Our world is nudging us toward rootlessness, when only a recovery of rootedness can heal us.
He begins by describing the symptoms of our disease in compelling prose. But Sasse has specific prescriptions for remedying this rootlessness, don’t worry. He speaks in anything but generalities. I don’t want to ruin those for you by outlining them here. But his concept of rootedness is the key. Politics is not our savior, and we cannot rely on politicians to fix it. Politics isn’t even the most important civic issue. One last quote outlines this perfectly:
One of the core problems with our public life together is that we’re constantly failing to distinguish between politics and civics. Politics is about the use of power — how it is acquired and who wields it. Obviously, politics matters. But civics matters more. civics is about who we are as a people. A nation requires a framework of shared values, a set of core commitments.
That is what we are missing as a society, and politicians can’t bring it back. We have to do it ourselves. We are just lucky enough, it seems, to have one politician who realizes this and has a platform to tell us.
Go and buy or borrow Ben Sasse’s new book Them when it releases October 16th. He is someone that needs to be listened to, whether you agree with his politics or not. That’s kind of the point of the whole book. Don’t let politics divide us when something more important is at stake.
I received this book as an eARC courtesy of St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley, but my opinions are my own.