Our Divided American Tribe

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"People speak with incredible contempt about--depending on their views--the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president, or the entire US government. It's a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime, except that it's applied to our fellow citizens. Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. . . . People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united long." (Sebastian Junger 126)


We are a divided people--a people in many ways at war with each other. Sebastian Junger examines the reasons in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. I picked the book up because it's the common read this fall on the campus where I teach freshman composition. All incoming freshmen receive a copy of the chosen book each year. 

I haven't participated in the common read before. Other books didn't fit with my course plan, and some students indicated great relief that I wasn't making them read the books.

But when I read the description of Junger's book last week, I couldn't wait to get ahold of it. It deals substantively with the division of our society and with PTSD--Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Junger explores why PTSD is a larger problem for us today even with a military much smaller than those of the World War II, Korea, and Vietnam eras. 

The compelling details of Junger's text include discussion of factors we consider less often--our degree of comfort, our freedom from threat, and our lack of a shared experience. Those factors alienate us from each other. 

I remember my mother telling me what it was like during World War II. Everyone knew the country was at war. Everyone's life changed because we were at war. Everyone sacrificed. Nearly everyone wanted to be part of the war effort--to contribute something, volunteering, donating a bicycle tire, buying a war bond.

Since 9/11, most of America has not felt the pinch of war in the least. We do without nothing. Most of our lives haven't changed a bit--except for our awareness and fear of terrorism. We make a greater effort than we did during Vietnam when soldiers sometimes suffered public abuse. But the war provides no "shared public meaning."

"Such public meaning is probably not generated by the kinds of formulaic phrases such as "Thank you for your service," that many Americans now feel compelled to offer soldiers and vets. . . . If anything, these token acts only deepen the chasm between the military and civilian populations by highlighting the fact that some people serve their country but the vast majority don't" (97).

Junger presents our momentary unity after 9/11, but that was so short lived because of our lack of a common experience, a common vision. The moral superiority Junger describes replaced the unity of a nation attacked.

Now we have to ask ourselves: What kind of attack will unify us in a long lasting, significant way?

And is there no other way?

Note: Some Christians will find Junger's continual assumption of evolution to be off-putting. But it's not a big leap for readers of faith to see sin as a contributing factor in today's troubled society. There is rare inappropriate language in the book.

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Dino Manalis Added Jul 17, 2017 - 11:35am
We're all Americans and part of the United States of America!  We're more united than we're different!
EXPAT Added Jul 17, 2017 - 11:38am
The country is suffering from PHSD, not PTSD.
Post Hillary Stress Disorder.
I agree with Tom Purcell. We must repair society. The era of changing society to make misfits more equal is OVER!
The Burghal Hidage Added Jul 17, 2017 - 12:12pm
A good read. You make some good observations Nancy. In WW II there was a clear objective. The enemy was well defined, it was a clear evil. Much easier to get a nation mostly unified behind that.
There are numerous reasons why this war is not the same. Different times, a different people and yes, there is not that same sense of participation. Not even in the largely symbolic display of sacrifices made at home.
I think the chief element missing is the clarity of the mission. There really is none. As conducted it has proven to be a largely futile exercise of "whack-a-mole". That is not to diminish those who have served. It is simply an acknowledgement of a rudderless policy directed by a command structure that can't seem to decide: are we at war, or is this just for show. Unfortunately the boots on the ground face the same consequence in either case.
Add to this that we have as a people learned to distrust the motives and for good reasons. If we truly mean to pursue the stated objective then act as you mean it. Do it right, get it done and come home. Otherwise cut bait and be done with it. Regardless the outcome anyone who thinks that we will ever be hailed as liberators to that part of the world is seriously delusional.
George N Romey Added Jul 17, 2017 - 1:15pm
There is no winnable solution in the Middle East.  We are not of their culture and religious belief.  Its like trying to get a rap artist to play Mozart.   We are there because its great for the MIC and certain neocons have this sick and twisted idea of US hegemony.
Second, the enemy we now face is within.  Its the Deep State/Shadow Government that has caused the real economy to collapse and never recover.  Anyone that thinks we've had a recovery in the (good) job market is just plain clueless.  We are in a Depression.  The MSM just never bothers to show the long lines at the Food Banks and the people pulling their hair out trying to make the minimum payment on their credit cards.
Nancy E Head Added Jul 17, 2017 - 1:16pm
I completely agree. Ever since Truman fired MacArthur we've not had a clear objective.
Autumn Cote Added Jul 17, 2017 - 2:09pm
Please note, the more personal responses you offer the more likely your article will remain popular and commented upon.  As always, many thanks for your participation with Writer Beat!
Patrick Writes Added Jul 17, 2017 - 8:45pm
Who is the country at war with today? Terror? 
I suppose that we're still "fighting" in Afghanistan. I'd have to think cutting Afghanistan in half and setting up a military checkpoint would have to be better than Vietnam style fighting that's happening now.
But if the Vietnam analogy holds (at a high level), then not even that would be enough to buy peace.
Patrick Writes Added Jul 17, 2017 - 8:46pm
...because Vietnam was cut in half but that didn't stop the fighting.
Bill H. Added Jul 19, 2017 - 11:15am
People these days are more influenced by what is pumped into them from their TV sets, the internet, and their "smartphones". Society is being manipulated from the top, and to worsen matters we now have a "leader" who's mission is to divide the country even more, and he seems to enjoy every minute of it.
The two major political parties are so detached from the people that they are supposed to represent that they are each resorting to division in an attempt to retain a base. Using the tools of technology, they have been doing a damn good job of this.
I have been around long enough to remember both JFK and Ronald Reagan as uniters, and from what I saw were both admired for the most part by the majority of people from both parties. What is needed is a new political party that works for  the interests and well being of both the people and the business community in a balanced manner that works for both.
The era of pre-paid politicians that have had their agendas written by special interests must be eliminated.
Nancy E Head Added Jul 19, 2017 - 4:17pm
If there is to be unity, it has to come from the bottom and go up. It won't trickle down. That only works in the economy.