Us Vs. Them: Review of Sasse’s "Them"


Without friends, no one would choose to live, even if he had all other goods.


Our country has lately become locked in a vicious struggle of us versus them. We are right and they are wrong. We have good intentions and theirs are evil. For a while now I have been puzzling over how we got to this point and what to do about it. The title and blurbs about this book suggested that it might be of use in approaching this standoff.

Sasse divides his book into three parts: how we got this way, how it affects our society and what to do about it. I was most interested in the third part but thought the leadup to the problem and an understanding of our current situation might be helpful first. So I delved in with anticipation and hope despite my misgivings about hope for our society.

The author begins with a recollection of the “hometown gym on a Friday night feeling.” He recalls a time when families in the community came together to spend time together supporting their children’s activities. In my experience this is not just a distant memory. I have attended high basketball, football and volleyball games over the past few years and have felt the feelings he describes.

Early in the book, Sasse suggests that we have lost our sense of being rooted and have descended into loneliness. He describes three ways that Americans live. First is being rooted in family and neighborhood and living with the same people throughout life. He sees this as largely a memory rather than a current reality. Other people are mobile and leave their communities for educational and job purposes and never again stay in one place very long. They leave their roots behind. The third group is those who are stuck in oppressive living situations due to lack of skills, poverty and discrimination.

The author sees the main problem as loneliness and lack of belonging. Many of us have become “hyperconnected” through our electronics. Often we are connected to people whom we will never meet and with whom we have at best superficial connections rather than the real relationships with the people around us. He describes Twitter as a forum for smoke signals rather than essays. We have largely lost our former sense of community.

He notes that sharing a common cause unites people. In the past we relied on natural tribes including family, friends, coworkers and neighbors. As we have abandoned these sources of support, we have attached ourselves to “anti­tribes” focusing on the chasm between us and them and expressing our contempt for the other side rather than what we have in common. In the process we have lost a sense of working together for the common good. Now the challenge is how to “channel conflicts into words rather than swords.”

Sasse sees us as becoming addicted to distraction (television and social media) rather than focusing on how we can help each other live our real lives. Our smart electronics have led to increasing loneliness and “scrolling to escape” as well as looking to see television people living scripted lives rather than focusing on our own lives in our communities. We are so focused on what is happening at the moment that we lose sight of the context provided by awareness of our past and plans for the future. We have lost our sense of humility and self restraint which awareness of our past and future context provides.

When I finally reached the section about what to do about all this, I found tidbits for the future, but also a consistent retreat to more discussion of the problems we face. As I approached the final few pages I began to feel cheated of the original promise of the book. Sasse does suggest learning to reject “anti­identities” putting politics into its proper place and learning to live local again, reattaching ourselves to natural communities.

I think Sasse does a good job of explaining at least part of the problem facing us. Yet he made two statements that seemed contradictory to me. At one point, he said no one can deal with these issues alone. At another point he lists things each of us can do to make a difference. What I see missing is a plan for how all this will come together for the American community as a whole. But at least this book gives us a good sense of what we have lost and what we need to find again.






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