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Far From The Madding Crowd

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

Is loneliness a sensible lifestyle alternative? Instead of being a sad pathology, can social withdrawal be a rational and practical response to a world one finds grossly unattractive?

I would have said certainly not, unless you happen to be Henry David Thoreau, J.D. Salinger or a monk. But that was before I read the e-mail I received in response to my column last week about an important recent study that finds Americans have dramatically fewer close confidants than they did just twenty years ago.

I thought perhaps my column – that is, the study I wrote about – had touched a social nerve when it became the most read story on CBSNews.com on the day it first ran.

I was surprised because the piece was a rather dry recap of the study; it was a bit egg-headed for a news site. Usually our most popular story is the big news of the day, or something especially lurid, bizarre or controversial. A discourse on a paper published in the American Sociological Review didn't quite hit any of those marks.

The volume of my e-mail was slightly less than what I normally get. But the content of it stunned me. You want a bigger word than "stunned?" How about shocked, surprised or baffled?

Roughly half the e-mails declared, in essence, "I'm lonely by choice and damn proud of it!" These were not heart-tugging missives from isolated nebbishes and unfortunates. These were assertive and clearly argued position papers.

What to make of them? Rationalizations? Symptoms? Or sane responses to an insane world?

"U.S. citizens are isolated because it is unhealthy to risk contact with one's fellow citizens," wrote Holly from Midland, Texas. "Humans wish to survive. It is healthier to be lonely than to risk contact with a society without decency and without mores."

Isolation, for some, is evidently more tolerable than contact pollution.

"I am one of the people in the 'no confidant' category that 20 years ago had a network of friends and confidants that I no longer have to rely upon," Sheri Foster e-mailed. "Today I avoid as many people as possible."

"Why? I am tired," she explains. "Tired of rude people. Tired of angry people. Tired of people who have no pride in their homes, their neighborhoods, their jobs. Tired of people who disregard how they affect others. Tired of people with no patience, no compassion, no understanding. Tired of people who have no tolerance at all."

Many lonely-and-proud correspondents based their decisions to isolate on politics, specifically the inability or distastefulness of trying and failing to find common ground with people of different philosophic flavors.

"I am, according to Meyer, 'lonely,' but it comes from a conscious decision on my part," wrote Ron Vida, from the conservative side. "For me, it is safer to be a loner than to chance 'offending' some sensitive soul who will lash out against me with a lawsuit if I speak what I believe. We've all heard of 'defensive driving.' The current social environment is so potentially chaotic that we resort to 'defensive living.'"

"Dick: It's not depressing, nor terrifying for me," he wrote. "What's your problem?"

"We have had a political practice in this country for the last twenty years that was intended to divide people. As a single person, I felt pushed right out of America during all of the recent campaigns that have stressed the overwhelming importance of family," writes Phyllis Lindblade.

"During the last five years, we have been told that only certain opinions are acceptable and other opinions are deviant and traitorous. We have the Rush Limbaughs and the Dr. Lauras telling us how to think and telling us that all other thinking is wrong," says Lindblade. "How can I share my thinking with anyone when my very American citizenship might be vilified? We could have wider networks of confidants if there was more sun shining on America, if all of the clouds of threat were removed."

From James Paris, writing from the left: "I believe part of the isolation is due to 'political polarization,' which in fact divides people quite effectively, even family members. More and more people are becoming adamant about their political views, mainly because of the constant prejudicial pounding by rightwing conservatives and religious fanatics. This phenomenon causes people to avoid one another for fear of creating 'hard feelings.'"

Others withheld ideological pronouncements but indicated they've observed "political polarization" to be insurmountable and the flight from it to isolation rational."

"It is normal for the people to be isolated more during this phase we are in. People have become more politically polarized and less willing to have a discussion," says S.T. Triane. "Intelligent people don't really want to talk to people that can't reason. That's healthy."

Finally, I received several apolitical but aggressive celebrations of isolation. "When you are well off economically, there is no reason to join/talk with people/groups to feel protected/belonging or part of a community or get help," Arthur Arrizon wrote, perhaps sarcastically.

Devoid of sarcasm, David Price: "Increased social isolation is one of the many great boons of our time. One used to have to deal with people constantly to accomplish much; technology has largely freed us from this dependence… Long live the independent, free-thinking individual!"

Here's my conclusion, or my strong suspicion, or at least my really big hunch: The e-mails I have received say next to nothing about why Americans have become more socially isolated over the last 20 years but they say a whole lot about why politics appears to be operating at historically high levels of shrillness, obnoxiousness.

Allow me to explain: I really don't believe that a significant number of Americans are lonely or isolated by choice. I'm sure some people who are isloated find many ways to rationalize their condition, sometimes very cleverly. But I do believe that it is a distinct character trait of Americans with especially strident and intolerant political or moralistic worldviews to feel socially threatened, endangered and isolated.

In the big picture, I believe many Americans understandably find it very difficult to live lives outside of organic communities, as many if not most Americans do now (me included).

I don't mean "organic communities" in any fancy pants way; it means just what you think – a place where you and one or two of your parents grew up, where you have non-nuclear kin nearby, where you have intergenerational relationships, where your friends know some of your extended family and vice versa, where you have ties to a school or a church or a club that doesn't feel forced or unnatural and where you have some sniff of history and ancestry, no matter how ephemeral.

This makes absolutely no difference to many people and indeed this freedom from social baggage is a uniquely American freedom – or burden, depending upon your perspective. Few people are conscious of this as a deprivation or a hardship. And I think the many who feel a need to belong – which is most of us – respond to the gutterball of bowling alone in ways that often fit patterns.

One is the temptation to succumb to a sense that the values and belief systems you do hold dear are endangered. Liberals (on the extreme) think born-agains want to capture their wombs, erase their liberties and brainwash the populace; conservatives (on the extreme) think politically correct, spawn-of-Hillary want to take away their Lord, erase their liberties and brainwash the populace.

A companion piece of this is to create new attachments, often with the zealousness of the freshly converted. Often this is literal: witness the growth of evangelical Christianity in America. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time it is apolitical and secular: "American Idol" addicts, tattoo afficionados, fashion victims, eBay bargain hunters – pick your own example.

But sometimes zealous, exagerated attachments are political and do have broader consequences: witness the rise of ideological extremes in the past decade or so of politics.

Realize this: America as a whole is actually not politically polarized. That is a myth. While there has been a growth in the stridency, intolerance and even quantity of political extremists, there is still a huge – huge – center that shares basic civic values and is repulsed by the extremes. Close elections -- 50/50 America -- does not prove there is a culture war; it proves Americans hover around the center and fall into camps of equal sizes when forced to pick between just two choices.

But members of these new extremes are profoundly susceptible to intolerance, feelings that their core beliefs are endangered by witting political or moral enemies and that contact with the enemy is polluting and intolerably frustrating. Public opinion research shows the wings of left and right are vocal but relatively scarce. But they are disproportionately well-represented by elected officials, party donors, partisan bloggers and political talkers.They want -- or need -- their politics to make them belong despite the absence of old-fashioned community, even if that means making enemies, feeling martyred, intolerant and, irnoically, lonely.

These folks are inclined to send e-mails.

So my inbox this week didn't tell me a a whole lot about why people – looked at through a statistical high telescope – have dramatically smaller networks of true confidants than they did twenty years ago. But it did reveal some insight into the loneliness of a long distance partisan.



Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com.

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Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.

By Dick Meyer