Americans find common ground with our pet peeves

So you know how you were driving to work this morning, and some idiot in the left lane of the freeway was going 40 mph because he was yammering into a cell phone, and you got really angry?

It's part of why we hate us, says Dick Meyer.

“We're mad as hell, and we keep on taking it, again and again,” says Dick Meyer, the editorial director of digital media at National Public Radio and author of the provocative and entertaining “Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium” (Crown, $24.95). “We watch TV for eight hours and say there's nothing to watch. We complain about the coverage of the autopsy of Anna Nicole Smith, and yet we watch.”

Meyer, who spent more than 23 years at CBS News as a reporter, editor and columnist, is not a professional crank, whatever you might think. As part of his job, he asks people what they hate about American life. The list is long but hardly surprising: Rudeness. Celebrity worship. Bad TV. Exploitive movies. The media. Politicians. People who lack volume control on their iPods or cell-phone voices.

“One of the things I tried to do in the book by starting off talking about the small irritants of life was to try to draw parallels between them and the big ones, the big institutions,” Meyer says from his office in Washington. “The forms our irritants take are the same as what we don't like about the culture as a whole. Politicians are full of b.s., just like road hogs and loud cell-phone talkers.”

Meyer is skeptical of an institutional remedy for the problems of why we hate us, which he says stem from our mobile society and growing lack of ties to community groups, such as churches or even bowling leagues.

“Everybody needs to go on a media diet,” he says. “Look at how much time you spend with media. Not just the news media, but all information that comes from a device – TV, computer, BlackBerry, cell phone or radio. Add that up in a day, and compare how much time we spend as living, featherless bipeds. It's shocking.”

So join a book club. Get active in your hometown. Meet your neighbors. Interact. Meyer has his own remedy against the soul-sucking information barrage. Don't laugh: It's rotisserie baseball.

“My friends and I gather for this tradition, this auction. We rib each other through trading all year on the telephone. It's a ritual. It's infantile, and it has no dignity, but it's at least human.”

Q. What's your pet peeve?

Technological obliviousness is high on my list, like when somebody is in a conversation with me, and they take out their BlackBerry. Or at restaurants or at CVS or in the airport, someone who's blaring into their cell phone in that way that makes you absolutely feel that you don't exist.

Q. But you don't blame technology; you write that you use a BlackBerry.

Condemning technology would be like condemning pencils or papers. Technology is not morally or sociologically good or evil. But it does have addictive aspects, so it's easier to use it for evil rather than good.

Q. So there's nothing intrinsically wrong with watching “America's Next Top Model”; the problems arise when that's all you do?

Watching eight hours a day of reality TV would be fine if you were happy. If you were productive in your community, if you were a good parent with well-adjusted children, if you were socially connected. But we're not contented in that way. We have these gnawing discomforts. I think that's obvious to all of us.

I really wanted to get at the cruel irony of the modern recipe of self help: It's highly individualistic. On the face of it, that sounds good. The modern American post-'60s idea is “I have to be me – gay or straight, white or black, tone deaf or musical. I've got to be me, and anything society puts on me that stops me from being me is bad. All I need to do is discover the genuine me or reinvent me.” But that's impossible! We don't exist apart from everything else. Social science knows that connections with others are the most certain way to be happy.

Q. You write that the red state/blue state polarization is a myth. Why?

We're not so polarized at all. I discovered it on an anecdotal level by talking to people across all demographics about what they hate, and everybody hates the same things. You're not going to find a person who likes to be put on hold by the machine of a multinational corporation that says, “We care about you.” Neither liberals nor conservatives think that's fun. The common ground is extraordinary.

Q. So what drives this phony culture war?

The people involved in politics for a living: politicians, the media and people who are active politically. They are polarized. They're a small percentage of us, but because of technology they make more noise than they ever did.

Q. Why don't we turn off the TV?

What makes us easy prey is that our ties to real community are so weak that we're vulnerable to making more toxic attachments. If you're tied to the town where you live with relatives and many generations nearby, and you know the merchants there and have deep acquaintances there, you're going to be less inclined to form exaggerated attachment to, say, extreme politics or the Chicago Bears or the chat group about collecting Barbie dolls.

Q. So what do we do first to improve things?

Go on a radical diet concerning what you consume in the world: the information, the media, the entertainment. Strip it down. Think it through, and start over again. … We're so used to thinking about effort in terms of making money or achievements that we ignore making efforts to live well.