Loneliness and the Culture of ‘No’

April 19th, 2010 · 5 Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

Washington Post reporter and prize-winning witness to culture Hank Steuver walked among tea partiers on Menaul Boulevard last week – up one side of the street and then down the other — and came up with an observation that likely would “tee off” the mad partiers even more:  Many appear to be lonely, he says, fulfilling a desire to be part of a community.

In a way, Steuver says, they’re not dissimilar from the folks who camp out in front of Best Buy on Black Friday, shoppers who say they’re there for Christmas bargains but likely are on scene simply to be part of a happening event – feeling a need to connect with fellow Americans in ways our culture discourages because of technology and the fragmentation of media.

What prompted Stuever to attribute the root cause of participation to loneliness was something else he noticed as he walked among them: He says they were joyful.

“They were joyful to be among like-minded people,” Steuver told me Saturday, after leading a writing workshop at New Mexico Press Women’s 60th anniversary conference in Albuquerque.

During the workshop, Steuver noted that it’s rare for Americans to experience things together, because we’re “waiting for the movie to come out on DVD”.  And we can’t chat at the water cooler about last night’s TV show because we’ve TiVo’d it and don’t want our colleagues to spoil the plot. Or we simply never watch the same channels. (We can, of course, discuss these things ad infinitum in chat rooms with hundreds of people we don’t know).

Rarely any more do we sit down together in the intimate community setting envisioned by the Lumiere brothers when they projected film images on a white sheet on a wall, the precursor to the modern movie theater, Steuver said.  Instead, we watch at home — alone or with just a few people.

Steuver, a two-time Pulitzer finalist who for nine years worked at the Albuquerque Tribune, mused about the Best Buy/Black Friday phenomenon in his book, Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present .

During the writing workshop, Steuver talked about tea partiers and the Black Friday campers (and about people who travel hundreds of miles to attend Chick Fil’A grand openings, ostensibly just to get a 52-week coupon booklet for combo meals).

He warned that it would sound like a prejudicial statement, but said he didn’t think the tea partiers “would be able to write an essay about why they were there.”

Steuver surmised they showed up for human contact, a phenomenon he calls “constantly missing Woodstock.”

“It’s like, ‘We’ve missed the moment’ – ‘You should have been there’,” Steuver explained.

When pressed for more about his tea partier impressions, Steuver told me, “It’s easy to drive down the street and think, ‘Oh, no’” and ascribe to the protesters labels like “mean” and “misinformed.” So, Steuver got out of his car and walked among them. He said he felt many appeared to be lonely, and that loneliness had manifested into rage.

“Perhaps I’m being too charitable,” he added (a statement to which many partiers would likely react less than charitably).  He said he could even “understand on an emotional level” the need to be a part of it.

And he said he had to acknowledge that “nobody puts magic marker to poster without passionate feeling” and that the protesters no doubt feel justified in their “cause.”

Speaking to a room full of writers and journalists at the workshop, Stuever also talked briefly about how pivotal a role the Albuquerque Tribune played in his career.

He called the now-lost afternoon daily “the Make a Wish Foundation for journalists.”

Even as reporters worked on daily Trib stories, he said they were given rein to work on enterprise pieces that led to great stories and series, like Eileen Wellsome’s plutonium experiment exposé, which won a Pulitzer, a series on alcoholism in Gallup, another series on drunk drivers. (And while he didn’t mention it, the Trib’s “Story of Sage,” a special section about a little girl burned in a camping accident, came to my mind.) Steuver was a finalist for the Pulitzer for his own Trib feature writing in both 1993 and 1996.

“The whole newsroom was a culture of ‘yes,’” Steuver said.

But at the opposite end of the hall in the Albuquerque Publishing Co. building, in the offices of the morning daily Albuquerque Journal, Steuver said there was a culture of “We don’t do that.”

“You could tell – it was very different,” Steuver said.

As a former Journal staffer, I would have to agree. If the Albuquerque Tribune was a culture of ‘yes,’ the Albuquerque Journal too often exhibited a culture of ‘no.’

Perhaps it’s not so surprising, then, that it would align itself with the angry tea partiers and the hateful party of ‘no’.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Bernadette Flores

    Interesting: elevate yourselves by demeaning others. Imply that we are dumb, lonely, can’t think for ourselves, etc. When all else fails, resort to name-calling. Well, we’re not dumb or uneducated. (In some cultures, to call someone “well-educated” is a reference to their behavior, not book learning.) Many of the young people attending the rally could give you a lesson on the Bill of Rights. Because of our life experiences, many of us older folks understand the fundamental difference between Hayek, Hazlett, Friedman, Laffer, Keynes, Galbraith. Do you? Can you explain why the Great Depression lasted LONGER in the U.S. than in some European countries? The Albuquerque Tribune used to be a good paper before it began leaning so far to the left that it reached the tipping point. The Abq Journal is morphing into the Tribune.

  • Carol

    That’s an interesting take on the Tea Party – lonely hearts banding together. My concern is what such a passionate group will decide to do next.
    Carol

  • Bernadette Flores

    Maybe they can remove their clothing, smoke pot, shoot up, throw human excrement at cops, and then have a “love in”.

  • Tracy Dingmann

    Not sure I’m following you, Bernadette.

  • Arthur Alpert

    If Steuver demeaned the Tea Party folks, that’s a mistake.
    First, the tea party crowds contain people of various opinions; they range from libertarians (on the left!) to racists and assorted crackpots. Generalizations almost always oversimplify.
    Secondly, many of the Tea Pot folks have figured out that corporate America – including the banks – have taken the rest of us to the cleaners.
    Yes, you wonder why they didn’t notice this when the GOP (the corporations’ own political party) was in power, but better late than never.
    Mind you, these same Tea Party folks seem to believe that downsizing government will weaken corporate power – which is backwards.
    But, hey, they like Social Security and Medicare, so they’re not all wrong.
    Arthur Alpert

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