What's Tony Thinking

Sanctified Disconnection


The Highland Park, Illinois shootings on July 4th have been festering at the back of my mind all week. Other than to express anger and anguish I didn’t know what I might say that someone else hadn’t said already, probably better.

But something is emerging, something uncomfortable.

I’ll start where David Brooks ends his column of July 8 on the lost boys who figure in so many of these terrible events. Brooks cites a 2014 Esquire article by Tom Junod on the, by and large, young men who commit mass shootings.

Junod “interviewed a young man who prosecutors said set out to commit a mass shooting but was caught before he was able to get started. (The man pleaded guilty to carjacking and served time for it.)

“When he got out of prison, he looked at his old high school yearbook and was shocked. Fellow students had signed it, offering to get together over the summer. People were reaching out, but he had been too self-involved to see.

“On the day he set out armed with guns, ammunition and machete, he didn’t want to do it. It was like some painful duty. He told Junod: ‘I wanted attention. If someone would have come up to me and said, “You don’t have to do this, you don’t have to have this strange strength, we accept you,” I would have broken down and given up.’”

How much can be generalized from one particular example may be debated. But what I note about Junod’s story is the absence of someone who made this young man’s situation their business, someone who stepped in, interfered, got involved.

Lately I’ve been reading Francis Fukuyama’s book length essay, Liberalism and Its Discontents. Fukuyama, whose father was a Congregational minister in New York, is a master synthesizer of big ideas and complex trends.

One of these cultural trends is examined in his chapter on “The Sovereign Self.” Fukuyama covers a lot of ground before culminating with a look at the work of John Rawls, who more than anyone and for the late twentieth century, gave philosophical grounding to the sovereign self and contributed to a late 20th-early 21st century consensus that Fukuyama sums up as follows:

“We believe we have inner selves whose freedom is being restricted by a host of existing institutions, from family to workplaces to political authorities. In many quarters, dissidence is celebrated, and it is being judgmental that is condemned. Freedom to choose extends not just to the freedom to act within established moral frameworks, but to choose the framework itself.”

Fukuyama then asks, “Okay, so is there a problem with this?” What’s so terrible about people doing their own thing? Here’s part of his answer:

” . . . belief in the sovereignty of the individual deepen’s liberalism’s tendency to weaken other forms of communal engagement, and in particular turns people away from virtues like public-spiritedness that are needed to sustain a liberal polity overall. It keeps people locked into what Tocqueville observed were the ‘little communities’ of family and friends, rather than engagement with politics more broadly.”

Trying to connect the dots here, “the sovereign self” and a broad turn “away from virtues like public-spiritedness” has sanctified disconnection from other people in the name personal freedom or autonomy or discovering one’s true (inner) self. In a crude form it is, “you do your thing and I’ll do mine.” Connection may extend to family and friends, but beyond that, not much.

One expression of this in religious terms has been the recent emphasis on loving your self. The Great Commandment, according to Jesus, is to love the Lord your God with all your heart . . .  and to love others as you love yourself.”

In the last decade or two, I’ve heard a lot about what some call “the third great love,” i.e. “love yourself” part of that. I get it. And I for one have argued that at least sometimes concern or focus on others has become a way of distracting ourselves from our own issues.

But . . . I wonder, have we as a culture legitimated selfishness? Have we sanctified disconnection? As in, focus on yourself, your health and wellness, your inner peace, and maybe on your family and friends. That’s enough. Go no wider, engage no further.

Trouble is, as Fukuyama says, “communal engagement” atrophies. The social institutions and networks that work to shape and hold us fray and fail. And our circles of care contract. We, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, “walk by on the other side of the road,” leaving the wounded in their ditch.

Junod’s young man, the would-be mass shooter, didn’t hear someone say, “You don’t have to do this, you don’t have to have this strange strength, we accept you.” We were too busy minding our own business.





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