Thursday, April 13, 2023

Those Were (And Still Can Be!) the Days!

In 1963 Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba coauthored The Civic Culture, a paradigm-shifting work that emphasized the distinctly participatory nature of American society. As a graduate student, I often cited this book in my work on social capital. It is, in many ways, a testament to the Tocquevillian underpinnings of American culture. Up until the mid-20th century, or thereabouts, Americans essentially governed themselves without the need for a strong, centralized state. 

Every time I dust off this old cover, I yearn for a period I never experienced. 

I often wondered if there was a word for this false sense of nostalgia. It's nonsensical when you think about it. I mean, how can you yearn for the halcyon days of a time you didn't live through? But, alas, I discovered the word: anemoia. I know what you're thinking: ane-what? Well, according to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, anemoia is defined as "nostalgia for a time you've never known." Now, again, I know what you're thinking: what on earth is The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows? Well, it's a book written by John Koenig. Though I haven't read it, the overview intrigues me:

Have you ever wondered about the lives of each person you pass on the street, realizing that everyone is the main character in their own story, each living a life as vivid and complex as your own? That feeling has a name: “sonder.” Or maybe you’ve watched a thunderstorm roll in and felt a primal hunger for disaster, hoping it would shake up your life. That’s called “lachesism.” Or you were looking through old photos and felt a pang of nostalgia for a time you’ve never actually experienced. That’s “anemoia.”

If you’ve never heard of these terms before, that’s because they didn’t exist until John Koenig set out to fill the gaps in our language of emotion. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows “creates beautiful new words that we need but do not yet have,” says John Green, bestselling author of The Fault in Our Stars. By turns poignant, relatable, and mind-bending, the definitions include whimsical etymologies drawn from languages around the world, interspersed with otherworldly collages and lyrical essays that explore forgotten corners of the human condition—from “astrophe,” the longing to explore beyond the planet Earth, to “zenosyne,” the sense that time keeps getting faster.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is for anyone who enjoys a shift in perspective, pondering the ineffable feelings that make up our lives. With a gorgeous package and beautiful illustrations throughout, this is the perfect gift for creatives, word nerds, and human beings everywhere.

When I write about the Burkean platoons and the America of Alexis de Tocqueville, I become verklempt with a feeling of intense anemoia. These are times I have an incredible longing for, even though I am a product of the 1990s. 

Sometimes music evokes these feelings. Simon and Garfunkel in particular. Here's a verse from their tune, America:

"Kathy", I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh"Michigan seems like a dream to me now"It took me four days to hitchhike from SaginawI've gone to look for America

Paul Simon: singer, songwriter, and anemoia expert. 

A young Simon & Garfunkel

Going back to The Civic Culture...

While flipping through the off-yellow pages of this old, and largely forgotten, tome, I became saddened. Did things used to be this good? 

Check out this table. The question posed to survey participants: How would you feel if your son/daughter married someone of the opposite political affiliation?

Table from The Civic Culture

93% of Republicans said they would be "indifferent" about their child marrying a Democrat, and 92% vice versa. I can't imagine how much different those numbers would look today, 60 years after the publication of this book. Political polarization has destroyed long-term relationships and even marriages. According to a Pew study conducted in April of 2020, "Among Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party who are single but looking for a relationship, about seven-in-ten (71%) say they probably or definitely would not consider being in a committed relationship with someone who voted for Donald Trump." That is appalling and, beyond anything else, profoundly sad. 

Some, however, have pulled off successful inter-political marriages. I encourage you to look into the story of Richard Brookhiser, a conservative writer for National Review, and his wife Jeanne Safer, a liberal doctor and author. The two have been married for over 40 years. Read more about their amazing story here

So maybe there is hope. Maybe The Civic Culture can become relevant again. What, though, would this entail? To put it succinctly: openminded participation. Americans, if they wish to come together as one, unified people, must learn to trust, reject ideological platitudes, and open their minds and hearts to others. 


  1. We went from the "melting pot", where we were all united by the Constitution and the wisdom of our founding fathers, to a confederacy of victims.. The great American juggernaut is in rough seas but, I believe, this great, unique, experiment will prevail.

    1. I agree. It's imperative that we keep an optimistic outlook. We can come together again!

  2. I don’t think a people can necessarily “learn” to trust because that’s a socialized process stems from culture—which we don’t have. There are so many elements in our world today keeping us from trusting one another. No one is familiar, everyone is a stranger; and yet even strangers assume our character if we are not part of their tribe.

    I’ll have to read that Koenig book now. Also, America is a great song. It’s one of my favorites actually. Kathy appears in a few of his songs. I feel a sort of anemoia from it.

  3. Hi Jacob! Thank you for the comment! Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but I do think higher levels of trust can be established in American society. It will, however, take some time.

    And I absolutely love Simon & Garfunkel. Kathy was Paul Simon's girlfriend, right?