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Osnos' 'Wildland' Sheds Light On The Deep Divisions In The U.S.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: For more than a decade, Evan Osnos lived in other countries, observing other systems of government, other societies - Egypt, Iraq, China. He came back to the U.S. in 2013 and found a country deeply divided, so he set out to understand why. His answers are in a new book called "Wildland: The Making Of America's Fury." And in it, he looks at three places he already knew well - Chicago, Ill., Clarksburg, W.Va. and Greenwich, Conn., where he grew up, a place that had accrued a massive amount of wealth over the past decades. His neighborhood was filled with walled-off mansions where hedge fund managers lived. So many of them ended up being prosecuted for financial crimes that Evan's street, Round Hill Road, became known as Rogues Hill Road. It was here that he began to see America's vision for a common good start to erode. He tells that story through a man named Chip Skowron.

EVAN OSNOS: Chip was a doctor and decided to go into finance and didn't know much about it. But at the time, hedge funds were beginning to hire people with backgrounds in health care because it could help them pick health care stocks. And he rose up from one fund to another and then eventually found himself crossing this line from legal behavior to illegal behavior. He eventually pleaded guilty to a series of financial crimes and went to prison, was sentenced to five years.

Chip Skowron is white. And when he went to prison, he found himself surrounded by people in many cases who became closest - some of his closest friends were Black and Latino. And he had a new awareness of the advantages in his own life and the ways in which other parts of the American population have not had those advantages. And he came out and became more involved in things like the Black Lives Matter movement to try to say, as he said at a demonstration in town, I'm sorry because I didn't realize exactly what I was doing and how I was living in ways that might be hurting other people.

MARTIN: He looks back on his experience and can see when his moral center started to disintegrate.

OSNOS: Yeah. I found that story really revealing because in some ways, a lot of us, I think, have looked over the course of recent American history and have wondered how it is that we had a global financial crisis in which people in positions of great authority and power were making decisions that in the end caused so much harm. And in the eyes of the court, in some cases, these weren't crimes. But certainly to many people, they felt like abuses of trust and of authority.

MARTIN: It's not hard, when you read the Greenwich chapters, to see how the vision for our common good has eroded - the pursuit of wealth at the expense of almost everything, definitely the common good. How did you see that happening in Chicago and West Virginia?

OSNOS: One of the things that I noticed in Chicago is that you get this profound difference in the experience of being a Chicagoan today. And it depends largely on where you live, the ZIP code you live in and, of course, where you come from in racial terms and class terms. And the more pronounced those gaps become, the more difficult, almost impossible, it has become to have a single coherent political commons. And today, West Virginia, more broadly, is a place in which I think people feel very acutely this sense of a tension between being proud of the place and wanting to be proud of it and also being frustrated and resentful of a broader economic and political system that doesn't feel to them as if it has pulled them along with it.

MARTIN: And of course, it's hard, impossible even, to write a book about the last 20 years without acknowledging the wars that America has engaged in. And you do that in this very intimate way by telling the story of one particular veteran.

OSNOS: Yeah. It's a harrowing story. And frankly, it's one that could be recognizable to people in many places in this country. There was a young man named Sidney Muller, who was a marine from Clarksburg, W.Va. He had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and particularly in a bloody area of Afghanistan known as Sangin. It was so bloody that more Marines died there than at anywhere else in the years after 9/11. And in fact, the secretary of defense had flown over at one point, quite unusually, and said to the Marines who were there, you've made a great sacrifice, and if there's anything we can ever do to help you, please let me know.

And Sidney Muller came back to Clarksburg and unraveled. He became addicted to drugs. He was part of the opioid epidemic and eventually committed a terrible crime. He killed four people, two of whom were delivering the newspaper that I used to work for. It was in the early morning hours, and he was in a kind of drug and alcohol-fueled rage. And I talked to him in prison. I've talked, of course, to the victims' families. And I come away with this very distinct impression that that story, which looms so large in the experience of one town, is almost lost in the larger conversation that we have in this country about the effects of the war. But the effects of the war are felt so deeply in places like this.

MARTIN: You write about how the polarization of our politics is just so acute right now. Feeding enough rhetorical red meat to the base to get those people to turn out - right? - that...

OSNOS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...The center is no longer the objective. And that becomes easier to do when Americans disagree, not just on policies, but on the facts themselves.

OSNOS: Yeah.

MARTIN: So is the notion of a common good - I mean, is that still an American value? Or is it just let's do good by our own and forget everybody else?

OSNOS: It is, in fact, something that we care about and are capable of refashioning. I mean, one of the very clear things that comes through as you go through the history of our political thinking and sensibilities and these instincts towards tribalism and then these moments of tacking back towards a more collective ethic is that, actually, this thing, this American political culture, has this capacity for self-correction. And in some ways, you know, I started this book, Rachel, thinking that I was writing about the divisions in American life, and what I actually concluded was not some sort of blandly cheerful thing that we're all united. We're clearly not. But what I came to recognize was the way in which we are impacting one another all the time to a degree we don't fully recognize. But we have to come to terms with that if we're going to try to build a future together.

MARTIN: Evan Osnos, award-winning reporter with The New Yorker and author - we've been talking about his most recent book. It is called "Wildland: The Making Of America's Fury." Evan, thank you.

OSNOS: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF BECAUSE OF GHOSTS' "CANADIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.