By now, I hope that many of our readers have seen the news about middle-aged white men and women – they are dying in record numbers! Actually, to be more accurate and less sensational (not that this ever stopped the left!) the mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans had risen since 1999, in contrast to the patterns for every other racial group and for residents of virtually every other affluent country. Rising substance abuse, including alcohol-related disease and painkiller overdose, was the main cause of the disturbing trend. This was presented in a research paper by the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton (Deaton recently just won the Nobel prize) and although there is some controversy over how big the mortality rates are when age groups are broken down into individual cohorts, there is no question“that death rates among middle-aged non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. slightly increased, even while corresponding death rates in other countries declined by about 30%,”even if those rates started leveling off in 2005 (while the rates for white women continued to climb!)
So why are white, middle-aged men dying at those higher rates than other countries? As mentioned above, Case and Deaton point to substance abuse as the key factor (specifically, they mention “drug and alcohol poisoning, suicides, and liver diseases often associated with drug and alcohol abuse”) and all sorts of analysis from smart conservative writers has followed this fact. Ross Douthat points to an excellent study from a number of different scholars (including the always reliable Brad Wilcox) and comments:
that religious practice has fallen faster recently among less-educated whites than among less-educated blacks and Hispanics, their paper argues that white social institutions, blue-collar as well as white-collar, have long reflected a “bourgeois moral logic” that binds employment, churchgoing, the nuclear family and upward mobility.
But in an era of stagnating wages, family breakdown, and social dislocation, this logic no longer seems to make as much sense. The result is a mounting feeling of what the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher calls white “dispossession” — a sense of promises broken, a feeling that what you were supposed to have has been denied to you. (The Donald Trump phenomenon, Dreher notes, feeds off precisely this anxiety.)
For obvious historical reasons, though, Hispanic and (especially) black communities have cultivated a different set of expectations, a different model of community and family (more extended and matriarchal), a different view of success and the American story writ large.
I think Ross (and Dreher) are on to something important here – but I would also add the wise voice of Victor Davis Hanson and his thoughts on the growing divide between what he calls rural and urban America:
Rural living historically has encouraged independence—and it still does, even in the globalized and wired twenty-first century. Other people aren’t always around to ensure that water gets delivered (and drained), sewage disappears, and snow is removed. For the vast majority of Americans, these and other concerns are the jobs of government bureaucracy and its unionized public workforce. Not so in rural areas, where autonomy and autarky—not narrow specialization—are necessary and fueled by an understanding that machines and tools must be mastered to keep nature in its proper place. Such constant preparedness nurtures skeptical views about the role and size of government, in which the good citizen is defined as someone who can take care of himself.
From Hesiod’s Works and Days to Virgil’s Georgics, the connection between farming and morality was always emphasized as a check on urban decadence and corruption. What was gained by the city’s great universities, monumental edifices, churches, and pageantry was often lost through the baleful effects of being cut off from nature and defining success through intangibles such as transient goods, status, and material luxuries. Physical and mental balance, practicality, a sense of the tragic rather than the therapeutic—all these were birthed by rural life and yet proved essential to the survival of a nation that would inevitably become more mannered, sophisticated, and urban. Jefferson idealized an American as a tough citizen who couldn’t be fooled by sophisticated demagogues, given his own steady hand guiding the plow or digging irrigation ditches. Rural folks didn’t romanticize the city, but rather, like characters in Horace’s Satires or the content rustic mouse of Aesop’s Fables, saw it as a necessary evil. Yet urbanites, though cut off from nature, dependent on government for their sustenance, and embedded within the politics and trends of the day, idealized the farm and pasture—if certainly from a safe distance. [my emphasis]
On a different occasion, Hanson was interviewed about the military/civilian divide and he also talked about the divide using similar language to the rural/urban divide:
PETER ROBINSON: “Now here’s the question. Whereas the leading figures of Greece all understood the military from firsthand experience, American elites, Northeast, Coastal California, can lead their entire lives without brushing up against military culture, let alone military experience. Is this something new in American military history and is this healthy? Is it sustainable?”
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: “We’ve had people who have not had a lot of military – Abraham Lincoln was in the Black Hawk War for a few weeks. FDR was secretary of the Navy. So we’ve had people but what the difference is that this is the first time that we’ve had commanders in chiefs either have not had military experience or they haven’t had anything comparable. What I mean anything comparable, anything from the underbelly of American life, anybody who’s had to take apart an engine, anybody who’s had to build a house.
“So there are approximate experiences, not the same but there’s a tragic sort of notion that you’re in a dead end job, you have to work with muscular strength, there’s no good and bad choices, bad and worse choices. All of that tragic view is necessary to understand what war is but yeah, I’m afraid that in a very sophisticated technological society we are certifying excellence and this is a larger topic, expertise based on basically an Ivy League credential which is not commensurate with real experience in the real world. It doesn’t tell us really what somebody in Fallujah is really thinking about.
“What saves the United States when it goes to war is that we have a subset of the population for a variety of reasons enlisted in officer corps that are 19th century in mentality. They live according to the protocols of the 19th century. What do I mean? They’re more likely to believe in a transcendent religion. They’re more likely to believe in nationalism. They’re more likely to believe in a tragic view that you can be good without having to be perfect. So they don’t become depressed or inordinately give us because of an error. They are more likely to have had experience with muscular matters and so military really hasn’t changed since the 19th century. The people who are ordering it and organizing it and auditing it have changed greatly. But so far it’s sort of like it’s stuck in amber and they’ve been a great salvation to the United States.”
Now, in this interview he’s talking about the military as the last refuge for those young men (many of whom are presumably white) that still have the tragic sense he was talking about above and are “more likely to believe in a transcendent religion.” In the article about the rural/urban divide, he is lamenting the loss of that sense in many men who have fled to the cities and have lost their ability to work with their hands and experience the independence and tragedy that comes with taking apart an engine, building a machine, fixing mechanical things.
I suspect, although I can’t be sure and neither can any of us pontificating on this issue, that many of these men who used to be part of communities where they could experience the tragic – through their families (nothing like waking up with a screaming baby at 3:00 AM in the morning to disabuse you of your ego and sentimentality), their blue-collar jobs, their church (where the ultimate source of transcendence and the notion of life in this “vale of tears” is inculcated at an early age) -- that it was through these institutions (family, work, church) these men could learn to grow up and deal with the vicissitudes of life.
Without any of these around, these white men turned instead to drink and drugs to cope with life; they wanted something to help them deal with brokenness and pain and were unfamiliar with getting down on their knees in prayer to God, unfamiliar with asking their wives for help (or any sort of extended family or community) or soldiering on for their children during a rough patch (because they didn’t have a wife or children), unfamiliar with learning how to solve problems and get up every morning to earn an honest living at a job they’ve never had (or only had sporadically.) Much easier to use a drink or a drug to numb the pain and cope with the disappointments and problems in their life.
What these men (and women) need more than anything is Christ – what they probably don’t even realize is their hearts are restless like Saint Augustine and they will only come to rest in the Lord. I just saw this item from St. Ignatius of Loyola Press about a new book by the Catholic priest and author Father Robert Spitzer, S.J. called The Soul's Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason:
There are many signs of the widespread loss of confidence in our ability to soar upward, and these have been noted by thinkers as diverse as Carl Jung (psychiatrist), Mircea Eliade (historian of religion), Gabriel Marcel (philosopher), and authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Their observations were validated by a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry that linked the absence of religion with a marked increase in suicide, meaninglessness, substance abuse, separation from family members, and other psychological problems.
Thus, the loss of transcendence is negatively affecting an entire society. It is stealing from countless individuals their sense of happiness, dignity, ideals, virtues, and destiny.Ironically, the evidence for transcendence is greater today than in any other period in history. The problem is, this evidence has not been compiled and made widely available—a challenge Father Spitzer aspires to meet with this book.
Let us all help these men and women regain their sense of transcendence and bring to them the joy of the Gospel. Who knows, you may even save a life or two in the process.