By Jon Cogburn
When BP Morton first did a post about the appalling rise in preventable deaths among working class white males in the United States I thought about posting something on it, but refrained.
First and foremost, I'm probably too emotionally invested in this issue. I can easily count over ten friends or family members who have successfully killed themselves either immediately (guns, jumping, hanging, cutting) or through slightly less self directed methods of self destruction (primarily booze, but also pain killers and straight up stupid behavior such as standard things like driving unsafely or getting beaten to death after being ripped off during a drug transaction, but also really inventive forms of stupidity such as trying to repel out of a window on guitar strings) and the number who have had very close shaves with the grim reaper as a result of these things before seeing Jesus is well over twenty. Maybe these numbers are normal and this is just stuff that people don't tend to talk about. I don't know. I'm pretty upset about it, and tend to say stupid things when I'm upset about things and so didn't want to blog about it.
Second, I hate the dehumanizing way that people have harnessed this problem to their pet ideologies. On the left this either involves minimizing the wreckage or explaining it in terms of dopey identity politics that inform most slacktivist explanations. At its worse a kind of pseudo-Leninism informs the minimization of the problem. White people have done all these bad things, so their kids killing themselves is just the chickens coming home to roost. As with Lenin and Stalin's war on the kulaks, this is disastrous, in part because the biggest victims are not the ones who had done all of those bad things. More often the fallacy of relative privation is committed. Other people have it worse than the dead and prematurely dying white folks, so it's morally obnoxious/racist to get particularly upset about the problem. This is at best goofy (and at worst Leninism Lite). First, it's clearly a fallacy of relevance when we're talking about self destructive behavior. White Americans are now two hundred and fifty percent more likely to flat out kill themselves than African Americans. And suicide is now competitive with automobile fatalities as a dominant cause of death among young people. The United States is currently the only major industrial power with a pronounced declining life expectancy. This being said, on purely utilitarian grounds, one could very plausibly argue that the effects on African Americans of drug prohibition, the incarcerated state, and systematic racism are worse than the suicide spike among whites. But it doesn't follow that it's wrong to worry about what's happening to whites. By the logic of the fallacy of relative privation we should not worry about anyone in the United States, even our own children.
And Leninism Lite does nobody any good, in part because it leads to radicalization. If sensible people don't take your suffering seriously you are much more likely to be a mark for fascists like Donald Trump. This is happening today in Europe (especially Sweden, where the for a long time the mainstream parties denigrated people concerned about immigration as fascists) and increasingly in the United States with elites (for whom immigrants are those people who clean their houses, mow their lawns, build their buildings, grow their food, and increasingly drive down wages in STEM fields) accusing people whose standard of living is degraded pretty severely by liberal immigration policies of being unreasonable when they complain. Consider this typical salon dot com article as an instance of this. There's just no sympathy for the people whose property values have cratered and who can't sleep at night because the house next door is so overcrowded with young men that they hang out on the front lawn to all hours of the night. It's not racist to not want unmarried young men hanging around in your next door neighbor's yard until four in the morning every night. Anyone who dismisses this has never been poor enough to experience it. Or consider this Bill Maher routine with respect to the issue. I'm sorry, it's not funny to me.
The right's recent adoption of the least helpful aspects of the dimbulb left (postmodernist anti-science plus the Tolstoyan trope of victimhood as an excuse for anything) has actually created an overlapping place with respect to this, something that comes out pretty clearly in BP's post, which I excerpt below.
So it makes you pretty mad when the death of a cousin or friend is hijacked for other people's political projects that either have nothing to do with them or that were inimical to their wellbeing. At least for me, this makes for lousy argumentation.
It can make for great art. Consider the embedded song at the top of this post, Black Flag's "White Minority," which is one of many from that era mocking racist California skinheads. The line "I'm going to hide, anywhere I can" has a great double meaning. The narrator might be in character, hiding from the new majority (a majority to which the band's singer of that era belongs). Or he might be hiding from the idiots going on about being a white minority. Pretty clever.
Or take the song at right, one of the best from Henry Rollins's early post-Black Flag career. He's expressing his rage at two self-destructive friends who he loves very much. "Take a look around me. And it makes me mad. Another friend of mine in rehab." Word! As with many Black Flag and Rollins Band songs (the less preachy ones) a good country musician could do much worse than to cover this one. In fact, I'm-messed-up-my-friends-are-messed up is a long-standing trope in country musics. Consider Townes Van Zandt's "Waiting Around to Die." The song starts at about the one minute forty mark:
Incidentally, the fact that this is a reliable trope in Appalachian, Western, and Southern "country" music suggests that self-destructive tendencies among Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants to the United States is not particularly new, and that something cultural might be going on. But, nonetheless the increase since the 1970s is pretty stunning. Again, the United States is now the only advanced nation with a declining median life expectancy. At least for the non-Leninists among us does call for an explanation.
I didn't want to comment on this (I'd much rather go write some songs), because I was afraid that I would say something stupid and/or rebarbative (perhaps I already have), but here goes.
The Wrong Cultural Explanation:
A real virtue of BP's post is that it sets in bold relief the way in which liberal identity politics can go badly awry. Here's the penultimate bit that James Rocha took to be clearly racist. It's incidentally exactly the kind of thing that Black Flag ("White Pride! You're an American!") was mocking with White Minority.
So it seems to me that white culture, and white philosophy needs to respond by finding ways to strengthen a sense of belongingness and of non-economic worth, especially for poorer, older white folks. Maybe it’s overly pragmatist of me, to see philosophy, like education systems or legal systems as a structure for responding to public problems. Maybe it’s wrong to even try to use racial reasoning to make white people more comfortable being white people (even if it’s by noting that other ethnic groups seem to do better here and wondering if we can learn productively from their past struggles and successes). I’m treading perilously close to suggesting some form of white pride, which never seems to go well. Yet something in the neighborhood of pride has surely been key to how many people have succeeded in finding self-worth in non-economic ways in the past.
For a discussion of why some of us not only thinks that this kind of thing "never seems to go well," but in addition should not go well, please see the comments under BP's post. And, one shouldn't have to say this, but one does. To point out that someone wrote or said something racist is not to say that that person was racist. Of course well intentioned white people say racist things. Why would anyone expect anything different? Everyone reading this has said and done far worse than BP's post. This post might be such an instance. Please call me out if it strikes you that way.
Here's the most charitable spin I can put on BP's claims from tropes I've seen over and over again while reading articles about the suicide epidemic on the web: Working class whites in the United States are marks for racism because they have long benefited from what historians call "the psychic wage of apartheid," a general sense of well-being at having the culture tell you that you are not on the bottom of the heap. But the election of an African American President and losses in the culture wars (such as the Confederate Flag being taken down in South Carolina and the success of gay marriage) has amounted to a big cut in the psychic wage. Working class whites can't handle this and so they turn the guns on themselves when not drinking and drugging themselves to death.
This kind of explanation is the only thing that would make sense of BP's White History Month type solution. Poor whites are delicate snowflakes whose feelings have been hurt because they no longer feel themselves to be higher on the symbolic shit-heap than incarcerated blacks, so if we want them to live longer we need to assuage the hurt feelings. White philosophers just need to get together and help poor whites be a little less uncomfortable being white people (BP's phrase). Cheer up white people! White philosophy is here and we've made a calendar of famous white people and a CD of pretty good music made by white people (check out the clever cover of the James Brown song, we just needed to change one word) so you can see that people with your skin color have also done some good things in your time. See, you don't need the Oxycontin any more. Hurrah, white people! Put the bottle down. Take that pistol out of your mouth and erase that frowny face.
Honestly, when I read this it just struck me as so risible for so many reasons that I'm ashamed that I didn't even think about the manner in which it was racially rebarbative. Assume, falsely, that the explanation of causes is correct. There's a massive de dicto/de re fallacy. If the suicide rate has gone up because of supposed loss of white privilege, this doesn't mean that people killing themselves are at all aware that this is the reason they are killing themselves. So why think that the goofy kind of therapeutic interventions of the sort BP, ones that would make them less uncomfortable being white people, describes would have any effect? Second, more generally, therapeutic interventions don't work very well. Veterans who receive cognitive behavioral therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are actually more likely to kill themselves as a result. Third, and most important, the explanation doesn't stand up to the slightest empirical scrutiny. I haven't seen any evidence that the spike in suicides (once we mod for economic class) among whites is markedly greater in the American South, where one would be strongest in making the psychic wages of Apartheid argument. In addition the spike started before Obama was President, before gay marriage was legalized, and before the Confederate Flag was taken down.
Stressing the psychic wages of Apartheid covers over the economic benefits of Apartheid and thus serves to get the real villains off the hook. In the American South the result of massive organized violence against Black people (to disenfranchise them) since the end of Reconstruction was the huge economic benefit to upper and middle class whites. The former benefited from being able to pay starvation wages for agricultural labor and being able to have black courtesans while the latter were far, far more likely to have maids and nannies than middle class people in the North, where black people could vote. Note that in this ecosystem, poor whites were "trash."
Unfortunately, everyone reads To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and most of us think it's history. With this picture the racists are the poor ignorant yahoos, with white gentleman somehow not being complicit. This is absolute bunk, the Klan was formed by upper and middle class whites who benefited enormously in pure economic terms from the disenfranchisement of black people. The real Atticus Finch "meets old age as a segregationist enraged at the civil rights movement, one who attends a Klan meeting and spews hateful rhetoric about black people." But presenting cartoonish versions of poor whites has always worked pretty well to get middle class and rich people off the hook for their complicity in racism, both of the structural and more active terrorist varieties. Likewise with the "tea party" today, which is is a rich and middle class phenomena. Poor people don't have time for that crap.
So I don't at all think that getting white people to be more comfortable with being white people is an effective strategy. Moreover, the kinds of causes for why white people are supposedly less comfortable with their whiteness that one finds all over the internet (and to be fair I don't know if BP meant to endorse these) don't pass the smell test.
The Correct Cultural Explanation:
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Max Weber argues that Protestantism paved the way for capitalism because Protestants believed that there would be signs by which one could get evidence that one was predestined to go to heaven. Ironically, this motivated Protestants to use their free will to amass wealth and to inculcate personal habits that made for good workers. This is actually not a very good explanation because even if it is true it doesn't explain why such views caught on in the societies in which they caught on. But Weber was catching something correct about the Scots and Scots Irish, the immigrant sons and daughters of which played an outsized cultural role in the United States, where whites at least are more likely to live in a hyper-Calvinist universe where people get what they deserve. This makes it pretty tough to be downwardly mobile, because it's a priori your own damned fault.
The most interesting piece of reporting that's come out in the last few months is highly relevant: ProPublica's Alec MacGillis trying to figure out why Kentucky counties that benefited the most from Obamacare just elected a governor who promised to undue the Medicaid expansion. Why do poor whites vote against their own economic interests. What's the matter with Kansas/Kentucky/Wisconsin/etc? MacGillis' answer surprised everyone, but makes perfect sense in retrospect:
The people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large, not voting against their own interests by electing Republicans. Rather, they are not voting, period. They have, as voting data, surveys and my own reporting suggest, become profoundly disconnected from the political process.
The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder — the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns. . .
With reliance on government benefits so prevalent, it creates constant moments of friction, on very intimate terms, said Jim Cauley, a Democratic political consultant from Pike County, a former Democratic bastion in eastern Kentucky that has flipped Republican in the past decade. “There are a lot of people on the draw,” he said. Where opposition to the social safety net has long been fed by the specter of undeserving inner-city African-Americans — think of Ronald Reagan’s notorious “welfare queen” — in places like Pike County it’s fueled, more and more, by people’s resentment over rising dependency they see among their own neighbors, even their own families. “It’s Cousin Bobby — ‘he’s on Oxy and he’s on the draw and we’re paying for him,’ ” Mr. Cauley said. “If you need help, no one begrudges you taking the program — they’re good-hearted people. It’s when you’re able-bodied and making choices not to be able-bodied.” The political upshot is plain, Mr. Cauley added. “It’s not the people on the draw that’s voting against” the Democrats, he said. “It’s everyone else.”
As with issues involving immigration, the policy is being made by people who are never going to live next door to or share schools and hospitals with the affected people. If you work more than forty hours a week for subsistence wages, pay a greater proportion of your income in taxes (including sales and FICA) than rich folks, and actually lived next door to the creepy guys in the trailer home who get drunk/high and shoot their guns at your tree in the middle of the night (true story!) and who each month purchase crates of Mountain Dew with their food stamps which they then trade for crank, or if you have enough cousin Bobbys, you'd almost certainly vote for candidates against "the draw" too.
The politics of this should be clear for leftists who want to make a difference. Benefits such as Medicare and Social Security and Louisiana's TOPS program that go to everyone may be wasteful, but they are the only ones likely to survive in the United States. And the crony capitalism that goes along with social welfare programs in the United States, such as giveaways to the soda pop (or more recently, pharmaceutical and insurance) industries are poison pills.
In the context of self-destructive behavior of poor whites, the moral is slightly different though. Cousin Bobby the Oxy addict is very well aware that he's the stock villain in this piece, and this is part of the problem. Part of why Bobby's using Oxy is because he hates himself and gets no joy out just being alive. Why does he hate himself? He's a loser, not one of the Calvinist elect, and as all bad Calvinists (this is not actually part of the theology) know, it's his fault he can't get up off his own damned ass.
The Correct Economic and Historical Explanation:
The New Deal was an astounding success at pulling poor whites out entrenched poverty. Because of concessions to racists to get it passed (primarily by exempting jobs from Social Security that southern African Americans worked in and by designing housing policies that to gut cities and redline everything), it did not function nearly as well for African Americans (please read Ta-Nahesi Coates' article on reparations for a glimpse at the full horror show). But for the Arkansas/Oklahoma Cogburns, and people like us, it was astounding. In one generation you had everyone getting college degrees. Consider my father, who had neither running water nor electricity as a child. He would have died as an infant if he hadn't been carried over to someone who had electricity and a chicken incubator. He had scurvy and life threatening untreated strep throat as a child and as an adult recognized the bit in Angela's Ashes where the kids are excited to get to eat the food at the funerals of their friends. Rural Arkansas/Oklahoma wasn't so different from the poorest parts of pre war Ireland. But my grandfather went to college on the GI Bill and my dad went on a ROTC scholarship during a time when college was incredibly cheap and his cousins, who were impoverished as children, also went to college and had middle class lives.
For people in this cultural milieu, it's very hard to overstate the terror of sinking into back into poverty. Again, marketplace Calvinism (often Baptists!) radically increases this terror, and it's a terror that is pretty carefully inculcated as part of the patrimony passed on to children. This is not all bad. Internalizing all of one's failings works pretty well if you are part of the New Deal consensus. If the opportunity is there, you are going to be much more likely to seize it. But if the opportunity is not there, you are going to be much more likely to hate and blame yourself.
And the New Deal Consensus broke in the 1970s. All of our public policy innovations since then (privatization, deregulation, 401Ks instead of defined benefit pensions, a tax code that taxes work radically higher than capital, increased immigration, offshoring manufacturing, productivity gains from information technology) have served to ensure unprecedented economic growth that does not go to the actual people doing the overwhelming majority of the work. And any time wages have started to creep up since the 1970s, a recession comes along that serves to increase the reserve army of unemployed and relegitimate all of the other neo-liberal economic policies that are part of the problem.
The recent rapid increase in suicide rates started in 2007 (again, before Obama was President) with the onset great recession. But it also started at the end of thirty years or so of the constant and increasing erosion of the New Deal consensus.
I don't want to pretend that there are easy solutions to any of these problems. I just want to note that the generations being robbed from are the very generations whose parents inculcated the terror of falling back into poverty. The New Deal was largely passed by the "tweener generation," the one just prior to "the greatest generation." It's been dismantled mostly by the greatest generation (Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose are full of it) with baby boomer help. And the victims of the dismantling are boomers not in on the grift and the children and grandchildren of the boomers. The downwardly mobile people who inherited bad Calvinism and whose parents and grandparents benefited from the New Deal can't handle it. They hate themselves.
If any of this is right, then the prospect of a crack squad of white philosophers helping their self-destructive brethren by replacing the Confederate Flag with pictures of Conway Twitty (or whatever) and our kids celebrating White Philosophy Month is puerile at best. None of the people I know who've killed themselves give a damn about any of that stuff. Most of them weren't idiots or any more racist than philosophy bloggers, including this one.
One final point I meant to make above. There's pride and there's pride. Sometimes it just means that you don't have to be ashamed of yourself for being yourself. I think that that's what is at issue with GLBT "pride" and various types of ethnic "pride." If white people were engaged in self-destructive behavior because they were ashamed at being white, maybe there would be some analogue. But they aren't, so there isn't. Also, I don't think it's biting a bullet to bite to say that pride in belonging to some group is always both existentially and politically dangerous, albeit the latter much more so if members of the group you belong to benefits from systematically oppressing members of other groups. Male pride! Straight pride! Bosses pride! 1% pride! Well whatever. Nevermind.