Deaths of despair among American whites.

In the book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism¸ Anne Case and Angus Deaton document, among other things, the dramatic increase in mortality of America’s (non-Hispanic) white population ages 45-54 since 1998.  They compare these trends with those for similar populations in France, the UK, and Sweden, whose members’ mortality continued the decline seen prior to 1998, a decline which Americans shared until then.  They examine this fact in subcategories from several directions, and conclude that what they call “deaths of despair” (drug overdoses, suicide, and alcoholism) are increasing in that population.  They further demonstrate that the decline is clearer among whites without college degrees than among those with.  This, if accurate, is terrible and very, very regrettable.  The very idea that so many of several cohorts of a specific group of people are locked in such deadly despair, is heartbreaking.  I mourn for them; I wonder what could bring about such a situation; and I wonder what can be done to relieve the situation.

The authors associate these terrible phenomena with the decline in good health care, decline in reliable employment and associated unionization, and the dramatic increase in inequalities generally in America.    These are matters which can be remedied, although not easily.  Ideas about possible solutions abound, including in the books I discuss in this post.  They also mention decline in church participation (more severe among non-BA people than among better educated ones), which is not so easily remedied.  (I am surprised to read that church attendance declines among the less educated, and rises among those with BA’s.  I had always had the impression that higher education often made people more skeptical of religion, so for me this is good news.)

They also associate these phenomena with the assumption among that population that they can no longer say, “At least I’m not Black,” because that sense of inherent superiority and privilege is fast disappearing, along with the actual majority status of whites.  I grew up in a neighbourhood of East Los Angeles that was predominantly Black and Asian. My parents and their closes friends grew up in the US. South, but I never learned racism from among them.  My father, a Marine, fought the Japanese during WWII, but he got along well with our Japanese neighbours, and their kids were my friends and playmates.  I have never understood race discrimination, but I guess it dwells in the social milieu around some people and in their emotions as described by Henning Beck (below).

even when whites  perceive that the very people they vote for are the ones who are making their lives worse, they would rather feel “heroic” in putting up with the situation, than try to change it. It’s not difficult to see how that could become such a fatalistic attitude that death of despair would be the outcome.

Readers of this blog will remember other books (see, and have treated with this idea, specifically that suicide among this population is now frighteningly common.  Having read many newspapers, magazines, and journals, and having attended  many webinars (, I wonder whether this despair and fear have something to do with the dramatic increase in overt racism and violence associated with white power and with some Trump followers in the States* (certainly there were other reasons that people supported Trump  I wonder whether somehow this ultimate loss of status relates to the racism among many white evangelicals.** You may remember the thesis in Jonathan M. Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness:  How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, referenced in an earlier post above, that even when whites  perceive that the very people they vote for are the ones who are making their lives worse, they would rather feel “heroic” in putting up with the situation, than try to change it. It’s not difficult to see how that could become such a fatalistic attitude that death of despair would be the outcome.

None of the books mentioned takes into account the possible effects of social media on peoples’ perceptions of the world around them, or of their own identities. This is, I think, a serious flaw. But, for the purpose of this post, I will discuss these theses without further reference to the effects of social media, and assume that they can exacerbate the effects already described.

The difficulties in finding achievable moral ideals.

I want to relate this phenomenon of deaths of despair with an earlier blog’s discussion of the “wily man­­­­­­­­­­­­” — which describes common situations in which people simply do not have the affordance of living according to their ideals (see also .  This should be a matter of concern for anyone, even those not in that population —  a concern for those people, if not for ourselves.  What kind of society can allow such despair?  Deaths of Despair, along with People, Power, and Profits:  Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent by Joseph E. Stiglitz,; Capital and Ideology, by Thomas Pikkety; and The System:  Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, by Robert B. Reich, answer, “Because there really are people, and systems, who have arranged extraordinary privilege for themselves, to the detriment of many others.”  I don’t know that these authors believe that the top 0.1% or their political, lawyers, and lobbyist assistants wring their hand greedily like Dickens’ Gradgrind in Hard Times, proud of how they oppress people of lesser means.  I have difficulty believing that such people exist, although some may be so accustomed to a level of living so very different from ordinary people’s, that their experience, understanding, and ability to empathize are extremely limited. 

It seems that moral affordances, i.e., achievable moral ideals which should be taken for granted, are simply not available to many.  To not be able to identify an achievable ideal set of values involving love and compassion and care for others, because such opportunity is simply not afforded by the society or government, is tragic and is much to be mourned. 

How do we make decisions about affordances and ideals?

One way:

Henning Beck, author of Scatterbrain:  How the Mind’s Mistakes Make Humans Creative, Innovative, and Successful, like many others (, writes that the real decisions are made in peoples’ emotions, i.e., subconsciously.  The conscious mind then develops rationales for those decisions.  Beck is content to identify the areas of the brain where these transactions occur, but does not explain how the emotional systems come to these decisions, where the applied values derive from, nor how “judgement” chooses among them.  These gaps in knowledge vitiate the usefulness of the theory.  But the theory itself, if accurate, leaves us even more unable to understand the despairings’ preference to put up with their circumstances.  It makes it easy to understand the deaths of despair, though – the emotion of despair perhaps impedes the ability to rationalize their way out.

A second way:

Beck’s way of understanding ourselves, and how we might face the future and grasp it, is somewhat different from the view of Thomas Homer-Dixon, at the Waterloo Institute for Innovation and Complexity, in Commanding Hope:  the Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril.  Homer-Dixon agrees that decisions are made by emotions first if not entirely.  He is concerned to understand the clashes among peoples’ worldviews.  He defines a worldview as “a densely connect network of concepts, beliefs, and values in a person’s mind…It gives us a mental framework to interpret things….It gives us criteria for deciding what’s good and bad, what’s important and what isn’t, and what actions will get us what we want….”  The worldview “…provides the basic ideas from which we create our personal stories.”  Compared with Beck, this is a not much clearer description of how we decide things, perceive our affordances, and move toward them.

Homer-Dixon says that colleagues and he have developed two basic tools to help eliminate problems caused by different world views. 

The first is the “state-space method,” which analyzes the differences between world views.  State-space is like a three-dimensional map of all possible states of a given system, such as a country’s electrical system.  The second tool, cognitive-affective maps, invented by Paul Thagard (a cognitive scientist), identifies ways of “mapping mental networks of people’s emotionally charged concepts.”  These become tools to help map the “mindscape,” the “geography of all possible worldviews available to human beings” – a very complex way of understanding and managing the complexities of our lives. 

Perhaps an example of the worldview and the mindscape is found in the milieu described by Kathleen Belew, assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago.  She asserts in Bring the War Home:  the White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, that Vietnam veterans, and later vets, brought their wars home.  They developed or enhanced anti-non-white attitudes there, and brought them back along with their skills in violence and the feelings of comradery that often embeds military units.  She also claims that some right-wing Christianity is white supremacist, who must eliminate non-whites as a precursor to the Rapture.  Her arguments will require keen discrimination and analysis, because these kinds of wide paint brushes make it all too easy to cover complexity with easy overviews.  But it adds to a table of contents – a long list of contributing and defining factors to the causes of despair.

The meaning and significance of “community” and possible escape from despair.

As I mentioned earlier, Case and Deaton believe that absence of community (union, family, neighbours, and church) contribute to the despair.  Perhaps there is a better model of community, which might help people see more affordances, more room for agency, and more room for hope, for example, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing  There are in this index broader understandings of community and life in general:

1.  Community vitality, which includes social relationships, engagement, and support, and community safety, along with social values and norms, including attitudes toward others and the community. (Case and Denton believe these have disappeared in the lives of many, replaced with radical individualism.)

2.  Democratic engagement and participation.

3.  Education, including social and emotional competencies; basic educational knowledge and skills; and overall academic achievement, attainment, and participation.

4.  Environment – the physical place where we live and its components of air, water, etc. which contribute to our sense of well-being.

5.  Health and health care.

6.  Experiencing leisure – the arts and culture. (I would add the leisure to do nothing, see Waiting for the Weekend, by Witold Rybczynski.)

7.  Living standards, including the level and distributions of incomes, employment security, job quality, and food and housing security.

8.  Our sense of control over our time, business, pressure of too much to do, etc.  (See any book on mindfulness).

These are all important qualities in life.   Being able to look outside your current life and see some additional, broader social places where you can live, might broaden your horizon, make the possibilities look vast, give you more affordance to walk across a larger moral and social landscape, and reduce the need to crouch protectively. Life does not look so small and confining any more.  Measuring these, rather than just finances and GDP, productivity, and so forth, could make life busier and richer, even if, at first, the measurements seem small.  If you have a clear, explicit idea of what you have and don’t have at the moment, but an equally explicit idea of what else there is, you can also see what you want to head for, or what you want to leave.  The fact that there are choices changes things.  You may see the affordances.

If you add to these a compulsion, religious or not, to exercise goodwill and compassion to others, there is both the motivation and wherewithal to get out of yourself, to stretch yourself.  I doubt that there are any religious contexts or communities where at least these words are not preached, if not supported in deed.

Repressive and oppressive societies or communities or families or governments, can certainly limit many, though not all, of these affordances. But I don’t think it’s possible to repress compassion or goodwill, although a despairing person may have trouble finding those emotions within, or recognizing them from without.  If despair is about not only yourself, but about all you know, or about the entire country, that is daunting, certainly.  And I don’t pretend to stand aside from one in despair, and say “See how simple it should be to get out of that hole?”  But as I read about these colossal levels of despair, it helps to realize that there are in fact alternatives which can, and should, be pointed out to people.  This could help them achieve informed consent or dissent to how different their lives could.

For those of us not in despair, we have the responsibility to recognize the oppressive elements in our society, and change them, by prayer, political action, and simply talking with people about changing things – a lot

For those of us not in despair, we have the responsibility to recognize the oppressive elements in our society, and change them, by prayer, political action, and simply talking with people about changing things – a lot (see_

*I see these increases in Canada to some extent, but do not know to associate it with the deaths of despair thesis.  There is evidence of increased suicide by firearms among older rural residents in Ontario

** I don’t know that this would apply in Canada, where the economy,  governments, and healthcare are much more supportive.  Certainly drug overdoses are increasing here, but not alcoholism, and I haven’t seen statistics broken down by race.  We do feel the impact of dramatic inequality but our smaller population and more internationalized economy (normal for Canada) perhaps diminish those things which cause such distress in the States. 

2 thoughts on “Despair

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