Once we acknowledge the broader historical, mythological, religious and racial contexts, then we can bring in issues such as the firearms industry, the police (who actually do a shockingly large percentage the killing on behalf of the state), the question of mental health, and the collapsing economy, with its parallel collapse of possibilities for the white, male working class.
Studies indicate that the likelihood of advancing in social class – the core fantasy of the American Dream – has decreased significantly since the 1980s. But to understand the mythic roots of the current epidemic of rage, it’s really useful to look back only as recently as 2003 and note that at that time, 56 % of those blue-collar men who correctly perceived George W. Bush’s tax cuts as favoring the rich still supported them.
The myth of the self-made man – the hero who succeeds without any community support, or who violently saves the innocent community and then leaves it – is as deeply engrained as our wild, naïve optimism and our ignorance of the facts. In 2000, 19 % of Americans believed they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another 19 % thought they already were. Two-thirds expected to have to pay the estate tax one day (only two percent did, even before the tax “reform” that drastically reduced even that tiny number).
Sooner or later, the individual, non-political behaviors prove to be either unavailable or (though addictive) ultimately unsatisfying. And when our assumptions of social mobility are revealed as fiction, the hero encounters his opposite – the victim / loser – within himself, his dark, traumatized soul emerges, and we become what we really are (except for Nazi Germany), the most violent people in history. Legal or otherwise. American crime, especially organized crime, is a natural by-product of our values, an alternative means of social mobility in a society that encourages the individual to pursue success, as Malcolm X said, “by any means necessary.”
“America,” says Glen Slater, “has little imagination for loss and failure. It only knows how to move forward.” When we realize that such movement is blocked, we go ballistic. Then guns become the purest expression of controlling one’s fate. As such, they are “the dark epitome of the self-made way of life.”
White people in America may well have been privileged to dream bigger dreams than other peoples. With great possibilities, however, come great risks. The gap between aspiration and reality – the lost dream – is also far higher here than anywhere else. When we don’t meet our expectations of success, when that gap gets too wide, violence may present itself as the only option, the expression of a fantasy of ultimate individualism and control. In this sense, the Mafia is more American then Sicilian, and the lone, white, mass killer is an expression of social mobility gone bad.
When the bubble of our naïve expectations of perpetual progress temporarily breaks, our accumulated self-hatred explodes in the search for scapegoats. Matthew Stewart writes:
According to a survey by the political scientist Brian Schaffner, Trump crushed it among voters who “strongly disagree” that “white people have advantages because of the color of their skin,” as well as among those who “strongly agree” that “women seek to gain power over men.” It’s worth adding that these responses measure not racism or sexism directly, but rather resentment. They’re good for picking out the kind of people who will vehemently insist that they are the least racist or sexist person you have ever met, even as they vote for a flagrant racist and an accused sexual predator.
Students of myth do not look at motivation – we don’t really care why Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. We look first at the facts of the story itself: this is what happened. Only after accepting the facts themselves do we ask why. So we ask, is mass violence culturally approved? And we have to answer, yes, it must be, since in this story, society insists on doing nothing to prevent it.
Or at least when whites, especially the police, are doing it. But when armed Black Panthers marched on Sacramento in 1967, it took only a few weeks for Governor Ronald Reagan to enact a strong gun control law.
We must acknowledge that there is something about the hatred – and joy – of this intensity of violence that is characteristically American. Here is something like a corollary, a sub-rule of the myth of innocence: in this story, only white people are privileged to enact their rage without consequences. Or perhaps capitalism has a large stake in allowing that black-on-black violence I mentioned above, since it has at least two real functions: diverting black rage away from its true sources, and providing the perpetual supplies for the lucrative school-to-prison pipeline.
All Others are forewarned: the display of your anger at anyone other than your own people will be severely punished. Senator Orrin Hatch (who will go to his grave proud that he supported Kavanaugh) explains, apparently without irony, how we perpetuate our sense of innocence: “Capital punishment is our society’s recognition of the sanctity of human life.”
In countless Hollywood versions of the “good war,” the American Hero, dedicated to his democratic ideals, dies fighting to the last man. Isn’t he always the last one to die – just as one of his mirror opposites, the evil genius, equally dedicated to his criminal goals, also dies at the very end? Don’t they each choose death over the alternative of being captured? Doesn’t the Hero defeat the dark half of this duality, often in a duel?
And what about the gunman (whether in old gangster films or on school campuses) dying in a blaze of police gunfire after he has committed his crimes, or the mass killer in Toronto in April, 2018 who dared the police to “Shoot me in the head”? This phenomenon is so widespread that analysts have called it “suicide by police.” We can’t talk about rage in America without talking about suicide, and this subject brings us back to the “mental illness” issue that gun rights supporters use to deflect the question away from gun availability.
I am no psychologist, but any plumber can see that the rage must go somewhere. Compressed like water into steam, it may explode outwards, as physical violence, often as rape. Is Kavanaugh a rare exception? Consider that as recently as three years ago, a third of male university students – our future leaders – admitted they would rape a woman if there no were no consequences. Or, Like a long, slow leak from an unexposed pipe, it can soak the inner world until it rots. Then we don’t see it until it turns into depression or suicide.
Although we can never tell how much happens through suicide by cop, deliberately unsafe driving or deliberate but unconscious substance and medication abuse (especially among white, middle-aged men), at least 45,000 Americans commit suicide annually, over 120 per day. We do know that globally, suicides represent half of male violent deaths, and half of those are by guns.
Suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. But among those aged 10 to 34, it is now the second leading cause. Suicidal thoughts and attempts at suicide by teenagers are reported to have doubled between 2008 and 2015. Even among college students, those who would seem to be among the most optimistic and privileged, it is also the second leading cause of death.
The rate increase is especially pronounced in farming areas. In rural Illinois, for example, more than 80 % of gun-related deaths between 2012 and 2016 were suicides. Here we can really begin to see the impact of a broken economy – and a broken mythology – on the much-lamented “white working class male.” Men have historically killed themselves 3½ times more often than women, even though women and girls attempt suicide more often.
While suicide rates are up by 30% since 1999, the increase among men aged 45 to 64 has been 43%, with white males accounting for 7 of 10 suicides. Indeed, the Center for Disease Control recently announced that life expectancy in the United States has declined for two years in a row, fueled precisely by the opioid epidemic among white males in the Rust Belt.
These are the same men who for generations felt the world owed them a well-paying stable job, and the respect that comes with it. For them, job loss or under-employment often leads to personal crises, often divorce or estrangement from their families (men of color, of course, have always lived with these conditions – but they have not voted Republican for several generations). The media’s rosy economic announcements about “historically low unemployment” rarely acknowledge that between a fifth and a quarter of working-age men—about 20 million—aren’t working. This number is three to four times what it was during the 1950s. Many of these men feel a sense of what sociologist Michael Kimmel calls “aggrieved entitlement.” They feel humiliated, and if we were all being candid, emasculated. So many of them
…“refuse to even be dragged kicking and screaming into that inevitable future” of greater gender and racial equality. Instead they rage, not at the corporate overlords who have actually shipped their jobs overseas but at the amorphous feminists, or more likely “feminazis,” who have stolen American manhood.
And yet, according to a 2011 White House report on women and girls,
…rates of nonfatal violent victimization of women have dropped significantly since the 1990s…Visible rage may be increasing, but most men may feel impotent to act on it, or may be adjusting in more ways than we realize.
If this is true, then we are back to the question of suicide, what I call rage turned inward. It’s critical to acknowledge that economic depression mirrors psychological depression. Our characteristic American expectation of positive emotions and life-experiences makes feelings of sadness and despair more pathological in this culture than elsewhere. Christina Kotchemidova writes, “Since ‘cheerfulness’ and ‘depression’ are bound by opposition, the more one is normalized, the more negative the other will appear.”
Depression is the shadow of our heroic, successful, progressive, American stance. It has doubled since World War Two, with each generation showing higher rates than the last. Indeed, major depression diagnoses increased 33% between 2013 and 2016. Ten percent of us (6% of children) take antidepressants. Forty-one percent of young adults experience major depression, and nearly a third of them exhibit alcohol dependence by age thirty-two. Eighteen percent of college students take prescription psychological medications.
Altogether, in this same time period of increased suicide (since 1999) the use of antidepressants rose 65%, from about 8% of people 12 and older to 13%. How ironic. Clearly, many people medicate themselves to avoid suicidal thoughts – and correlation does not imply causation – yet numerous studies have indicated a link between antidepressant use and suicide. The largest study found that the use of antidepressants “doubled the risk of suicide” for those under age 18. Gender researcher Gary Barker reports:
In a survey…we found that nearly 1 in 5 thought about suicide in the past two weeks. Which young men were more likely to think about suicide? Those who believed in a version of manhood associated with being tough, not talking about their problems, and bottling up their emotions were twice as likely to have considered suicide. Studies in other countries have found the same, namely that men with more restrictive ideas about manhood are more likely to think about suicide than young men who aren’t so stuck in the “man box.”…We know from another study we recently carried out…that young men who are bullied—including those bullied for their sexual orientation—are more likely to have depressive symptoms, a major risk factor for suicide. Bullying has distinctly male characteristics: that is, it is often carried out by young men against other young men as a way to police their behavior or their appearance and to reinforce power.
So a good deal of bullying is self-hatred turned outward upon the weak (and often upon those whose very existence calls our own weakness into question). And if suicide is rage turned inward, is it not appropriate to wonder whether violence is suicide turned outward?
Most of those who commit suicide, we can assume, take their own lives out of depression, despair, loneliness or internalized rage. But this is not an “either-or” but a “both-and” world. When we bring the mythological back into the conversation, we have to acknowledge the broad topic of initiation and our demythologized world in which traditional communities and rituals, especially those of initiation, have long been lost.
And (because we rarely can access it) we can only imagine the terrible grief we – especially men – hold in our bones, knowing very well how utterly diminished our lives have become for that loss, how much energy we expend trying to cover it up. The most common lament I have heard at men’s conferences over thirty years is something like this: I know that I carry a vast, infinite reservoir of unresolved grief within this body, but I refuse to let it out, because I know that to do so would overwhelm me. It would never stop.
Many of those men are veterans, and by now we’ve all heard reports of suicide rates among veterans. Some of them do so because of the terrible backlog in VA treatment and appointments. Others, we may imagine, have ended their lives rather than continue to suffer from the PTSD of having served in combat.
The particular subject of suicide by Vietnam veterans is fraught with conflicting claims, but we are talking about a very large number of men. I’ve been able to track this one, from as far back as 36 years ago:
…according to a 1982 report, 110,000 (more than the Americans killed in battle during the war) died from “war-related” problems after returning to the U.S. – of those, 60,000 were suicides. – Michael Bibby, “The Post-Vietnam Condition,” in The Vietnam War and Post-Modernity (Bibby, ed.)
I am not a veteran, and I tread with respect into this very sensitive subject. But, as with every other aspect of this discussion, we have to go there. If there is a common media stereotype of the troubled vet, it goes like this: he fought in an unpopular war; he was placed in dangerous situations; he got shot and or wounded; like Rambo or John McCain he may have been captured and tortured by vicious enemies; some of his friends died; and he returned home to an ungrateful country. Countless men experienced some or all of these things. But, as I argued in Memory, Myth, and the National Mall, there was yet another factor:
World War II studies had shown that only 15 to 20 percent of frontline riflemen fired their weapon at exposed enemy soldiers. Fear of killing, not of being killed, had been the most common cause of battle fatigue. Something in the soul had survived that still insisted upon fundamental mutuality with the Other. Having learned this, the Fathers responded with what Colonel David Grossman has termed “a new, evolutionary leap in the conditioning of the mind.” Psychologists introduced methods of desensitization and conditioning that taught soldiers to “respond reflexively even when literally frightened out of their wits.” This method, writes Grossman, was “psychological warfare conducted not upon the enemy, but upon one’s own troops.” By the Korean War, firing rates were up to 55 percent—and 95 percent in Vietnam…Survivors of Vietnam suffered two unique injustices. Larger numbers of them than in any previous war had to confront the reality that they had actually killed other human beings. They were in an ambiguous situation, wrote Peter Marin: “…the agents and the victims of a particular kind of violence. That is the source of a pain that almost no one else can understand.” And when they broke down emotionally, their fathers’ generation ignored them. Indeed— for their own reasons—officers looked the other way when soldiers took out their rage upon civilians in countless incidents of atrocity or upon themselves in suicide and drug addiction.
I think we can assume that this condition has continued since Vietnam and has probably been further exacerbated in Iraq, Afghanistan and all the other places where the U.S. has been warring on “terror.” Stated as simply as possible, but including our understanding of American mythology and male psychology, we can say this: at our core, we still understand that we are all of one human family; we really do not like to harm each other; we do so only because this demythologized culture forces us to do so in order to be acknowledged as men; we hate the patriarchs for putting us in this position, but we have no choice but to blame ourselves for participating in this madness; we know that there is no community, no safe place to process the grief and rage, so we turn them inward and end the suffering. Better to go out like a man.