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?
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.” The broader subject of suicide 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, like leaking water, must go somewhere – either outwards, often as literal violence or rape directed at others, or inwards, as depression or suicide.
Although we can never tell how much happens through suicide by cop or through deliberately unsafe driving, or deliberate but unconscious substance and medication abuse, at least 45,000 Americans commit suicide annually. Half are by firearms. Men kill themselves 3 ½ times more often than women, and white males account for 7 of 10 suicides.
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. It now impacts nineteen million American adults. 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, and suicide is their second leading cause of death.
Most suicides, we can assume, take their own lives out of depression, despair, loneliness or internalized rage. However, this is not an “either-or” world but a “both-and.” When we bring the mythological 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. For more, see here and here.
At some level, we all really do know that the Hero must die so that an elder may be born. In some African tribes, adolescents were expected to demonstrate their sincerity by dancing at great length before the hut of the elders, pleading for initiation. They knew the consequences of not being admitted: remaining boys in the eyes of the community.
In a post-modern world that has elevated the productive, achieving, radically individualistic male to the status of a demigod who lords it over all the “losers,” such consequences, if inchoate, are even greater. Twenty-first century capitalism produces a vast surplus of un- and under-employable people, especially men, who understand very well that they have been permanently excluded from the initiatory group of the upwardly-mobile.
In 2004, four million American eighteen to thirty-four-year old men were unemployed, were not in school and lacked a degree beyond high school. Fourteen years later, in a culture that identifies boys as men only when they have disengaged from family and established independent households, fully one-third of them live with their parents.
Not only are these young and not-so-young men unable to function productively anymore, they can also see that most job growth is now in areas (health care, food services, housekeeping, etc.) that either have been served traditionally by women or require high-tech educations.
Politically, it gets much worse: for at least two generations they have been deluged with right-wing talk radio and internet noise telling them that the source of their joblessness – and their pain – is affirmative action programs instituted by those same bi-coastal elites. It’s a very old story, and the personae have changed over the years. But its essence remains: you have been victimized by the Other.
Chapter Five of my book discusses the vast array of means by which we try to achieve the initiation into manhood that we desperately, if often unconsciously, desire:
As initiation rites have disappeared, so have the clear distinctions between life’s developmental stages. Consequently, adolescence in America seems to continue indefinitely. This is not to say that there are no initiations in modern life. The dizzying pace of change evokes liminality in everyone, and the psyche reacts to separation and loss as if initiations were underway. But we endure these transitions alone and unprotected by ritual and community. From childhood trauma to divorce and war, no one puts our suffering into a larger context or welcomes us home. This drains our capacity to express our purpose, and we live lifetimes of incomplete initiations.
Those unconscious means include fraternity initiations, substance abuse, tattooing and body piercing, midlife crises, fast cars, extreme sports and the pseudo-initiations of fundamentalism, hate groups, gangs and the military. What they all have in common is the desire to die to an old, no-longer-satisfying identity and be reborn into a new one.
Below the incapacitation of the alienated, depressed and increasingly angry white male lies that same desire. But with no real community of elders and no ability to experience his plight in symbolic terms, his only way out may be the literal, internalized expression of that rage as suicide.
Otherwise, the victim who cannot be a hero will search for villains or scapegoats. Some will do so with energy derived from their thwarted desire to play the hero, so they will organize collectively as victims, but with truly “heroic” enthusiasm.
This is right-wing activism: deeply committed, emotionally intense, sustained effort under the identification as victim – despite their unacknowledged white privilege – with their targets being precisely those categories (race, gender, immigration) whom they have been educated to perceive as questioning or contesting that privilege.
Hence, we have, and certainly not for the first time in our history, groups of relatively well-off people who actually perceive themselves to be the victims of people who have far less than they do. Only in America do millions of economically insecure white people serve the interests of the rich because to do so is to feel accepted among the elect and not “the Other.”
This is the history of American politics, from Bacon’s Rebellion in the late 17th century to the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and Populism, all the way to Ronald Reagan and Trump. As Lyndon Johnson said:
If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.