We’re in the midst of a crisis. The New York Times reports that Angus Deaton and Ann Case, two Princeton economists, have identified increases in suicide and drug and alcohol related deaths among high school educated white Americas as the cause for a remarkable spike in the overall death rate for middle-aged white Americans. Various experts express surprise, shock, and sadness. I can understand the sadness, but not the surprise.
Over a fifteen-year period (1999-2014), the death rate for whites age 45 to 54 with a high school education or less increased by 25 percent, while death rates for the same age range in other groups in America and other rich countries declined. That is indeed shocking. It’s the sort of rise that only occurs during periods of social crisis or collapse. Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union is one instance. Europe during and in the immediate aftermath of World War II is another.
The crisis, however, has been plain to see. It’s a judgment on the moral myopia of today’s academic culture and mainstream media that anyone would be blind-sided by this report of rising death rates among poor whites. The meth epidemic has been killing people in poor white, small-town America for two decades. Earlier this year, Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana, declared a public health emergency in a southern Indiana county. Reason: the rapid spread of HIV caused by needle sharing by heroin users who are poor and white. The collapse of working class culture among whites is old news. It’s laid out in detail by Charles Murray in his 2012 book, Coming Apart. We’ve known that the results are deadly. A few years ago the Times itself reported a dramatic decline in life-expectancy among whites who have failed to finish high school.
The experts are at a loss. Some point to “financial stress,” pointing to the fact that wages for working class Americans has been stagnant during the last few decades. One expert observed that whites are more likely than blacks to get prescriptions for opium-based painkillers.
I don’t find myself baffled. For the last few decades, cultural leaders have been waging a war on the weak. Their goal is to dismantle traditional norms and rules for family life. They push to dismantle gender roles and other foundational categories that ordinary people use to orient themselves and make sense out of their lives. They advocate for drug legalization and doctor-assisted suicide as well. The upshot: reliable guides toward a normal life are removed, and potentially destructive behaviors that rich people either avoid or discretely manage are normalized. The most vulnerable pay the cost.
On the same front page of the New York Times that reports the startling increased in death rates among poor whites, we read that the U.S. Department of Education has decreed that any refusal to allow transgender students to identity with whatever sex they choose, and to play on sports teams and use locker rooms accordingly, violates anti-discrimination laws. Federal officials will now compel an Illinois school district to conform. End result: a few troubled teens may find temporary relief, but the blatant denial of gender differences adds to the disorientation of America’s working class.
The male-female difference is a fundamental, orienting reality in every culture. Having a sense of oneself as a man or woman gives us a place to stand in the world. The transgender revolution represents that latest, most dramatic stage in today’s efforts to efface the social authority of the male-female difference. Well-educated adepts know how to use today’s multicultural patois to navigate in our brave new world of officially mandated gender blindness. They can affirm the progressive orthodoxies in words, while conveying to their children in their deeds a plastic but nevertheless gender-differentiated approach to life. Meanwhile, kids and young adults from poorly educated households are deprived of a functional language to talk about what it means to be a man or woman. Without such a language, they can’t see themselves as successfully being men or women. And so they are deprived of a baseline adult achievement that come-of-age rituals in traditional cultures have always celebrated.
To a great extent, our progressive culture strips ordinary people of almost all settled roles, other than economic ones. This heightens the existential pain of the already harsh economic realities of our globalized economy, which can be very punitive to the poorly educated. Two generations ago, a working class man was often poor or nearly poor, but he could be respected in his neighborhood as a provider for his family, father to his children, law-abiding citizen, coach of a Little League team, and usher in church. The culture that made such a life possible has disintegrated, partly due to large-scale trends in our post-industrial society, but also because of a sustained and ongoing ideological assault on the basic norms for family and community. Death rates are likely to continue to rise for poor Americans. I see no signs that the war on the weak will abate.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.