Suicide and the chimera of American prosperity

It will be tempting for some liberals to argue that the drug and suicide epidemic, which is most pronounced in states like West Virginia and in the post-industrial Midwest, is the muted response of white Americans to the prospect of their irrelevance in a rapidly diversifying country. But that’s not what I think is happening — and not just because David Duke probably says the same thing. For one thing, the despair that is the underlying cause of these phenomena is universal. The difference is that black and Hispanic communities have more hard-won resilience than whites who have led increasingly atomized, if comparatively more prosperous, existences for half a century now. They live in self-segregated communities in which the only meaningful bonds with their neighbors and even their extended families are those to which they have consented. Their experience has not prepared them for financial uncertainty, violence, atrophying attention spans, and drug taking. For them there really is no such thing as society. They have achieved Auden’s terrible dream — not universal love, but being loved alone. Now they are discovering what it means to hate themselves alone as well.

How did this happen? One thing that we must come to recognize is that prosperity in the sense in which it has been defined by economists and politicians for generations now is a chimera. Working the coupon center screen at CVS is not meaningful labor. Unlimited access to cheap consumer goods manufactured by foreign wage-slaves is not leisure. Taking your children to a restaurant and handing them an iPad game is not parenting. Spending four hours a day waiting to see whether a star or a heart or an arrow has appeared next to a picture or a caption you have posted on a computer network is not community. Watching pornography is not human intimacy. Grinding away to achieve a certain test score is not education, nor is signing away half the price of a modest house in order to finance a four-year pajama party. Taking drugs is not a reprieve from the misery of what you do with the rest of your time but the consummation of it.