Middle-aged American white men are dying in suspicious numbers, and R.R. Reno (at First Things) claims to know why. By applying a sort of forensic cultural anthropology to the situation, he has determined the cause of death: Progressivism.
Taking note of recently published findings which indicate that “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,” Reno first wants to know why anyone is surprised:
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.
In fact, says Reno, the progressive elites have been conspiring for some time now to bring about just this result:
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.*
[Let us set aside for the moment Reno's implicit assertion that middle-aged white males with a high-school education or less are "the most vulnerable" in our society--we'll come back to that later.]
Citing the current brouhaha over transgender rights, Reno claims that working-class white men are suffering what might be called “death by disorientation”:
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.
Some skeptics might point to economic factors, to the loss of job opportunities and to the concomitant deterioration of working-class neighborhoods and even of entire cities; some might cite unhealthy eating habits, lack of exercise, the use of alcohol and tobacco, or even the stress of America’s competitive ethos. But those are nothing but red herrings to Mr. Reno; he has identified the real culprit, and it is transgressive progressivism:
“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.”
I never thought I’d see the day when a conservative author would cite “existential pain” as a contributing factor to mortality rates, but there you are: another first from the cutting-edge folks at First Things.
It would be taking Reno’s thesis too seriously to bother debunking it in any detail, but allow me to point out one small flaw in his reasoning. The study he cites refers specifically to white men of a certain age and social and economic status, but it stands to reason that middle-aged African-American men are at least as disconcerted and disoriented as are their white counterparts by cultural changes like same-sex marriage and transgender rights. Black American men surely have also been “stripped of settled roles” and of the dignity and respect they confer—not just by cultural shifts but also by racism, both personal and systemic.
In addition, middle-aged African-American males continue to be poorer than their white counterparts, to live in less desirable neighborhoods, to receive inferior education, to be arrested and incarcerated at higher rates, and to have much higher rates of unemployment as well. If any group of Americans, then, ought to be suffering the combined effects of “existential pain [and] harsh economic realities,” it would be middle-aged African-American men; and yet the study upon which Reno relies for his diagnosis shows that the mortality rate for that group has not increased at all.**
So why are white men the only ones literally dying from ubiquitous cultural dislocation, sexual and gender disorientation, and the nefarious “ideological assault on the basic norms for family and community”? Oddly enough, Reno does not ask that question, perhaps because it might complicate his preferred and predetermined answer; in fact, it might even render his entire thesis absurd.
That said: for his valiant effort to indict progressivism, Robert Reno gets today’s “Silliest Pundit in the World” award.
*By Reno’s own logic, he is not describing a “war on the weak”. He is describing an alleged “war on traditional values” in which the weak are allegedly collateral damage. Painting with a broad brush is no excuse for doing a sloppy job of it.
In any case, this particular meme, which might also be called “trickle-down morality,” is popular among conservatives: case in point, Charles Murray in his books LOSING GROUND and COMING APART. As Reno explains, liberal elites, who can afford the consequences, abandon traditional morality in favor of self-indulgent hedonism; the poor and the common folk then ape that example by adopting antinomian lifestyles. What choice do they have? All their supporting social institutions, from schools to churches to media, have been co-opted and/or corrupted. Alas for the poor, they end up having to “pay the cost.”
This theory at least has the virtue of being reasonably consistent with conservative economics and with the larger world view of conservatives in which morality, like prosperity, innovation, and leadership, flows from the top down—beginning of course with God and excepting of course the federal government. The hoi polloi, the rabble, the commoners—ordinary people, in other words—are either the lucky beneficiaries or the hapless victims of their betters.
**And then, of course, there are women, both white women and women of color; they too would seem to qualify as "the most vulnerable" among us, and they too are buffeted by cultural change and economic travail, and yet their mortality rate has not risen. As Charlie Pierce would say, ees a puzzle: How can the deadly effects of Progressivism be so oddly selective as to target only white men of a certain age and a certain level of educational achievement?