The cult of emotional toughness and the constant drumbeat of bootstrap thinking among whites has unleashed an epidemic of social isolation.
A recent study by Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton and Anne Case, both professors at Princeton University, is showing a rise in deaths among poorly educated middle aged white people during a time when mortality rates for blacks and Latinos continue to decline.
These deaths are attributed, not to the big killers heart disease and diabetes, but to suicide, drug abuse and alcoholic liver disease as well as overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids. The population, poorly educated middle aged white persons are dying at such high rates this it is skewing the averages for all middle aged whites.
The Guardian reports:
The alarming trend, overlooked until now, has hit less-educated 45- to 54-year-olds the hardest, with no other groups in the US as affected and no similar declines seen in other rich countries.
The rise in death rates among middle-aged white Americans means half a million more people have died in the US since 1998 than if the previous trend had continued. The death toll is comparable to the 650,000 Americans who lost their lives during the Aids epidemic from 1981 to the middle of this year, the researchers said.
These alarming numbers are evidence of the brutal impact of economic downturns over the last two decades on whites with a high school degree or less. They also reflect the growing availability of powerful opioids and heroin. But the impact of economic downturns and growing drug abuse are symptoms of a much deeper malignancy in American culture.
In 2010 the American Association of Retired Persons conducted a survey in which revealed that 1 in 3 adults over the age of 45 are chronically lonely. That is 44 million people. And this number is growing at a dramatic pace, up from 1 in 5 just ten years before.
The New Republic published an article titled, “The Lethality of Loneliness.” Here is a quote from that article:
Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. Diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.
In a meta review conducted in 2013, researchers reviewed 148 studies involving over 308,000 participants. The study titled Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review concluded:
The quality and quantity of individuals’ social relationships has been linked not only to mental health but also to both morbidity and mortality…indicating a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships.
Given the importance of social connection to overall health and well being, the lack of social connection during economic crisis would logically be overwhelming. Which begs the question. Why aren’t mortality numbers trending upward in African American or Latino communities who have logically been hit even harder by economic factors? And why aren’t mortality statistics for similar white populations in other countries trending down?
Clearly there is something specific to white America that is proving lethal to under educated whites above and beyond the economic hardships they face.
The explanation may prove to be this. If we, as a culture, exclusively privilege self reliance and economic independence as central to our identity as Americans, than failing to achieve these metrics leave American whites no where to go in a crisis. To be clear, self reliance and bootstrap thinking are valid and valuable unless they are promoted to the exclusion of a balancing philosophy of responsibility to and connection with the greater community.
For decades the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ethic has been intentionally promoted over creating community and connecting across differences. Much of this “promotion” has been part of the coded language by white politicians against non-white racial groups. A devastating side effect is, that whatever we whites achieve, we are expected to achieve it on our own. To do otherwise is viewed as weak, lazy, or shameful.
In a recent article titled How the Man Box Can Kill Our Sons Now or Decades from Now, I make the case that our sons are trained by the Man Box and our American culture of emotional toughness to suppress the kind of emotional expression that is central to creating connection and community. It is in community that we find the central source of human healing and resiliency. It is a lack of community that is contributing to chronic loneliness for 44 million middle aged Americans.
The cult of emotional toughness and the constant drumbeat of bootstrap thinking among whites has unleashed an epidemic of social isolation, undercutting our collective capacity to create the kind of vibrant communities that can save us in times of hardship.
Massive media conglomerates in America have grown fat driving deep and ugly divisions along racial and political lines, encouraging isolation and distrust as a core American value.
In the land of the free, love your brother has become stand your ground. Meanwhile, our elected officials continue to chip away at our remaining social safety nets while, at the same time, deregulating huge corporate interests leading to catastrophic economic events like the banking scandals of the last decade. We are told, “greed is good. I got mine now you get yours.”
We are now seeing what happens when whites, trained in the American cult of independence, are confronted with the limitations of our frayed social safety net and the shame we heap on those who are forced to turn to it.
We are living in a nation that has been trained out of seeing our collective responsibility to each other. We have lost our capacity to create community. We are all expected to go forward on our own. And if we fail to do so, it is clearly own own fault. As such, we are collectively cutting our own throats because sooner or later we all face catastrophe, hardship and loss.
And even if we succeed economically, ensconced in the drab safety of our gated communities, we are all the lonelier and less joyous for it. And just as at risk.
Psychiatrist and PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk writes, “Everything about us—our brains, minds, and our bodies—is geared toward collaboration in social systems. This is our most powerful survival strategy, the key to our success as a species, and it is precisely this that breaks down in most forms of mental suffering.”
This startling mortality data is a clear and unambiguous warning that America’s politically driven emphasis on pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture of independence is fully and terribly upon us, the very white constituencies who gave it birth, and its logical result is playing out in graveyards across America.
Now, we have to choose to go forward together. All of us, gay, straight, men, women, black, white, brown, poor, rich, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, atheists, all of us.
Because the American cult of independence is killing us.
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