Hard News by Russell Brown


Lost Men

I watched the BBC News Our World report What's Killing America's White Men? pretty much by accident last night, but was immediately drawn in. It meshed with Beth Macy's book about the US opioid crisis, Dopesick, which I've just finished reading. And it seemed to have something to say about the horrors of the past week.

Essentially, while suicide rates in most western countries have decreased over the past two decades, in America, the rate is up by a third. And one group is driving the increase: white, middle-aged men. This isn't the set-up for a Twitter joke. Men, who have lost jobs, status, security and identity are killing themselves – most often, with the firearms that are usually at hand.

Presenter India Rakusen visits Missoula, Montana, a city which isn't doing badly: unemployment is only 3.7% and it has a strong university. It's not a rust-belt town. But its economy has moved away from a reliance on timber – and change, as the mayor explains to Rakusen, has left many men without a sense of who they are.

Rauksen concludes by speaking to a sympathetic character: Russell, a 63 year-old man who has lived in his family home for more than 40 years, struggling with depression for much of that time.

"This is a tough country to live in," he tells her. "If you're not a competitive person, and I'm not, it's not easy. Americans like a winner. They don't like people who aren't winners. All our lives, we're given this false notion of American superiority, that we're supposed to be superhuman."

In Montana, he says, "there's a level of terror among people, as they work longer and they fall farther and farther behind."

In the past week, America has been forced to look at two other middle-aged men. The 56 year-old pipe-bomber Cesar Sayoc, who embraced the cult of Trump after his mother – apparently unable to cope any longer with his untreated mental illness – finally kicked him out of the house in 2015. He delivered pizza and his business ventures seem to have been largely fantasy. And 46 year-old Robert Bowers, the monster who slaughtered elderly Jews in Pittburgh. He lived with his grandfather until the grandfather died five years ago. He was apparently jobless and, according to a childhood friend, had lived his life "like a ghost".

The answer, clearly, isn't the restoration of whatever privilege men like these have lost, or any attempt – and the Republican mid-term campaign has seen plenty of it – to blame people from different worlds for their loss. It's certainly not to try and rationalise their crimes.

But it's impossible not to feel that the American problems forced into everyone's face this past week run very, very deep. And that the solutions offered by large elements of America's political culture stand to make things much, much worse.

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