This election, this long whooping howl of fury and disgust and moral loathing, will not fix what feels wrong. All we can reasonably hope for is that it will not make national and international problems worse. Something else is going on, a kind of sickness of mood, a blues with a bladed edge, violence in the air, an expectation that worse is to come.
In his August 6 essay in Salon, Andrew O’Hehir argues that “America is experiencing a health crisis on an enormous scale — a crisis that is simultaneously physical, psychological and spiritual and is hardly ever understood in holistic terms. For starters, this crisis encompasses epidemic rates of obesity and epidemic rates of suicide, dramatic evidence of a wealthy country that is literally killing itself. It’s about a nation of worsening social isolation and individualized info-bubbles and pathological delusion, a nation that spends more per capita on healthcare than any other major Western power to achieve worse outcomes, and where Baconator Fries are $1.99 at Wendy’s.
He goes on: “In 2014, there were more than twice as many gun suicides as gun homicides. Suicide rates have reached their highest level in nearly 30 years, while murder rates remain near historic lows. Although suicide, like obesity, has increased across all socioeconomic and gender-ethnic categories, about 70 percent of the Americans who kill themselves are white men. Middle-aged white men with lower incomes are at particular risk ….”
“I’m saying that the state of borderline psychosis produced by electronic consumer society leads to OxyContin addiction and Baconator Fries and a suicide epidemic …. Those things are not all the same, but they are interconnected. I’m saying that the landscape I just saw in west central Florida, whose inhabitants crawl mollusk-like from fast-food outlets to convenience stores to healthcare providers to office parks, in their SUVs and pickup trucks with tinted windows, is a landscape of cognitive dissonance and collective delusion. It’s [a] landscape of madness in general ….”
“We’ve been made acutely aware over the last several years that the fragmented and narrow-casted media landscape produces competing narratives of reality … and … the physical landscape of America, with its intense isolation and intense socioeconomic and racial segregation, creates competing realities as well.”
We seem trapped (a trap of our own making) in a culture focused on acquisition and a metasticized individualism, one that fosters a deep well of loneliness and disconnection and increasingly a cynical vision of America perfectly embodied by Brad Pitt’s character, a killer who wants his money, in Killing Them Softly (his full speech appears below).
These are all part of the sickness Sebastian Junger addresses in Tribe, his meditation on dislocation, community, and PTSD in returning vets. In one respect Junger argues that the desire of vets to return to their units even if they had endured combat and likely would do so again is a completely rational response to what they faced upon their return to … well … us. For example, Junger tells us that “self-determination theory” posits three qualities human beings need to be reasonably fulfilled: “they need to feel competent at what they do, … authentic in their lives … and connected to others” (Junger 22).
Disasters and attacks, earthquakes, the London Blitz, the response of many New Yorkers to 9-11, Marine and Army squads in combat — all produce a camaraderie, a willingness to sacrifice for the good of the group, a leveling of status — wealth and beauty no longer matter; a willingness to work hard does matter and competence, and a sacrificial disposition. In tragedy, these terrible events “create a community of sufferers that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others” (Junger 53). A wounded survivor of the siege of Sarajevo regrets that after a return to normalcy, they could not keep to “the lesson of the war, which [was] to share everything you have with human beings close to you” (Junger 70). He has seen tragedy and death up close. He does not pine for a cataclysm to shake us up and make us better, but he does observe that “humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary” (Junger xvii).
Not so in combat where every person is necessary for the group to perform its jobs and keep each other alive. Junger knows that “in addition to all the destruction and loss of life, war also inspires ancient human virtues of courage, loyalty and selflessness that can be utterly intoxicating to the people who experience them” (Junger 77).
Junger recounts the experience of Win Stracke, a WW II artillaryman: “There were fifteen men to a gun. You had fifteen guys who for the first time in their lives were not living in a competitive society. We had no hopes of becoming officers. I liked that feeling very much … It was the absence of competition and boundaries and all those phony standards that created the thing I loved about the Army … What people miss presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender” (Junger 92).
Then they come home “to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it. It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary. The income gap between rich and poor continues to widen, many people live in racially segregated communities, the elderly are mostly sequestered from public life, and rampage shootings happen so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two. To make matters worse, politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country — a charge so destructive to group unity that most past societies would probably have just punished it as a form of treason. It’s complete madness, and the veterans know this. In combat soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion and politics within their platoon. It’s no wonder so many of them get so depressed when they come home” (Junger 124-125).
Junger believes that there is “a great human potential out there, organized around the idea of belonging, and the trick [is] to convince people that their interests [have] more in common than they [have] in conflict” (Junger 107-108).
At no point in Tribe does Junger argue for a Republican or Democratic vision of life. He remains thoroughly non-ideological. However, the subtext of his description is this: outside of family, we have lost a sense of the ties that bind us. We have lost the idea of sacrifice for the greater good — that’s even presuming we can any longer identify ‘a greater good.’ After 9-11 we had a moment when we could have been rallied to forgo our quest for more stuff, for what enhanced our lives alone. All the kids I taught who joined up after 9-11 understood something of this. They were the ones who raised their hands and, one by one, said “I’ll go.” They and their families put up their lives. What did we give up? What do we give up now?
Pitt’s speech in Killing Me Softly:
“My friend, Jefferson’s an American saint because he wrote the words, “All men are created equal.” Words he clearly didn’t believe, since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He was a rich wine snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So yeah, he wrote some lovely words and aroused the rabble, and they went out and died for those words, while he sat back and drank his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community. Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America, you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fucking pay me.”