I lost a cousin this week. He was 57, the youngest of four sons of my mother’s late older brother. He was the typical late-boomer East Tennessee rowdy boy of the 70s, of the sort I knew well knocking about town growing up in the exurban South. He also didn’t have a particularly easy run of things – the usual constellation of drinking, arrests, car crashes, divorces, gambling, kid or two out of wedlock. My mother mentioned more than once how he’d had a tough life, and how she was trying to help where she could, but sadly, her various reclamation efforts have not exactly borne fruit over the years.
Which seems harsh. Probably is, really. But maybe I finally understand how some of my “I can fix this” DNA comes from that side too. Then again, it’s also easy to pull on the JD Vance school of victim-blaming pathology and say “buy the ticket, take the ride” – which is a family motto, if not that part of the family. But that doesn’t satisfy things either. Because there are plenty of people who are only as successful as their options everywhere from East Tennessee to the California coast and everywhere in between.
I don’t know the details of how he died. One of his brothers hanged himself eleven years ago. 57 is an age that could be most anything, but things being how they are in 2022, my first thought is obviously this damned ongoing pandemic. The easy assumption is that things being how they are, he was almost certainly not vaccinated, and Omicron did what it does. Or it could have been a car crash, or a heart attack, or whatever. There are a lot of ways to die in America in the 21st century. And that sort of strikes at the point of my thinking. We have not, by and large, done very much to reduce the number of ways to die – nor the odds.
The problem is, so many of the things that would reduce the likelihood of premature dying don’t exist in America in the 21st century. We could have lowered the number of firearm deaths – suicides, mass shootings, accidents – if we took mental health seriously and made firearms harder to get than real Sudafed. We could have prevented literally hundreds of thousands of deaths by taking public health measures seriously and uniformly embracing masks and distancing nationwide for six lousy weeks in March 2020. We could have a measure of universal healthcare, or some level of basic income, or underwrite college to the point that six figures of debt are not an entry level requirement for the job market, all of which would lead to an improvement in stress reduction and life expectancy. There are a lot of things that could have made life easier for a working class man in Anderson County in the last forty years.
But at some level, there is an ideology that has slowly permeated most of our American society in those forty years, and it boils down to one very simple idea: the notion that you don’t have to know or care that there are other people. Some people dress it up as “libertarian” and call it the triumph of rugged individualism. Others wrap it in language of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. A handful of people disappear up their own ass into Ayn Rand and proclaim that selfishness is the highest moral virtue. But at the end of the day, it boils down to the simple proposition that what we owe to one another is absolutely nothing. And once we don’t have to consider anyone else, then we can have all the assault rifles and 20-round pistol clips we want and who cares how they’re stored, because freedom. We don’t have to care when nine cops team up to shoot one man on a freeway, because who cares if the cops killed someone else? We can make up whatever we want and broadcast it over cable as news, no matter how logically inconsistent or factually disprovable, and live by it as literal gospel even when it conflicts with the actual Gospel.
And it’s turned into a whole ideology with tentacles in every aspect of world and life. It’s the common thread underlying the financial fraud of crypto and NFTs, the manosphere and its whole ecosystem of podcasts and chat boards, the rejection of the international order by China and Russia and the Trumpian United States, the doctrine that the same sort of injection that was a rite of passage for polio and an annual afterthought with flu is now some sort of unspeakable imposition – and best of all, the notion that the way to deal with a global pandemic is to ignore it, and doing anything to prevent spreading or perpetuating it is an act of submission and fecklessness. Because you should be able to do whatever you want, all the time, with no regard for the consequences, because consequences are for other people.
The problem with this worldview is that it has been leveraged against most of the people who have adopted it. It’s a great ideology for those that have got, but for those who ain’t, it offers you equal freedom to starve under the bridge to the financial benefit of them that’s got. You can’t afford to look at the bad knee that could really stand to be scoped, or go to rehab for the oxy you were overprescribed for bad cramps, or send your kid to the good school they got into. But you can engage in all the performative defiance you like. Performative defiance is free, and easy, and you can sing its praises to the masses who refuse Moderna and Pfizer while you require it for your employees, and if they die of performative defiance, well, you just told them to march on the Capitol and take their country back, you didn’t make them do it.
In 1995, I had the privilege of sitting in a lecture hall at Vanderbilt and listening to Benjamin Barber elucidate the principles behind what would become Jihad vs McWorld, where he pointed out that neither retreat into nationalism and/or religious zealotry nor the deracinated sterility of neoliberal late capitalism lend themselves to a healthy viable democratic society. The solution, as he sees it, involves civic engagement – which is the exact diametrical opposite of the ideology of the 21st century. I thought at the time that the solution would be broadly communitarian, with the Internet as the connective tissue for people forming common bonds. More fool me. I expected that the USENET ethos against spam and misuse would serve as an underpinning value system for a modern social contract. More fool me. I thought having embedded newsgroups as part of the newspaper would be as essential as live coverage on the spot. (This whole “more fool me” thing is making me question how bright I really was in the 1990s.) But it turns out that free trade plus low taxes plus small government sends the money in one direction, to the cost of most. And rather than unwind that process, those who it cost the most would rather find someone to loathe that makes them feel superior, or defy reason and logic for the sake of no man living telling them what to do.
I don’t know what killed Matthew. But at the bottom of the pile, I guarantee you I know what fed it and enabled it to kill him. It didn’t have to be like that. It doesn’t have to be like that. But it starts with asking what are you prepared to do, and what you are prepared to do for others, and accepting that there is in fact something we owe to one another, whatever framework you may couch it in.
Of, as I say, which.