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First take/two views

Two exceptional reads to recommend today, both providing some explanation and understanding of one of the opposing sides of the great divides in American culture and politics.

One is personal, or from a personal angle, and ought to be read by anyone on the other side of the fence – though it likely won’t be, since it would be too disturbing. On the surface, it was a first-person story about a woman, a mother of two, who recently decided to have an abortion. Her reasons why, and her description of life on the front lines of the culture war, make for some raw reading.

Previously she had written a piece on line, which got some attention, “about what it was like to be exhausted and hopeless and be told that you simply needed to work harder or give up more. It was about my life, and the lives of millions of others.” It generated violent reaction including plenty of threats against her – and her children.

She wrote about “the worry that I, and millions of women across America, have felt is the only rational response to life in a country where it’s perfectly legal to scream epithets like a banshee inches from a woman’s face simply because she wanted another Depo shot. We all have to think about that, about the fact that any one of those people might be homicidally misinformed, that one of them might decide that today is the day to martyr themselves or us.”

The other article helps make some sense of where some of that anger and violence is coming from by looking at a symptom of the problem from a non-political angle: From that of health.

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo writes about a study that’s been out for a few weeks – you may have have briefly seen a headline about it – the finding of an unusually high death rate, since the late 1990s, of middle-aged and non-college educated non-Hispanic white people in America. The death rate in the last 15-plus years in other sectors in the American population (and in that sector in other countries) has been gradually falling, but among white middle-aged non-college people, men and women, it has spiked upwards sharply, a great contrast to everyone else. One more thing: The specific cause of death driving that spike is this: “drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide and chronic liver disease. In other words, either literal suicide or the slow motion suicide of chronic substance abuse.”

Why is this happening? Marshall starts by noting “On the one hand, the correlation with lower education levels points us to a phenomenon we’ve known about for years: the declining economic and life prospects of less educated, less affluent Americans who are taking the brunt of the great divergence between the ten percent or so of the population that is getting ahead in today’s economy and everyone else who is just struggling to hold their own or falling behind.”

But why are other ethnic groups – Hispanic, black, others – not spiking upward as well? Marshall suggests “the stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.”

Marshall couches this in terms of theorizing, not a finally established conclusion. But I’d be surprised if he’s not at least mostly right: It makes so much sense of why so much destructive, and self-destructive, activity is happening in America.

The plus side of the picture may be that younger cohorts seem not to be reacting this way – they may have grown up with a different social view and set of expectations. That might mean we will eventually grow our way out of this. But it may take a long time. – rs (photo/Dave Pape)

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