Letter from Bill Tremblay: a story of white male loneliness and no future, part 3

       On the disturbing quality of American decline now including ascending white death rates – see here and here – Sasha Breger Bush recalls Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War as a model.  The decline of Athens, a slave-owning democracy for “some” as Hegel rightly puts it, has always resonated in later decadence…

“Morning Alan,

Thanks for this great post. I can’t help but think about the imperial decline of Athens related by Thucydides when I read this. Imperial rule for a time creates great hopes and expectations among citizens of the Empire. We seem to be witnessing the dashing of these hopes on a very broad scale. We’re trying to fill a hole–a hole that used to be filled with good jobs, good retirements, good health and some kind of promise at least of freedom and justice–with reality television, high fructose corn syrup and violence. But perhaps I’m just romanticizing the past…
Hope you’re well,
Sasha”
***
    I responded:
“Dear Sasha,
     Thank you for a wonderful letter – the American decline is reminiscent of Thucydides who is the prototype of all stories of imperial decline in Rome, in Britain, and here.  Now the US has also had a big civil rights/anti-racist movement throughout the recent period and anti-war movements so the picture is more mixed than what Thucydides sketches. In the latter, there is the question of whether blind expansion i.e. the Republicans except Rand Paul, is unwise, but not the question of whether Empire itself is wrong which marks deeper anti-war activism.  Still, the fact that many Americans no longer eat food is a shocker…


      There is a hole… 

        Alan”

***

     Bill Tremblay a poet and novelist – see here and here – who has written several posts on why Americans don’t yet sufficiently rise up against this – see here  – profoundly gets at the tragedy of American loneliness and the collapse, for the abandoned/”de-industrialized,” of a future.  The story of his Texas acquaintance who saw much, had no future. “sang in his chains like the sea,” and drank himself to death is resonant (better than a Weberian “ideal-type,” a real story…).   As Angus Deaton says to account for his and Anne Case’s data, those dying young, sometimes killing themselves through alcohol or drugs “have lost the story of their lives.”

***

    Again, I would say, Black Lives Matter! is leading the way in activism, the Keystone XL pipeline was defeated, against the odds, by a long campaign from below, led by  indigenous Canadians and Americans, farmers in Nebraska, and many civil disobedients in Washington – see here – and there is activity from below. Many workers and students are not simply “loyal” to their organization which do corrupt things – consider the hunger strike by Jonathan Butler against rampant, unchecked racism at the University of Missouri  and the subsequent refusal of black football players, with support from the team, to participate until he ends the strike, and the resignation of the University President Tim Wolfe yesterday.  Even in the American military life, there is resistance: consider Vietnam Veterans against the War once upon a time; listen to the voices of Operation Winter Soldier Iraq here; think about the courageous Chelsea Manning…

***

    But the decline of American jobs and the smashing of unions means that a pivot of collective life and action, one emphasized by Marx and many others, is no longer here.  As with Occupy and the vision of Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution, on community gardens in Detroit, we have to find new ways out of isolation.  David Frum who hailed Bush as The Right Man – something one could only do out of loneliness and isolation, not to say insanity – has remarkable empathy for and sadness about the situation of many whites, though, of course, the situation has been much worse historically for blacks, chicanos and native americans.  Nonetheless there is a particular tragedy to the decline of friendship, family, relationship to which globalized, virtual life – the latest avatar of corporations, banks and militarism – tends.

***

    Some things about American decadence are as Thucydides describes:  when reactionaries depict Israeli murderousness and forget Occupation, when the lives of some children are important and many more killed are not (Palestinian Lives Matter! just as Jewish Lives Matter(ed)! in Germany…), when the names are changed in a deteriorated culture but the words still refer and reveal mass murder…

   Some things, the loneliness and despair, the absurd loyalty to “barbed wire mothers,” the feeling of “no agency,” are new.

***

      Spanish fascists were in love with death (their chants sought death).  To die for “one’s generation,” that is, aggressing for the Nazis, in Being and Time and in the life of Martin Heidegger, is seen as a thrill,  an “authentic” death…(for all the philosophical insights, it is hard to beat Heidegger, in his peasant garb, for being a fake).

***

    The distance between loneliness and political monstrousness is thus not far (as we see in the “white” vote for racists; Trump is no Franco as of yet, but candidate Francos are on parade in the American elite…).  Political monstrousness – those who deny or falsify climate change (the executives at Exxon-Mobil, sadly including my student Condi Rice for whom an oil tanker was named until she became Bush’s national security advisor…)

***

    The possibility that we might help others, as individuals and in a movement for a common good – what Bernie represents in the possibility of reaching out to all workers, including ordinary whites or, more likely, in what a more multiracial, anti-racist movement from below might lead to is important both in itself – and as an alternative to the awful thing which waits in the wings…

Alan,

Thanks again for disseminating information of real importance. 
Some items popped up in my head: 1] David Frum was on “Real Time” with Bill Maher when Bill briefly summarized the main conclusion of the Case/Deaton study. David looked sad. He emphasized that in a sense you could say that the middle-aged whites who are dying in unusual numbers are dying of loneliness; 2] there have been recent studies [rats alone v. rats with fellow rats] with new perspectives on addiction, viz. that use of opioids is not addictive in the case of people in hospitals being given let’s say morphine–what leads to an OD death is loneliness, i.e. one’s world narrows down to the drug; 3] psychologically, what happens is that people die of no future. 4] Today’s “Donnesbury” in the “Sunday funnies” is about a character named “Tim ‘Honest Man’ Andrews, a retired oil exec who worked for Exxon/Mobil and who “knew” about climate change and responded by paying for a huge campaign to deny climate change. “What about your grand-children?” Marc, the radio talk-show host, asks. “Oh, I told my children not to have any,” which is a version of no future. I remember seeing I think it was German youth wearing buttons with the word “Zukunft” with a line slashed through it, meaning no future. Loneliness + no future = death. 
What I see is a demoralized white population which has been betrayed by corporations they used to work for, used to identify with, used to get decent paychecks from. The media says it’s the “conservative” politicians’ unfulfilled promise to end abortion or to keep immigrants from taking their jobs or to stop traditional marriage being threatened by gay rights. But that’s not it. It’s the systematic destruction of the American economy in favor of globalism. When they find out how completely the “social contract” has been destroyed they go on believing. The very people who are responsible for their unemployment are the ones they hope will have a change of heart and give them back their jobs. They’re like children with abusive parents on whom they are dependent for their very lives. No matter how badly they’re mistreated they go on; 5] the old psychological study of “the Barbed-Wire Mother” with baby monkeys clutching razor-wire doll figures. 
I think of Mazlow’s “Pyramid of Needs.” And of Erickson’s “Developmental Model.” People are dying because of their loyalty to an economic system that abuses them. If there were no abuse–and you can go back to Marx on this–there would be no profit. The idea is that people freely chose to be abused for what they consider to be an off-setting compensatory wage. That is “the free market.” But they pay another price. Here is a portrait of a guy I knew who was vaguely “conservative” but really was just a jumble of attitudes he picked up from his oil-driller father:

The only Texan I ever knew to any extent was from Brownsville. He was a mixture like anyone else. He was a Baptist with a smile on his face, especially when he had some good bourbon. He said, “I don’t even know where Washington, DC is.” It was a joke. Sort of. He didn’t hunt but he had a hunting rifle w/scope and a .357 because he thought it was bad-ass. He liked Mexicans, especially ones he bonded with in football. 

A friend of his came up from Lubbock and told us they had decided to be a dry town. “The only problem is now there’s traffic jams from everybody racing to the city limits where the liquor stores and road houses are.” I could say I was “rational” when I asked the guy, “Why would people do something stupid like that to themselves?” My friend’s answer was: “Don’t you know things are always sweeter with a touch of sin?” 

What else could I conclude than it was a culture thing? “People don’t change,” he said all the time. My experience told me that wasn’t true–people change incessantly, sometimes in hard-to-see ways. He was a tragic sentimentalist who put on a show of being a hale-and-hearty optimist and then would say, “What you see is what you get.” Not. He had a bitterly funny style and southern expressions. If you asked, he’d tell you he was “busier than a one-legged man in a ass-kicking contest.”

He thought politics was despicable and totally built on lies, but he understood very well that everyone is selling a version of themselves. It’s called “having a personality.” He just wanted to be let alone to live his life as he saw fit–i.e. as a never-ending party. He wanted to make life simple but that meant people had to shed their complexity so he could maintain that illusion. [Isn’t that what Donald Trump is doing? Playing on that cherished myth: that if you have the guts you can like Wyatt Earp pick up a gun and kill the Clantons?] Finally, he lived in a bar with a bunch of guys whose morality was never to question that they were drinking themselves to death. I’m amazed he lasted as long as he did. 

To me he was like certain people you know about–like William S. Burroughs or Hunter Thompson, people who are so right-wing they are left. I think the meeting point is liberty and a disgust with mealy-mouthed bureaucrats who hide behind the apparatus. One of his main philosophies was, “Never complain. People who complain are disgusting whiners because really there’s no such thing as a legitimate complaint. If you don’t like your job, quit and get another one.” But he was lying to himself about that. 

It wasn’t that I admired this guy but was astonished that I had met an avatar of a philosophy I knew about but rarely bore witness to outside of fiction. He was alone and dying and as in Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill” he “sang in his chains like the sea.” Another 6] key here is what the post-modernists call “agency.” But what if you have no agency? The winners in the big game of Monopoly take your agency along with your “house on Boardwalk.” You are reduced to nothing but impotent rage. But you can’t complain. So you take your excruciating impotence which strips you of your personhood at a time when the Supreme Court has endowed corporations with “personhood” and you turn it on yourself because you have no future, no nothing. Another of your “words to live by” is, “If you tell your misery you are only spreading it and bringing misery to others, which is a big big sin which if you have any guts you won’t commit.” Call loneliness, isolation, alienation–whatever you will–eventually it’s going to kill you because you’re in a hole with no arms or legs to climb out. This is what life is like in the Empire when you’re an old soldier and sit in a tavern drinking wine and cursing everyone who never fought in Gaul. Only it’s just a guy in Texas whose job was outsourced to China. Rather die than complain. Loneliness + no future + no agency = suicide = murder. It tears at your sense of self, never mind ego. 

This is perfect for the Empire. It’s so huge and daunting people who might otherwise be a problem eliminate themselves. No one left to challenge their power. 

So, all that remains is the possibility that the Empire will commit one act–might even be seemingly inconsequential–that would trigger the revival of the human spirit.[!] Of course it happens every day inside individuals. Can we remember what we were like when we still had the capacity to dream?  

Bill”

bill tremblay


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