Adonis Diaries

Across the borders with Canada: Rising deaths among white middle-aged Americans

Posted on: January 24, 2016

Across the borders with Canada: Rising deaths among white middle-aged Americans

‘The American dream is dead but I’m going to make it stronger!’? Promises of the Presidential candidates

The border

You feel your whiteness properly at the American border. Most of the time being white is an absence of problems. The police don’t bother you so you don’t notice the police not bothering you. You get the job so you don’t notice not getting it. Your children are not confused with criminals. I live in downtown Toronto, in one of the most liberal neighborhoods in one of the most open cities in the world, where multiculturalism is the dominant civic value and the inert virtue of tolerance is the most prominent inheritance of the British empire, so if you squint you can pretend the ancient categories are dissipating into a haze of enlightenment and intermarriage.

Not at the border.

My son’s Guyanese-Canadian teacher and the Muslim Milton scholar I went to high school with and the Sikh writer I squabble about Harold Innis with and my Ishmaeli accountant, we can all be good little Torontonians of the middle class, deflecting the differences we have been trained to respect. But in a car in the carbon monoxide-infused queue waiting to enter Detroit, their beings diverge drastically from mine.

I am white. They are not. They are vulnerable. I am not.

Here’s the thing: I like the guards at the American border. They’re always friendly with me, decent, even enjoyable company. At the booth in between the never-was of Windsor and the has-been of Detroit, the officer I happened to draw had a gruff belly and the mysterious air of intentional inscrutability, like a troll under a bridge in a fairytale.

“Where are you headed?” he asked.

“Burlington, Iowa.”

“Why would anyone ever choose to go to Burlington, Iowa?” he asked philosophically.

“I’m going to see Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.” Then, because it did seem to require an explanation: “They’re giving rallies within a couple of days of each other.”

“Why would anyone ever choose to go see Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders?”

I didn’t argue, because it was the border, but I could have said that the police chief of Birmingham estimated that 30,000 people showed up in Alabama to see Donald Trump in August and that in Dallas, he had filled the American Airlines Center, and that his counterpart, Bernie Sanders, has generated equally unprecedented numbers – vastly more than Barack Obama drew at comparable moments in the 2008 campaign.

“I’m curious,” I said instead.

At this point he asked me to roll down my window. But it was all fine. Like I said, I’m white.

As I drove through the outskirts of the ruins of Detroit, across the I-94, one of the ugliest highways in the United States, the old familiar lightness fluttered to my heart. I love America. America is not my mother. Canada is my mother. But America is an unbelievably gorgeous, surprisingly sweet rich lady who lives next door and appears to be falling apart. I cannot help myself from loving it.

For people who love to dwell in contradictions, the US is the greatest country in the world: the land of the free built on slavery, the country of law and order where everyone is entitled to a gun, a place of unimpeded progress where they cling to backwardness out of sheer stubbornness. And into this glorious morass, a new contradiction has recently announced itself: the white people, the privileged Americans, the ones who had the least to fear from the powers that be, the ones with the surest paths to brighter futures, the ones who are by every metric one of the most fortunate groups in the history of the world, were starting to die off in shocking numbers.

The Case and Deaton report, Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century, describes an increased death rate for middle-aged American whites “comparable to lives lost in the US Aids epidemic”. This spike in mortality is unique to white Americans – not to be found among other ethnic groups in the United States or any other white population in the developed world, a mysterious plague of despair.

In one way, it was easy to account for all this white American death – “drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis”, according to the report. It was not so easy to account for the accounting. Why were middle-aged white Americans drinking and drugging and shooting themselves to death? The explanations on offer were pre-prepared, fully plugged into confirmation bias: it was the economy or it was demography or it was godlessness or it was religion or it was the breakdown of the family or it was the persistence of antique values or it was the lack of social programs or it was the dependence on social programs.

Case and Deaton call it “an epidemic of pain”. Fine. What does that mean?

On the I-94, you do find yourself asking: what the fuck is wrong with these people? I mean, aside from the rapid decline of the middle class obviously. And the rise of precarious work and the fact that the basic way of life requires so much sedation that nearly a quarter of all Americans are on psychiatric drugs, and somewhere between 26.4 and 36 million Americans abuse opioids every day. Oh yes, and the mass shootings. There was more than one mass shooting a day. And the white terrorists targeting black churches again. And the regularly released videos showing the police assassinating black people. And the police in question never being indicted, let alone being sent to jail.

And you know what Americans were worried about while all this shit was raining down on them? While all this insanity was wounding their beloved country? You know what their number one worry was, according to poll after poll after poll?

Muslims. Muslims, if you can believe it.

‘The American dream is dead but I’m going to make it stronger!’

My body is white and it is male. It is six foot tall and weighs 190lb. It is 39 years old and it has had to start running. It has had to start counting calories. There is a tingle in the joint of my right thigh, so I try not to think about my body. The tingling comes and goes. I know my body is going to kill me.

“A man who fears suffering already suffer what he fears,” as Montaigne said. That’s one of the reasons why men die so much younger than women – six years younger on average in America. Ninety-two percent of men say they wait at least a few days to see if they feel better before they go to a doctor, but I know what they mean by a few days. They mean a few more days than makes sense. It is hard to have a male and white body and to conceive of its weakness. In the same breath, my body cannot bring itself to believe it is the personification of power, though it evidently is in any rational accountancy of social status. It feels like a mere body. It feels mortal.

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adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

January 2016
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