Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics

Chris Hedges: Diseases of Despair

The opioid crisis, the frequent mass shootings, the rising rates of suicide, especially among middle-aged white males, the morbid obesity, the obsession with gambling, the investment of our emotional and intellectual life in tawdry spectacles and the allure of magical thinking, from the absurd promises of the Christian right to the belief that reality is never an impediment to our desires, are the pathologies of a diseased culture. They have risen from a decayed world where opportunity, which confers status, self-esteem and dignity, has dried up for most Americans. They are expressions of acute desperation and morbidity.

A loss of income causes more than financial distress. It severs, as the sociologist Émile Durkheim pointed out, the vital social bonds that give us meaning. A decline in status and power, an inability to advance, a lack of education and health care and a loss of hope are crippling forms of humiliation. This humiliation fuels loneliness, frustration, anger and feelings of worthlessness. In short, when you are marginalized and rejected by society, life often has little meaning.

“When life is not worth living, everything becomes a pretext for ridding ourselves of it … ,” Durkheim wrote. “There is a collective mood, as there is an individual mood, that inclines nations to sadness. … For individuals are too closely involved in the life of society for it to be sick without their being affected. Its suffering inevitably becomes theirs.”

White men, more easily seduced by the myth of the American dream than people of color who understand how the capitalist system is rigged against them, often suffer feelings of failure and betrayal, in many cases when they are in their middle years. They expect, because of notions of white supremacy and capitalist platitudes about hard work leading to advancement, to be ascendant. They believe in success. When the American dream becomes a nightmare they are vulnerable to psychological collapse. This collapse, more than any political agenda, propelled Donald Trump into power. Trump embodies the decayed soul of America. He, like many of those who support him, has a childish yearning to be as omnipotent as the gods. This impossibility, as the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote, leads to a dark alternative: destroying like the gods. [continue reading]


Copyright 2017 Chris Hedges. First published in TruthDig.

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2 comments on “Chris Hedges: Diseases of Despair

  1. triciaknoll
    September 5, 2017

    I resist the notion that “especially” middle-class white males are subject to this malaise. On a day when ash is falling from sky on Portland, Oregon due to wildfires in the West and DACA is threatened, I think the sadness is much wider and broader than this phrase would suggest.

    Liked by 1 person

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