A deficit of hope
Violence, homelessness, suicides, drug addiction - it’s all tied together
If you’re paying any attention at all to the news of the day, you’re confronted by a seemingly endless string of crises facing our country: Premeditated mass shootings. A rising tide of chronic homelessness in our largest cities. Countless killings at the hands of criminal gangs. Drug addicts dying of overdoses on the streets in record numbers. Random stabbing and beatings, vehicles being driven into crowds, people being pushed onto subway tracks in front of approaching trains.
The national media and our elected officials are, for the most part, approaching theses as a series of unrelated crises.
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But I wonder if all this violent chaos isn’t coming from the same place.
What got me to thinking about that possibility was reading about the ongoing spike in suicides - particularly among young men.
Because that’s the common thread to all of the above issues: They disproportionately involve young men, both as perpetrators and victims.
Nearly all intentional, pre-planned shootings are carried out by young men. So, too, are the more instantaneous, spur-of-the-moment shootings that take so many lives in our big cities each weekend, as well as the stabbings, beatings and other violence.
The homeless? Seventy percent are men.
Fatal drug overdoses? Men are far more likely than women to suffer a fatal drug overdose, and the gap is widening year to year.
And men are three times more likely to take their own lives than are women - with young men under the age of 24 four times as likely as women in the same age group.
While males are the clear leaders in most negative statistics, they lag behind girls and women in most opportunity metrics: Females now make up 60 percent of university and college admissions.
Women are also more likely to graduate from college - with 50 percent of female freshmen ultimately earning their degree, compared to just 40 percent of male freshmen.
Women also earn more than half of all graduate degrees - with men edging women only in engineering, math and business degrees.
Of course, it starts far earlier than that: boys are much more likely than girls to be suspended or expelled from school, starting in elementary school.
While juvenile arrests have dropped significantly over the past 40 years, boys are still far more likely than girls to be arrested before the age of 18.
Coming back to the orchestrated mass shootings, we are told that these young men are now under the sway of some “rage” that is driving them to horrific acts of violence. We hear a lot about toxic masculinity, how our own sons are now the single largest threat to our domestic tranquility.
That we have a male problem in our society.
Generally unasked is the question of what drives this rage.
Rage doesn’t just rise out of nothing.
It is born of despair. It breeds in a loss of hope, from a belief - nay, a conviction - that you have no chance of having a good or rewarding life. That this is it - as good as it is going to get. That you have nothing better to live for.
I don’t believe that our young men are evil. I’ve raised two of them (alongside their three sisters), and worked with hundreds more in my decades of volunteering as a coach at Boys & Girls Clubs, Little League and the YMCA, as well as an adult leader in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.
But I also know our boys aren’t stupid.
They are quite aware of the fact that they’re less likely to be accepted into college. And yet, how many of our school districts emphasize college preparedness above all else? The public elementary school that my three youngest attended had a motto that “Every student goes to college” - when clearly that will not be the case.
What message did that send to those who either knew they couldn’t go to college, or had no desire to go to college?
The high school in our neighborhood only allows college recruiters on campus for career day - no skilled trade unions, no military recruiters.
So we’re simultaneously telling kids that college is the only acceptable goal, and offering no real alternatives even though we know that fewer than half of them will get into college.
Our sons also see that it is boys who are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, to be arrested. The know that it is the boys in their classes who are more likely to fall behind, to be unable to read at grade level.
Maybe our society does have a young male problem: Maybe we are letting them down.
The national media seems to think that all of this is a political problem, one that can be fixed by passing a few laws, filing a few lawsuits.
But in looking at what is going on, I do not believe it is a problem with a solely political solution.
I think instead it is the manifestation of a cultural problem.
It is entirely possible that we have, with the very best of intentions in trying to create a world of truly equal opportunity for our daughters, inadvertently led many young men to feel like outcasts, strangers in their own land.
If we look ahead - not exactly something we do in this country right now - it seems at least somewhat likely that in 10 years’ time we will be talking about a lost generation of boys.
But instead of taking that long look, and trying to plan now for what’s down the road, we’re too busy looking to the past and blaming today’s boys and young men for injustices of the past.
We’re more fixated on the fact that men still outnumber women on corporate boards of directors - when if we look at current university admission and graduation rates, that is very unlikely to be the case in 20 years’ time. We seem more fixated on the existing wage gap between that favors older men to the point of willfully ignoring the growing opportunity gap that is increasingly leaving young men behind.
The reality is that we are very likely setting up two or three generations of males to fail before we’re ready to shift gears, move beyond blame, and prepare all our young people for a successful adulthood.
I don’t have any pat answers to any of the above questions. There are plenty of talking heads and writers who do think they have the answers, of course, and so if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll find no shortage.
Perhaps, though, one place to begin looking for those answers is in the erosion of our unofficial safety nets.
While the United States has from our beginnings differentiated itself from other societies by crafting a Constitution that not only vested ultimate decision making to the people but also limited the power of the government, that was always coupled with a culture of grass-roots, self-organized community service: Church-run food banks, union-run insurance plans, religious hospitals. And local, community charitable groups, from service leagues to youth enrichment programs - all run by adult volunteers who gave of their precious time after work on evenings and weekends.
We didn’t need government solutions to every problem because we were one of the most self-organizing of peoples in history. The old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movies with their, “Hey kids - let’s start a club” motifs resonated with American viewers because that’s how Americans tackled community problems in villages, towns and cities in every state.
Today, we see a withering of that spirit, with a national media that is in many ways hostile to private sector service organizations. Many national media figures seem to believe that only government is suited for improving the lives of the less fortunate - and we have seen over the last 30 years an accompanying shrinking of Rotary and Kiwanis, Elks and Moose, Little League and Campfire. Churches, too, are in the most serious decline since the early 1800s.
The one huge advantage that private organizations have over government-run programs is that every volunteer has leather in the game: You’re involved personally. When the government runs the programs, it is by necessity far more mercenary: We pay taxes that pay people to run the program.
So today there simply exist fewer youth enrichment programs than existed in my youth: Fewer sports leagues, fewer scout troops, fewer after-school activities to engage kids, get them thinking about their own personal future. Correspondingly, our children each have fewer adult role models in their lives, fewer mentors to take interest in each child’s success.
And of course, even the best-intended government programs can have very unintended consequences: When modern public assistance was initiated in the 1960s, eligibility was conditioned upon there being no adult male in the household - the thought being that a man should find work and take care of his family. And so official U.S. government policy was unconsciously to bribe men to leave their families by offering to provide food and housing to the wife and children once the dad was gone. If a man couldn’t find work, he would move out - it was his only way of providing.
The results were sadly predictable: Too many absent fathers in low-income neighborhoods, too many boys growing up without a dad to emulate.
While the pre-planned mass killings are the most horrifying of the current wave of destruction, far more costly in the number of lives lost is the tsunami of accidental drug overdoses.
More than 100,000 Americans died of a drug overdose last year. As a friend who works in a support role for a local government agency put it recently, “It’s awful but they are so frequent, when I review OD records I don’t even feel anything anymore. It’s just another record.”
And this is one of the most compassionate, kind people I know. She’s just been so overwhelmed that she’s now numb.
Drug overdoses disproportionately affect the homeless - these two issues, along with untreated mental illness, are intrinsically intertwined. We have tried to disentangle them, with federal policy now favoring programs that offer permanent housing with no requirement for sobriety - even though study after study shows this only enables the destructive behavior.
But the same sense of despair that drives a young man to walk onto a school campus with the intention of shooting as many people as possible is also behind the slide into drug abuse - a slide that leads more than 100,000 people a year, mostly men, to die alone and anonymously on the streets.
It is likely that many of the mass shootings are suicide by cop. You don’t walk onto a campus and start shooting children thinking you can go back to your old life.
By the time you walk onto that campus, into that church, you’ve already accepted the fact that you have no life. You’ve bought the lie that you have no hope.
Far too many young men are so totally bereft of hope that they believe they have no future. That things will not, cannot, get better.
Despair, not rage, is what is driving violence by young men.
Maybe trying to figure out exactly why so many boys and young men have given up on life, on themselves - and, frankly, on us, the adults entrusted to protect and prepare them - might lead us to a path forward that will not only prevent the awful violence, but help craft a culture where hopelessness is not so endemic, where all young people see a fruitful, purposeful future in which they can be productive, respected members of society.
“Mississippi Son” by Charlie Musselwhite
Blues singer and harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite has been on the scene since the 1960s, playing on Tracy Nelson’s 1965 debut, “Deep Are the Roots,” then issuing his own debut, “Stand Back!”, two years later (as Charley Musselwhite).
Like many famous musicians, Musselwhite can play instruments beyond the one he’s best known for. And so, since at least 1994's “In My Time” he’s been playing guitar on some of his records as well - something he continues on “Mississippi Son.”
His latest finds his voice a bit rough around the edges, but his new songs are among the best he’s yet written - and his acoustic guitar accompaniment is startling in its raw intimacy. Plus in his limited vocal range he’s found a way to infuse even more expressiveness. It seems counter-intuitive, but listening is believing.
The most surprising song here is his blues reinterpretation of the Stanley Brothers’ bluegrass classic “Rank Strangers” (composed by Albert Brumley). Musselwhite gives it a new guitar intro - but his slow, plaintive vocal (without the usual background harmonies found in most bluegrass arrangements) makes it even more evocative than most other recordings of this tune.
He also covers Guy Clark’s “The Dark,” and where the late alt-country legend always had a half-spoken vocal delivery, Musselwhite takes it to a full narration, accompanied only by his strumming on acoustic guitar. The combination lends the song the feel of a campfire tale.
There are covers here also of blues classics by John Lee Hooker, Yank Rachell and Charley Patton - but I think the two most striking songs are originals by Musselwhite. “In Your Darkest Hour” is anchored by a gorgeous melody, as well as utterly poetic lyrics:
In your lonely room
In your darkest hour
Think of me darling
You’re my desire
In your lonely room
In your darkest hour
Honey call on me
He plays it solo - just his voice and acoustic guitar, and nothing more is needed.
“Blues Up the River” is his tribute to the Mississippi. Like “In Your Darkest Hour,” it features a lovely, eminently hummable melody. Double-tracking himself in the studio on harp and electric guitar, along with his backing band of bassist Barry Bays and drummer Ricky “Quicksand” Martin, this is the most similar to his vintage Chicago-style recordings.
In this, his 79th year on earth, Musselwhite is still turning out some of his best music yet. It’s enough to make one wonder what comes next.
“Crusade in Europe“ by Dwight Eisenhower
Another great find from Helen’s Book Mark in Escondido, this 1948 memoir by the overall Allied commander in Europe is a fascinating look back at the European campaign in World War II written while the war’s memory remained fresh. Ike’s recollections of Patton and Bradley, as well as their British counterparts, are insightful.
What is more interesting - and I’m only about a quarter of the way through it - are his memories of the steep learning curve the Americans had to undergo during their first combat engagements in North Africa. Successful peacetime military officers did not always translate to combat effectiveness, and many careers were ended by having to relieve someone of duty when they were simply ill-suited to wartime leadership.
While Ike is remembered as a rear echelon theater commander who never commanded troops in combat, by his own recollections he did travel to the front lines in North Africa to see for himself what his subordinates were facing - and he came under enemy fire more than once.
But his overall tone is that of a manager - which, in coordinating U.S., British and French response to the Axis, is exactly what was needed.
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