Herb Rothschild Jr.: Taking the symptom for the problem

Here are some data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about our opioid epidemic: Since 2000, the rate of deaths from drug overdoses has increased 137 percent, including a 200 percent increase in the rate of ODs involving opioids. The 42,000 opioid deaths in 2016 was the highest number on record. On average, 115 of us die every day from an opioid overdose.
On March 19, President Trump finally addressed the crisis. His main focus: get tough with drug dealers, including using the death penalty. Putting aside his chronic hyperbole, let’s acknowledge that POTUS shares the prevailing take on our drug problems — namely, they are caused by the drugs, and so we must criminalize the drugs. I’ve written before on the demonstrable folly of this approach, and will again.
The remedies most often proposed for death by drugs and death by guns — the two deadliest epidemics now raging in our country — are the same: control the instruments of death and provide mental health services to those most at risk. Reasonable regulations do prevent gun homicides, but they can’t do much to prevent gun suicides, which represent two-thirds of the fatalities. Like drugs, there are just too many guns around. Further, law enforcement and mental health services are largely beside the point.
The cause of most adult suicides, whether by firearms or opioids, is despair. And when suicides are rampant, the despair cannot simply be personal. These two epidemics are symptoms of a social order in decay.
Endemic poverty isn’t the primary cause, although the problem seems more acute in places like Huntingdon, West Virginia, where children are born addicted to drugs at 10 times the national rate. If poverty alone drove people to despair, one-third of the current world population would be killing itself, and almost everyone in earlier times would have. People can be reasonably content if they don’t lack essentials for themselves and their families — food, shelter, health care and education — and if they feel valued. But if they believe their poverty marks them as failures, that’s a different matter. And that’s just what our culture tells them.
Charles Hugh Smith, in “A Radically Beneficial World,” speaks of the “social defeat” that our socio-economic culture induces. He defines it as “the surrender of autonomy, fear of declining social status, and a permanent state of insecurity.” And the only remedy for widespread social defeat is to create a “social order that offers a variety of positive social roles and mechanisms for restoring autonomy to all its participants.”
Smith maintains that, because of globalization and the increasing displacement of workers by digitally controlled automated processes, under our current structures social defeat can only spread. In future columns I’ll share more of Smith’s analysis and proposals, but now I’ll just say that I too believe we must remake our culture — its prevailing values and its dominant forms of production and control. Two of my recent columns, about rejecting industrialized agriculture and recapturing local production and consumption, indicated what I have in mind.
Trump cannot deliver on his promises to the “left behind.” Indeed, no national policies can, although a universally required, mostly non-military national service and a massive infrastructure program (a mere 20 percent of the military budget would suffice) would create meaningful work, human connection and self-worth for some of us. But to avoid widespread personal despair and environmental disaster, we must pursue a very different American Dream.
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.

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