Suffering in Poor White Working Families

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Photo by Artem Labunsky on Unsplash

I got the phone call. “Jay-eeff,” Shirley drawled, “Ben’s in the hospital. It’s alcohol. He’s been drinking—a lot.” In retrospect, I should have expected this news. You see, alcoholism and addiction have been the centrifugal and centripetal forces shaping my life along with my immediate and extended family. Six members of my immediate family have fallen victim to this horrifying disease. Now, it was my “extended” family’s turn. Ben, my best friend from high school, along with his mom, Shirley, and sister were my second family. Products of divorced, working-class households, Ben and I stuck together through high school like “white on rice,” as they say in the Ozarks. Bonded by common distress borne from our families’ turmoil borne from divorce, addiction, and economic hardship, we gravitated toward the pathologies, alcohol, drugs, addiction, and teen fatherhood, that afflicted so many in the white working-class of the Ozarks. 

Dropping out of high school together, I eventually matriculated to college while Ben joined the Army. Through the years, we had remained close, or so I thought. Shirley’s phone call rattled me. I racked my brain looking for missed signs of addiction. I know the markers of an addict. I’ve been to the “deaths of despair” funerals. I’ve been to Al-Anon. Heck, I’ve driven my dad to rehab while he chugged a bottle of Listerine. But for whatever reason, I didn’t see it coming with Ben. Sure, he would sometimes drink and rage dial. And yes, he had a past bout with cocaine. But I have a Ph.D. I write books. I ran out of pages for country stamps in my last passport, for goodness sakes. I supposedly know things. But I didn’t see the most foreshadowed and predictable of all outcomes—Ben, like so many family members before, is dying of late-stage alcoholism. 

Ben’s prognosis is horrific, bordering upon nightmarish. Suffering from “wet brain” and poly-neuropathy, he struggles to both think and walk. Hospitalized for weeks in this state, doctors won’t hazard much of a diagnosis. Similar to predicting an Ozarks summer thunderstorm, they surmise “maybe he will recover, maybe he won’t.” Debilitated and compromised he calls his mom at all hours to rant and rave about his dry-drunk resentments. His mother now shuts her phone to avoid her son’s incessant, harassing late-night calls. If you have never dealt with a chronic alcoholic, you can’t judge; you just don’t understand. Alcoholics are the biggest assholes on the planet. Being on the other end of their call is Dante’s forgotten 10th circle of hell. Angry paranoiacs, will cuss and curse you for as long as you will stay on the other end of the line. If one of the Apostles had been an addict, Jesus would have amended the Beatitudes: Blessed are the tough lovers for they shall hang up and not receive obsessive, sadistic phone calls at ludicrous times of the night.

But Ben’s predicament is much more than a laconic anecdote emphasizing the moral virtues of tough love. My family and Ben are not only fatalities of alcoholism, they are victims of what academics term “deaths of despair.” You see, alone on the entire planet, working-class white Americans are experiencing a sharp decline in life expectancy. Reversing a trend in which the average American saw life expectancies leap from 49 in 1900 to 77 in 2000, 21st-century working-class whites have witnessed a deep plunge in their life expectancies since the turn of the millennium. 

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In 2016, demographers and public health experts first reported this cohort’s decline in lifespan. Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential win with the backing of white working-class voters catalyzed even greater attention to this morbid phenomenon and demographic. In the years since scads of journalistic and academic work has been devoted to understanding this terrible reality. In 2020, Princeton economists, Anne Case and Angus Deacon published their definitive work on this phenomenon, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. In their award-winning book, the duo recount how working-class white Americans "are drinking themselves to death, or poisoning themselves with drugs, or shooting or hanging themselves" at such historic rates that their collective life duration has plummeted.

After returning to finish my high school degree, I bumbled into college. Ben, meanwhile, got a girl pregnant and had two children before he was 20. Low-wage factory work and the headaches from the lead-based paint they used pushed him into the military. Whip-smart but lacking a high school degree, Ben enlisted only because recruiters forged a high school equivalency degree from a community college in another state. Due to his smarts, he was deployed stateside where he trained recruits to fly and fix Chinook helicopters. Avoiding Afghanistan and Iraq, I had thought the military had saved him. When Ben entered basic training, I began my own trial. Before university, I had never written a research paper, taken algebra, or studied a foreign language. In the Ozarks, a high school degree can be rewarded without learning any requisite academic skills. Faced with the specter of low-wage, meaningless jobs, I studied as if my life depended on it. Work habits derived from fear and desperation led to advanced degrees and professional success. Today, I’m a political historian. I read, think, and write about contemporary politics and public affairs. In 2018, I even wrote a conference paper that dealt tangentially with the “deaths of despair” topic. Yet, somehow, it took the revelation of Ben’s late-stage alcoholism for me to connect the dots. A dive into his family history reveals the classic “deaths of despair” narrative. Both sides of his family hail from rural northwest Mississippi. Home to Elvis and Faulkner, they shared much with the latter’s humble roots and nothing, save the racism, with the former. Hardscrabble, they left the farm for a better life in Memphis and postwar prosperity. Both sets of grandparents lived the American Dream. They worked. They scrimped. They saved. They owned homes. They took paid vacations. Their story was one of upward mobility. But the narrative arc for the sequels, kids and grandkids, was a nightmarish inversion of the original. 

Ben’s maternal grandparents had one child, his mom Shirley, who in turn had two children, Ben, and his sister. His paternal grandparents had two children, his dad, and aunt. The latter had three kids, which gave the paternal grandparents five grandchildren. In 1971, the year the youngest grandchild was born, Ben, there were nine of them, counting kids and grandkids. Forty-nine years later, in 2021, there are only three who have not succumbed to death or near-death (in Ben’s case) of despair. His mom, eldest first cousin, and sister are the sole survivors. In 1981, long before it was fashionable, he attended his uncle’s “death of despair” funeral; he had drank himself to death at the ripe age of 40. In 2005, his dad, after years of yeoman labor towards that goal, finally drank himself to death. In 2016, Ben’s youngest first cousin followed suit; one year later that cousin’s mom, Ben’s aunt, join him. In 2019, that cousin’s older brother succumbed to the drink. Two years later, it is Ben’s turn. The hits just keep coming. 

Academics can measure how and when folks die. But accounting for why remains mysterious. Case and Deacon surmise, "Something is making life worse, especially for less-educated whites." The authors, as left-leaning academics are wont to do, identify economic causes as the primary root factor. Deindustrialization and the collapse of well-paying manufacturing jobs, in their estimation, have eroded the self-respect and dignity of working-class life. Without good jobs, communities fray, marriages suffer, and social bonds collapse. Broken and isolated, working-class whites turn to alcohol and drugs to numb their pain. Unlike their black and brown brethren who sadly expect this lot in life, working-class whites had imagined their parent’s postwar lives would be their destiny. Disillusioned by their declining prospects and disintegrating social fabric, they turn to drugs and alcohol. An epidemic of early death is the result of self-medicating their existential despair. 

As an academic, and a liberal one at that, I am sympathetic to deindustrialization-as-cause diagnosis. Rampant, brutal economic inequality is a harsh reality of current American life. Since 1979, the top 1% have seen their incomes rise by 256% while the bottom 90% have seen just a 20% increase. But it is the two-thirds of Americans who lack a college degree, hourly wage earners, who bear the brunt of this inequality. In 2021, their real wages remain what they were in 1964. Harsh economic realities wrought by globalization and weak social safety nets have been made all the worse by, alcoholism, drug addiction, and destructive vices that further fray family systems and lead to “deaths of despair.” 

In one sense, Ben’s nuclear family could serve as a case study for future editions of Case and Deaton’s Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Like so many other working-class whites of his generation, his dad failed to navigate the post-industrial world of his adulthood. Frustrated when his multitude of get-rich schemes fell through, he drank. A raging, violent alcoholic, he physically and emotionally abused his wife until she finally left him for good when Ben was eight years old. Laboring in the post-industrial service industry she never made more than $15,000 in one year. As a result, Ben often lived in cockroach-infested slums. My family story is almost a carbon copy of Ben’s. Thus, I know from life experience that poverty is a soul-sucking, mind-fuck that drains you of hope that life can be anything more than one bitter disappointment after another. To escape a violent stalker of an ex-husband, Ben’s mom moved them from Memphis to the Ozarks where we met and became fast friends. That region, already historically well-acquainted with poverty, has also witnessed a recent spiral in deaths of despair. Since 1995, deaths from drug overdoses have spiraled by 585% in the state’s 79 most rural (and largely white working-class) counties. In the same time period and counties, deaths from binge drinking have leaped by 763-percent while suicides have jumped by 30-percent. This is not just a Missouri phenomenon. Those indices are repeated throughout much of rural and small-town, working-class white America. Three hundred miles to the south in small-town Tennessee, Ben’s aunt and her three kids endured a similar hell; she divorced her alcoholic husband and fell into the post-industrial, low-wage trap. Unlike Ben’s mom, she turned to drugs and she along with two of her three kids have died deaths of despair. Chroniclers of this deindustrialized hellscape of working-class pathologies, Case and Deaton would scarcely be surprised by their fate.

As economists, it makes sense that Case and Deaton would look to material, bread-and-butter factors. Deindustrialization surely helps fuel the spiraling catastrophe that are deaths of despair. But as a historian, I have found that pure-and-simple economic causality does not fully explain the crux of any human issue. It helps to explicate problems, but it fails to fully explain what are also mysteries of the heart and soul. Ben’s addiction, his family’s body count, and working-class white America’s “despair” might begin with deindustrialization, but that is not the sole factor. Humans are more than simple input-output machines. Paychecks and living standards matter greatly. But a deeper dive into his family reveals that the deaths of despair phenomenon is not fully explained by deindustrialization. 

Ben’s maternal grandparents help reveal the folly that is monocausal materialist explanations. experience, and those of millions of other postwar working-class whites, were made possible by something more than economic dynamics. To be sure, they were lucky to have come of age in the postwar era. A booming economy and upward wage pressures doubled real incomes for average wage earners in the 1960s alone. His maternal grandparents rose from rural, Southern poverty due to thrift, sobriety (literal and figurative), and decades of perseverance. Alongside prosperity were a set of norms that buttressed this rise. They hailed from a rural, almost pre-industrial world that had yet to be overwhelmed by the marketplace and an overweening capitalist mindset. Buoyed by an optimistic religious faith that rejected crass materialism, they saw life as a struggle toward a higher meaning. Scarcely left-wing, they were, nevertheless, counterculture in their own peculiar rural, agrarian manner. 

Spiritually wealthy and buttressed by an economy friendlier to working-class folk, his grandparents slowly, yet steadily, prospered. His grandfather, who ascended to the august heights of assistant manager at a Memphis dry goods wholesaler, made $33,960 in 2021 dollars at the time of his retirement. He and his wife, a schoolteacher, who made the 2021 equivalent of $53,673 at the time of her retirement in 1979, made collectively $86,000 (in today’s money) at the absolute height of their earning potential. In today’s dollars, they would place them smack dab in the middle of the 2021 median family income, $79,900. Decades of work and thrift landed them, at the height of their earning potential, at the very middle of the middle class. This was no small accomplishment. But their paychecks are not the point. 

They possessed an emotional strength propelled by a sense of their inherent dignity that subsequent generations of white working-class families lack. Contemporary capitalist logic reduces us to our economic contributions. In my hyper-educated, knowledge worker world, we reflexively ask strangers, “What do you do”? Sorting and judging one another by our professions even in relaxed social settings, we reveal how deeply the capitalist mindset has infiltrated our consciousness. Heck, Case, and Deaton’s deindustrialization thesis is yet another example of the market mentality’s omnipresence. Academics, even left-leaning ones, cannot conceive of rationales beyond economics.

By way of contrast, Ben’s maternal and paternal grandparents hailed from a rural, agrarian, and almost pre-industrial world that had yet to be permeated by crass materialism. Racism, sexism, and homophobia saturated this world. But traditional religion, intact families, and civil society offered identities beyond your occupation, paycheck, and bank account. His and my grandparents’ generation was inoculated against the worst messages and enticements of a global capitalist ethos. Their kids and grandkids were not so lucky.

Today, almost every working-class American lacks “prestige” careers. A pervasive marketplace mentality, which they have unconsciously absorbed, tells them they inhabit a low-status rung for which they themselves are to blame. Filled with self-blame, they lack the emotional resources to navigate the rougher economic seas of a post-industrial world. Their deaths of despair emanate from the scars and trauma produced by a ruthless economy that preys upon human weakness for profit.

In an earlier era, alcohol, pre-marital sex, gambling, pornography, illicit drugs, and divorce were circumscribed. To imbibe in them was to also bring social shame. That world was deeply judgmental and damaging, in many respects. But it also offered a form of protective norms that shielded many from a market economy that commodified human life. The 1960s overturned such puritanical prohibitions. And much of the cultural revolutions emanating from that era are to be lauded. But the cultural rebels of that era were not of one mind regarding a set of philosophies to replace what they rebelled against. For every visionary, Abbie Hoffman or Diane Nash were more conventional thinkers and activists. Nash along with John Lewis co-founded the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Community. For SNCC, dismantling segregation and Jim Crow was only a start. They sought a Beloved Community founded upon agape and non-violent resistance. In outward appearances, the student wing of the Civil Rights Movement, along with King, were middle class and “respectable.” Beneath the veneer, they harbored a profoundly radical vision that eschewed Marxism’s rank materialism for a socialism of the spirit. Due to the backlash against the counterculture and civil rights and antiwar movements, the post-1960s liberal intelligentsia opted for the politically safer ground of rights-based liberal foundation upon which to safeguard the achievements of the era.

Rights-based liberals is premised upon the assumption that an individual had certain birthright freedoms that no state or individual could violate. Profoundly American, this was very safe moral, political, and legal territory upon which the very real achievements of the era could be founded. Indeed, since the 1960s a vast majority of Americans have come to agree that every man and woman possessed inalienable rights to vote, work, marry, and live as they pleased. This consensus undergirded the slow, halting yet enormous gains for women, racial minorities, and the LBGTQ.. From the youth revolt and sexual revolution to civil rights, feminism, and gay liberation, the sixties began freeing America from the bondage of segregation, male chauvinism, and homophobia. 

To be sure, I prize the hard-won achievements of the sixties. Heck, I teach a college class on the era, which largely lauds its achievements. I am fully aware that the sixties were emancipatory for large swaths of non-white, non-male, and non-straight America. But the sixties, as necessary as they were for our nation to better live up to its founding creed, were also not an unmitigated good. In an already radically individualistic society, rights-based liberalism has made us even more certain that pursuing our immediate self-interest is a moral good in and of itself. Rights-based liberalism has enabled activists to fight patriarchy and homophobia. Largely speaking, the sixties bequeathed a series of rights-based social revolutions that made the American scene unquestionably more humane. But rights-based liberal fundamentalism has bequeathed a left ill-equipped to battle capitalism run amok. 

Due to rights-based liberalism, much of the liberal and left-wing intelligentsia have unwittingly adopted the language of the marketplace. “Rights” are seemingly the only language we utilize in our political and legal debates. The wondrous achievement that is gay marriage is premised upon the right-based liberal ideal also paved the way for the corporate personhood of Citizen’s United. The deep-seated radicals of the sixties were interested in changing more than laws. They sought a fundamental transformation of consciousness and spirit. Rights-based liberalism might be emancipatory, especially for those at the top of the economic pyramid. But for folks, like my or Ben’s family, at or near the bottom, it has unleashed forces that are literally killing them. 

Let’s consider one immediate consequence of that era’s generalized rights-based liberalism: no-fault divorce. Prior to the 1960s, a spouse had to prove wrongdoing by their estranged partner to dissolve a marriage. Difficult to attain, expensive to procure, and socially sanctioned little wonder that fewer than 20% of married couples divorced in 1950. Starting in the 1960s, no-fault divorces made the process of ending marriages vastly easier. Not surprisingly from 1960-1980, the divorce rate doubled. By 1970, approximately 50% of all marriages ended in divorce, which meant nearly half of all children were raised in divorced households.

Let me be clear, I think no-fault divorces are a positive good. When my mom announced her impending divorce from my alcoholic, deadbeat dad, I could not have been more thrilled. In my youth, Loretta Lynn’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” was a positive term. But my dad was not the universal norm. A rights-based liberal world has shaped many to instrumentalize romantic relationships. Case in point, are the third and fourth members of our high school friendship quartet, Shane and Josh. Unlike our dads, their fathers were not raging alcoholics. But they oddly had it much worse. Typical for their era, their dads’ eyes wandered as their mom’s waistlines grew. No-fault divorce and fewer social sanctions against divorce gave them permission to find younger, prettier wives. Both started new families, moved to faraway states, and effectively abandoned their kids. Ben and I were lucky. We hated our dads for legitimate reasons. We had zero conflicting emotions. My friends, like countless others of my generation, never fully recovered from this elemental and oedipal betrayal. In addition to the emotional toll, Shane and Josh’s household, like so many other divorced working-class homes, suffered a profound economic collapse when one income departed. Less money prompts a move to poorer neighborhoods where lower-quality schools and friendship networks make a bad situation worse. Do the math. The millions of working-class whites who today are dying deaths of despair were born during the apex of America’s divorce frenzy. Before an era of conscious-uncoupling and co-parenting, dads just left. We are now reaping the consequences of a rights-based liberal social experiment.

No spouse should be trapped in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship. If a couple is merely fundamentally mismatched, divorce is a reasonable option. But here is what we know for sure. Divorce rates spiraled well into the 1980s but slowly declined in the decades thereafter, but not at an even rate. Today, a majority of middle and upper-class Americans are married. Meanwhile, rates of poor and working-class Americans who are divorced or never married have never recovered from the post-1960s trough. Currently, nearly half of all working-class white children are born out-of-wedlock. Those born into a two-parent family have a 50-50 likelihood of a divorce. Poor and working-class kids who live in single-parent families are far more likely to struggle in school and not matriculate to college. And it is a 4-year college degree that separates one part of white America from those dying “deaths of despair.” Thank God,  Ben’s mom divorced his abusive dad. From what I know, Ben’s alcoholic uncle was also a difficult partner for his aunt. Divorce is sometimes the only choice. But divorce often, if not always, creates yet another set of obstacles for kids already burdened by class disadvantages. The sixties put no-fault divorces into the reach of every American. The working-class family has still not recovered from this mixed blessing.

The social revolutions of the 1960s spawned unquestionable advances in human freedom. But these laudable advances, which emphasized individual autonomy are not an unmitigated good. The same cultural liberalism that enabled protesters to challenge segregation, sexism, and the Vietnam War also undermined valuable traditional norms. To be sure, a puritanical demonization of all pre-marital sex, alcohol, drug use, and divorce belongs in the dustbin of history. But we have not just witnessed the demise of formal and informal prohibitions on such vices. Rights-based liberalism has enabled big businesses to promote and profit damaging vices. In 2021, American pop culture normalizes and veritably celebrates binge drinking, gambling, pornography, illicit drugs, and baby daddies. Any cursory glance at the Country Music Charts reveals a legion of cultural doppelgängers to Toby Keith and copycat versions of his insipid hit, “Red Solo Cup.” An anthem to men who carouse and drink cheap beer from disposable plastic, Keith’s warbling helped spawn the sub-genre of Bro Country that celebrates sex, liquor, and mindless hedonism. In the Ozarks, Bro Country, and the larger cultural milieu surrounding it, establishes norms and expectations in much the same that organized religion had done for generations prior.

For my tribe, hyper-educated, knowledge workers, Bro Country and TMZ’s latest throuple are peripheral pop-culture flotsam. Secure that our careers grant us worth, we largely float above this debris. Ethnic food, foreign travel, and eclectic HBO Max entertainment are our collective jam. Since 2000, my tribe has taken the best of the 1960s cultural revolutions and discarded the gratuitous decadence that had prompted a boom in drug use, alcohol abuse, out-wedlock births, and assorted pathologies of the previous generation. But a predatory consumer culture does not influence Americans in equal measures. For college-educated America, drug use, alcohol consumption, out-of-wedlock births, and pre-marital sex are at historic lows. Somehow, for my tribe of America, we have found an equilibrium in which we can both maximize individual autonomy without falling prey to the ravages of our worst vices. Meanwhile, for those without a college degree, they are left to navigate much rougher economic seas without the ballast of our grandparent’s norms. The result? Working-class men in their prime working ages have been steadily dropping out of the labor force, no matter the job market. Non-college Americans are also vastly less likely to get married, go to church, be active in their communities, watch TV excessively, and are more likely to be obese. To be obese, lonely, jobless, and disconnected is bad enough. But consumer culture tells them that alcohol, gambling, drugs, porn, and anonymous sex is the good life; it is as much the American Dream as a Frappuccino, an amusement park, and that new car smell.  

The issue goes far beyond pure-and-simple access to a peppery Syrah or craft Porter at your neighborhood microbrewery. American culture is awash in a near-constant messaging that valorizes, excessive consumption of destructive habits. In 2014, the very lame country music quartet, Little Big Town, implored, Why don't we do a little day drinking?” Pinterest pillow casings assure us, “A day without wine won’t kill me, but why risk it.” Restaurants offer a cheeky admonition that “Brunch Without Champagne is Just Sad Breakfast.For us winners in the knowledge worker economy, this is harmless, banal advertising. Our jobs and communities, acting like Wonder Woman’s Bracelets of Submission, protect us from such messages by repelling them like feeble bullets fired from a cheap handgun in a bad 1970s television program. Fancy college degrees might make us feel like Amazonians blessed with superpowers from Greek gods, but the unraveling of working-class white America fuels a dangerous, authoritarian political impulse that threatens democracy. Our invisible jets can’t carry us all to New Zealand or Canada for political asylum to avoid Don Jr’s third term as president. We know for a fact that working-class whites are drinking and drugging themselves into an early grave. We know that they do so partially because they lack the meaning and structure offered by meaningful jobs and sticky communities. We know that this is a profound crisis that threatens our democratic fiber. And yet, the band plays on.

Reality is sending us the data on this rights-based liberal experiment. Members of my adopted tribe, for whatever reason, can navigate this world—for now. But for the tribe I was born to, we just can’t. Their lives are too hard, their communities too fractured, and their hope too frayed. The marketplace mentality is literally killing them. Case and Deacon are surely onto something when they identify deindustrialization and the exodus of remunerative work as a cause of “deaths of despair.” But this public health crisis has roots beyond this and solutions that transcend trade policy. 

Rights-based liberalism has run its course. “Deaths of despair” are not the only indicator of its bankruptcy. Our politics is cleaving into a battle between the educated and non-educated classes. The deep dives into the 2020 election reveal a significant swing of non-white working-class voters to Trump. It was educated white men who moved from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020 and temporarily saved American democracy from a gild-plated Mussolini. Contemporary liberalism appeals increasingly to the college-educated winners of the global, knowledge worker economy. Working-class voters of all races are moving away from the left. Well-intentioned as it is, a politics founded upon identity that chastises working-class whites for their “privilege” and maintains a phobia toward organized religion is a political cul-de-sac. For both moral and tactical reasons there is a dire need for a left that can speak to the dignity and pain of black, brown, and white working-class Americans. A left that trumpets that our individual dignity is not divisible by the whole sum of our paycheck or our racial, cultural, or sexual identities can counteract the corrosive nature of the marketplace mentality. 

Studying political history simultaneously makes you into a realist and romantic. History is rife with narratives when compromise and political half-loaves are the sage yet discouraging path. But there are also moments where prophetic actors seize a moment and transform their reality into something that had been heretofore unthinkable. In 1835, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison narrowly escaped lynching, in Boston no less, for his radical sentiments that African Americans were entitled to full human rights. Twenty years later, the 13th, 14th, & 15th amendments were passed, which concretized that sentiment into Constitutional fact. In history, everything remains the same until sometimes it doesn’t. Indeed, the arc of a moral universe is long and does bend toward justice. But this happens only when a stubborn prophetic few build a mass movement that nudges the arc toward the good.

Tikkun’s embrace of a post-socialist world of the heart is the very definition of pie-in-the-sky politics. From a realist perspective, it has almost zero chance to overturn reigning capitalist norms and rights-based liberalism’s dominance amongst cultural and political elites. But America is a funny place replete with cruelty, irony, and, at times, a bit of grace. Perhaps the absurd political philosophy of “revolutionary love” is the antidote for a ludicrous nation that finds itself in the throes of systemic racism, climate change catastrophe, deaths of despair, and Trumpist nihilism. The path of Garrison’s abolitionism from inspiring a lynch mob to three constitutional amendments should hearten advocates of Tikkun’s Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment.

Unseating the capitalist ethos and rights-based liberalism is a preposterous idea. But imagine the response of a young, Polish-Jewish scholar to the notion that his dissertation, written at the moment Weimar Germany gave way to Hitlerism, would someday help Christian activists of African descent overthrow their bondage in 1960s America. One envisions that a young Abraham Heschel would have been more thrilled than surprised. Maybe, in addition to a COVID vaccination, we all need a dose of Heschel’s “radical astonishment.” 

As of today, Ben has been released from an Ozarks hospital, only because it is over-stuffed with vaccine-denying COVID patients. Hobbled physically and cognitively, he remains critically ill. In this state, I think Ben is somehow a metaphor for our nation. His prognosis is grave because he refuses to admit his addiction has roots that are spiritual as much as they are physical. Those afflictions are cured by transformations borne of love and deep compassion. Sometimes, a radical cure is the only route back home. 

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