Tycoons of Despair:
Austerity, Aesthetics, and Sentimentality
This was not the story I intended to write. That was a fictional story, though like many fictional stories it was inspired by a true event.
Two days before Christmas, I visited my best friend, Gabe, at his new house in Ohio. It had been a little while since we’d last seen each other, and we spent the first ten minutes standing in the kitchen, catching up on recent events in our lives. I humored him with anecdotes about life as a graduate student, as an indentured servant to Navient (or whichever corporation currently “serviced” my 148,000-dollar student loan debt), about beginning a life with a brilliant art historian I’d met, as clichéd as it sounds, in a seminar on Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Gabe’s life, to the say the least, lacked the sort of hope I had embraced in the throes of love. His wife had recently left him, and although his debilitating cystic fibrosis had been eased by a lung transplant, the immunosuppressant drugs he took to prevent rejection had caused skin cancer on his lip that was beginning to metastasize. He was also drinking heavily, waking up from binges to work with clients he had recruited for his new law practice.
Gabe gave me a brief tour of the house. Afterwards, he disappeared into the other room and emerged, a few moments later, holding a shotgun. It looked old, like one of those double-barreled pigeon shooters you’d see in a cartoon. He snapped the barrel shut with a quick thrust of his arm and pointed it at me. It’s an antique, he said. The same gun Hemingway used to kill himself. I stepped back, instinctually, and uttered the first word that came to mind: Cool. Gabe smiled. Don’t worry, he said. It’s empty. Do you want to hold it? He handed me the gun and I snapped it into place like I was in an action movie. It was heavy, much heavier than I expected. It was the first time I’d ever held a shotgun. Technically, it’s a replica of Hemingway’s shotgun, Gabe said. When I bought it, I asked the woman at the counter for a single shell. I wanted to know if it worked, but I didn’t want to buy an entire box of ammunition. He thought for a moment, and began to laugh. She looked at me like I was insane. She probably thought I wanted to kill myself.
In an instant, this misunderstanding struck me as emblematic of something I couldn’t quite articulate: the absurdity of our culture’s obsession with guns, our propensity for violence, our collective sense of loneliness and despair. I thought it would make a great beginning to a story. Like the scene in Waiting for Godot, when Estragon attempts to use his belt as a noose only to have his pants fall to his ankles, it revealed the impossible humor in an otherwise dark abyss of despair.
Did she sell you the shell? I asked, handing back the gun. Hell no, Gabe said. She looked terrified. He pointed the gun at the other side of the room and pulled the trigger. I half-expected something to happen, for it to go off suddenly. The kind of accident that winds up in the papers with a sensational headline. But there was nothing, not even a satisfying click of the hammer. So, anyway, he said. That’s what I’ve been up to lately. He leaned the gun against the wall and shrugged in a display of nonchalance, flashing me his characteristic devilish smirk. I smiled back.
One month later, he committed suicide. He was thirty-three years old.
This was not the story I intended to write. That story was going to be fiction, a grim semi-satire meant to criticize, to point the finger at systems of exploitation that perpetuate human suffering. No one, really, was going to die in my story.
But then someone did die. My best friend committed suicide, and the reality of this fact, and of the strange and hopeless world around me, seemed to make whatever I wanted to say woefully inadequate. I watched as his despair, and the despair of so many, became a kind of cause célèbre for ambitious journalists and charismatic politicians. It was an election year, the year of Trump and Sanders, the year the white working class rediscovered its identity through financial ruin and populist frustration. It was the year of opioid and heroin overdoses, the year everyone realized, in a collective epiphany, that people no longer want to live when they have nothing left. “Deaths of despair,” the media called them, the phrase catchy in its alliterative construction. The causes were numerous and politically salient. It was rising health care costs. It was job loss and financial insecurity. It was lack of education and struggles with addiction. One colorful map represented these deaths with darkened counties across the country, as if to the make the gloominess of it all somehow more literal. In Ohio, morbidity was concentrated in areas where widespread drug use made headlines. My home state had become the heroin capital of the country, a bellwether for partisan politics and profound hopelessness.
Then, two weeks after Trump took office, someone else died. I was sitting in my girlfriend’s apartment when I received a text message: What happened to Kevin? It was the same cryptic message I’d received about Gabe after his death, the same polite concern muted by hesitation. I didn’t need an explanation—I knew that my friend was gone. A heroin overdose, at his apartment in Columbus, Ohio. The next day, his obituary was something that could be found, like Gabe’s, on Google. Died at his residence, both obituaries said, a carefully constructed phrase that functions as an anodyne to disguise the fact they died those dreaded “deaths of despair,” and they did so alone.
I’d known Kevin for almost fifteen years. We lived together during college, moving from one decaying house in Bowling Green, Ohio to another, our rooms separated by a small hallway or flight of stairs we traversed each night to discuss Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. Back then, Kevin favored the simplicity of pot to the sterility of Oxycontin and Percocet. At some point, after I’d moved into an apartment of my own, he found his way to heroin. I remember, on one of my many visits to see him, helping him flush his heroin down the toilet because he couldn’t do it himself. We watched, together, as the small tan chunks disappeared into the Toledo sewage system. I remember sitting with him a year or two later in a coffee shop while he was living in a halfway home, watching him attempt to control the tremor in his hands. The only thing I think about anymore, he said, bringing the mug to his lips, is heroin and death.
Kevin had attempted suicide multiple times to escape his addiction, and at one point left a cup of antifreeze in his closet for a day he might finally decide he could drink it. It seemed, in many ways, as if he were determined to die. One doctor told him that years of pharmaceutical abuse had damaged his liver so badly that he should probably avoid alcohol for the rest of his life. After a final attempt to intentionally overdose, he managed to get clean. He got a new job, an apartment, and reconnected with an old girlfriend. He’d been sober for a few years when he relapsed, and his body could no longer handle what he was putting into it. He was thirty-four years old.
This was not the story I intended to write. I wanted to write about financial crises and class inequality, about Adorno and the negative image of utopia offered by autonomous art. I wanted to write about anything besides the maudlin subjects of suicide and addiction, and I wanted to write about anyone besides Gabe and Kevin. I had written enough about those close to me, about their problems, and was becoming increasingly uncertain as to whether I was doing something meaningful or simply exploiting their tragedies for pathos. But I found myself thinking a lot about my two friends, and about all this talk of despair, when our president stood before the cameras and said, fatuously, arrogantly, Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.
By now this phrase has been rightly mocked and derided for its flagrant disregard for the reality of America’s actually existing health care. But the flippancy that characterized President Trump’s remark is more than just a symptom of the intellectual vacuity he attempts to mask through hyperbole and phatic speech. It is a manipulation of the fragile hope that dominates American life, an appeal to the glimmering promise of a reality for which we desperately yearn but fear to be always beyond the horizon of possibility: if only things could be just a bit easier, perhaps life wouldn’t feel so tedious, so unbearably disappointing. Trump, and the minions supporting him for political expedience, talk a lot about the tragedy of rising health care premiums and inadequate coverage, but implicit in their posturing—made clear by Trump’s ignorant Gee-shucks-it’s-just-so-tough response—is that they’re quite fine with the hopelessness such tragedy creates. They are tycoons of despair, their rhetoric a calculated mixture of policy doublespeak and sentimental identification. We are listening, and we understand your pain. We want to help you, to make things easy, but the red tape of partisan politics has tied our hands.
It is perhaps too obvious to need to say that, for most Americans, their relationship to health care is more problematic, more frustrating and dire, than what is suggested in vulgar appeals to sympathy wielded as a political weapon by smarmy marionettes like Paul Ryan. People without insurance don’t need paternalistic comfort. They don’t need a hug, or a story about a single mother in Iowa who, wouldn’t you know it, is also struggling financially. They need medication, and operations, and exams. They need specialists for diseases that are not reducible to items on a budget. They need access to drug treatment centers and mental health professionals. Some sentiment is, of course, to be expected from a politician, but too often these appeals to emotion are used as a replacement for concrete action, deferring a solution for another, more politically convenient time.
I am not an expert on health care, and I don’t pretend to be. But what I can tell you is that Kevin could have gotten better treatment for his addiction if such programs weren’t limited by private insurers; that when he was offered a free stay at a facility in Michigan he couldn’t turn it down—only to discover, after he arrived, that it was run by Scientologists who attempted to extort money from him for leaving before his program was finished (he left to escape their bizarre “mindfulness” techniques, which included staring at other patients for forty-five minutes without talking and saying things like “I am touching the wall,” while touching the wall). I can tell you that Gabe would not have lived as long as he did if it weren’t for that governmental demon Medicaid, which covered the bulk of his six-figure lung transplant and the medications that would have cost him thousands every month to do things like properly digest food. I can tell you that because cystic fibrosis is categorized as a childhood disease, Gabe received additional assistance from Ohio’s Bureau for Children with Medical Handicaps (BCMH), a state funded program operated by the Ohio Department of Health he fought to keep in place when the Ohio senate attempted to restructure its funding. And I can tell that, right now, the new Ohio budget is proposing this again, to have BCMH run by Medicaid instead of the DOH to “streamline” the process, a political euphemism that would mean raising the financial eligibility requirement and prevent many families from receiving assistance.
I can tell you that my friends knew exactly how complicated health care could be, how impossible it can seem to want to live when the institutions that are supposed to support you decide, based on some calculation of profit and politics and shareholder concerns, that you aren’t worth the expense. Once, after his lung had collapsed and he had to stay in the hospital for three months, Gabe showed me just one of the bills from the whole incident. It was over 300,000 dollars. I looked at it in disbelief and he just laughed, as he always did, as if it were the only appropriate response to a bewildering, murderous system of exploitation. I’ll never pay it, he said.
This was not the story I intended to write. Many years ago, I intended to write stories about Gabe and Kevin. I wanted them to read like those sentimental New Yorker-style profiles, the immensely consumable high-class kitsch that manipulate people into feeling something. Despair, but stylized just enough to appeal to those more comfortable.
I should say here that there is nothing inherently wrong with sentimentality, or feeling. Any good work of art will undoubtedly inspire a host of emotional responses, but the fact is that these responses don’t tell you anything all that useful about the work. My profiles of Gabe and Kevin, if I’d finished them, may have made people feel something—sadness, perhaps, or recognition, or outrage—but those feelings would not have proven my talents as a writer. Nor would they have meant that what I wanted to say, which is to say what I meant in writing them, had been understood. Perhaps I could go on about universality, about how through representations of particular despair we can arrive at something like a shared understanding of the world and its problems. But sentiment is personal, and so instead of examining broader structures of exploitation that cause despair, such writing limits itself to subjective experience, reproducing a curiously laissez-faire logic: the triumph of the individual, the “hard work” of battling personal demons. People read it. They feel moved. Then they read something else.
Perhaps I am being unfair. Almost all writing is, in some way or another, bound to contain this narrative in some form—and I freely admit to delighting in such stories, in the feelings they give me. Nevertheless, I don’t want to write those kinds of stories, or maybe I do but am conflicted about their politics—because my own ambivalence about exploring the pain of others for art strikes me as having its equivalent in the rhetoric of politicians, for whom personal pain is an opportunity to score an electoral victory. Despair can be tallied in votes, just as it can be tallied in advertising revenue for struggling media outlets competing for readership. Or, as James Agee put it with more eloquence, and more force:
It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and for profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of “honest journalism” (whatever that paradox may mean), of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money, and for a reputation for crusading and for unbias which, when skillfully enough qualified, is exchangeable at any bank for money (and in politics, for votes, job patronage, abelincolnism, etc.); and that these people could be capable of meditating this prospect without the slightest doubt of their qualification to do an “honest” piece of work, and with a conscience better than clear, and in the virtual certitude of almost unanimous public approval.1
Agee was writing about sharecroppers in the aftermath of the Great Depression, but it seems indisputable that our “sharecroppers” today are the much discussed, frequently maligned, and paternalistically defended “white working class,” whose misfortune and deaths and despair have been embraced as both the failure of identity politics and the unashamed embrace of white supremacy. Neither of these are true, or rather both are partially correct but too simplistic, and both utilize the despair of actual human beings as proof of some political theory, some talking point they can now smugly assert was true all along. The Democratic Party failed white workers. White supremacy is still alive and ugly in America. Don’t feel bad for Trump voters, because after all, they did this to themselves.
Maybe this piece of writing is no different. Maybe I am simply using the despair of my friends, the despair that killed them both, to hypocritically assert that using despair to make a point makes for bad politics, even if it happens to make for a moving read. I am not sure how to solve that problem, and I am not sure how to write anything else.
This is not the story I intended to write. In creative writing workshops you’re always taught the same bullshit platitude: don’t try and plan ahead. Let your story surprise you. You’re taught that good writing has complex characters that respond to situations. You’re taught that readers need to identify with a character to feel emotionally invested.
Donald Trump, by this logic, would make an excellent short story writer. If he didn’t hate journalism, he might know how to write a powerful story about an impoverished man that voted for him, a viral piece of writing that would fit neatly in the New York Times as proof of their liberalism. Donald Trump, if he weren’t a philistine, might place his Make America Great Again hat in museum as a postmodern readymade, a perfect companion to the decay of art’s ambition on full display at this year’s Whitney Biennial. Donald Trump, like the authors that grace the pages of the New Yorker, understands the importance of feeling, the emotional satisfaction that kitsch can offer as an illusion that something is being done, a palliative for despair.
If it seems I am being dismissive, or overly cynical, it’s because I am. But perhaps cynicism is the new sincerity, the only way to respond to structural inequality and institutional corruption that some of the most miserable among us have come to embody as objects of mockery and derision. Alexendra Petri, in a recent op-ed for The Washington Post titled “Every Story About Trump Supporters I Have Read in the Past Week,” places on display the satisfaction offered by such schadenfreude in a satire of bad journalism:
In the shadow of the old flag factory, Craig Slabornik sits whittling away on a rusty nail, his only hobby since the plant shut down. He is an American like millions of Americans, and he has no regrets about pulling the lever for Donald Trump in November—twice, in fact, which Craig says is just more evidence of the voter fraud plaguing the country. Craig is a contradiction, but he does not know it. Each morning he arrives at the Blue Plate Diner and tries to make sense of it all. The regulars are already there. Lydia Borkle lives in an old shoe in the tiny town of Tempe Work Only, Ariz., where the factory has just rusted away into a pile of gears and dust. The jobs were replaced by robots, not shipped overseas, but try telling Lydia that.2
Petri’s writing is, one the one hand, accurate in its assessment of the paternalism and pathos that characterizes bad liberal journalism, and bad writing generally. But her ironic posturing suffers from being too obvious and, more importantly, wholly negative, which is to say that its criticism offers nothing approaching a concrete solution to the problem it takes as its object and instead contents itself with an affective release that leaves the world as it is—a joyous, cathartic “fuck you.” By passing over the structures that produce or make possible the problem at hand—a system of exploitation that reduces individuals to fungible character “types” and that a profit-driven media industry appropriates for sentimental puff pieces—she merely reproduces the problem with the added caveat that she, and everyone reading, knows better. More importantly, her satire fails on its own terms by using what is supposed to be an attack on journalism to take cheap shots at the misfortune and backwardness of its subjects. Isn’t it just hilarious that these people can find “Temp. Work Only,” and that they’re too stupid to understand the flaws of their own logic? Trump may be president, but at least there’s still a bunch of racist idiots and their bad decisions to fill the word count.
I am not defending racists, nor am I especially interested in giving Trump supporters a hug. My point is simply that feelings do not change anything, that it doesn’t really matter what I or anyone else feel about Trump supporters, or what they feel about people who don’t look like them. Racism, after all, is structural, and if it is possible to be racist without feelings of animosity, it follows that trying to correct such feelings of animosity does nothing to solve the problem (and might easily become paternalistic). We can all feel a multitude of good things for a certain population and nevertheless exploit them in the process, just as Trump, and politicians generally, can sentimentally identify with a desperate electorate and nevertheless deny them the institutions and policies that would make their lives immeasurably better.
I will likely be criticized for these remarks. As a heterosexual white male safe in the (relative) comfort of academia, I cannot speak to or understand the experience of people who don’t look like me, who are routinely attacked because of their identity. After all, I was raised poor in a mostly white area of Ohio, so am I not identifying with these people, and dare I say feeling for them? Perhaps, but I’m also not saying that feelings don’t matter. They do, undoubtedly, but not in the sphere of politics. Corporations and politicians do not make their policy decisions based on feelings. They do it to maintain political and economic control. Betsy DeVos does not believe in eliminating loan forgiveness because she feels any one way about the people who would suffer. She does it because, quite simply, it’s better for business.
This was not the story I intended to write. I began by talking about my friends, about their deaths, about health care, and have arrived at art, and writing, and feelings. Yet, it occurs to me to that what joins these seemingly disparate concerns is a single word: care. To care is, in one sense, to feel something. To care about someone. To care for someone, or something, however, has nothing to do with feeling. It is evidenced not by recourse to inner sentiment but concrete action. It is not a requirement that doctors or nurses care about their patients, simply that they care for them, that they diagnose and treat disease and perform procedures that allow patients to move through the world with less pain.
I am not interested in what politicians feel, and I am not interested in pleas for sympathy. I feel many things for those wretched human beings that have been thrust into the spotlight as journalistic tokens of despair—an alchemy of sadness, of disgust, of pity—but these feelings will not change their conditions in even the slightest way. My burning hatred for Trump and DeVos, and all those tycoons of despair, will not usher in a new society. It will not eliminate our massive student loan debt, or redistribute property and wealth, or end the violence that is routinely perpetrated on the black community, on the LGBTQ community, on Muslims, on women, on immigrants. It will not bring back my friends.
For decades, public institutions have been whittled down or eliminated in the name of austerity. Whatever you think about the people who suffer most as a result—and this includes racial minorities just as much as it includes whites, Democrats just as much as Republicans—no amount of outrage, moralizing, or heartfelt representation is going to correct the problems that lead to intellectual and material decay. The question isn’t how we should feel about the despair of poor white workers, or the despair of any individual or group that helps keep the engine of capitalism running. It’s what we should do about it.
- James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), 7.
- Alexandra Petri, “Every Story About Trump Supporters I Have Read in the Past Week,” Washington Post, April 4, 2017.