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Posts Tagged ‘suicide’

Last October, Attorney General William Barr drew attention for a fiery speech he gave at the University of Notre Dame. Barr asserted that “virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground” in America–measures such as illegitimacy, violence, and suicide rates. This has happened because Americans are losing their self-control. People are naturally “subject to powerful passions and appetites” and thus to “licentiousness.” In a free society, restraining licentiousness requires an “internal controlling power.” Only religion, faith in “an authority independent of men’s will . . . a transcendent Supreme Being,” can inhibit these passions. In the last 50 years, Barr contended, we have experienced a loss of inhibition because “the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system.” Organized forces of secularism have promoted the “destruction” of religion, especially through government by, for example, restricting prayer in school, legalizing abortion, and inserting LGBT curricula into the schools.

Moral duty, Barr concluded, required using the Department of Justice to protect religious freedom. That would restore Americans’ self-control and thus reverse the tide of pathology. “We cannot have a moral renaissance unless we succeed in passing to the next generation our faith and values in full vigor.”

Barr pic

Source: South Bend Tribune

The howls from the Left over this speech focused on the specter of Barr using the DOJ’s powers to weigh in on the conservative side of the great Culture Wars. My concern here is simply to ask, How factually correct is Barr’s story? His is a sweeping, powerful, and consequential description of recent American history. Is it true?

I address Barr’s argument from first cause to final result: Are religion and faith in decline and, if so, because of secularists’ attacks? Does religion provide and is it necessary for free people’s self-control? Has Americans’ self-control weakened? Has there been increasing social pathology and, if there has, is weakening self-control the explanation?

I approach this topic with some empathy. Barr is a serious Catholic; I am an active member (and past president) of my synagogue. We are on the same side of the divide between organized religion and mobilized secularists. However, the historical facts are clear and they are not on Barr’s side.

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Veterans and Suicides?

The “wave of veteran suicides,” in the words of The New York Times editors last year, seems to cap the traumas that the vets have borne in service to the nation. It turns out, however, that actually establishing that there is a connection between military service and suicide is difficult. It may take years more research to fully understand its personal toll. The “Forever War” of an earlier generation, Vietnam, produced a particularly strong debate about serving and suicide. While the tragic consequences seemed clear to some, the data have been much more opaque. The veteran-suicide connection was, as a recent article describes, also opaque a century ago when the veterans in question had served in the Civil War.

Vietnam Memorial Wall Replica

Vietnam Memorial Wall Replica (Source)

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Suicide Boom?

Charles Fischer [no relation to your blogger] arrived in New York City in 1890. A well-educated clerk from Stuttgart, Germany, he struggled in America, failing in real estate, in the saloon business, and finally in china plate decorating. He divorced and lost touch with his only child. Fischer wrote his mother, “I cannot stand this much longer. If I don’t get work within two weeks I will have to go out on the street and work as a laborer.” At 10:00 pm on a Saturday evening in 1896, he entered his small rented room on East 3rd Street, sealed up every crack, and turned on the gas without lighting it.[1]

Fischer’s suicide puts into historical context news reports from this past week of a “startling” (to quote the PBS Newshour) rise in suicides among the middle-aged over the last ten years. (Actually, it’s not such new news; essentially the same story was reported three years ago.) Fischer’s case illustrates that suicides often come in waves – his was one of many committed by immigrants in late 19th-century American cities. It also illustrates the role of technology – gas became a common tool of suicide. And it illustrates the importance of financial strains – he took his life in the middle of the Panic of 1896. The 21st-century suicide spurt has an additional twist, however: Boomers.

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Boomer Blues

A June 6 story in the New York Times, “Rise in Suicides of Middle-Aged is Continuing,” reported that 45-to-54 year-olds have the highest rate of suicide and that their rate is rising (– see here and a complex follow-up on June 13 here ). Although there are technical reasons to put a big asterisk on that claim* [see endnote below], it appears to be true that Baby Boomers’ lives have turned out to be a bit different — in unfortunate ways — from those of their parents and of their children. Americans who came into adulthood in the ‘60s were distinct.

source

“The Sixties,” in a social and cultural sense, probably ran from about 1964 to about 1974, when the bulk of the Baby Boomers were under 18. They (I should say “we”) had a doubly-marked experience: First, Americans born between roughly 1946-48 and 1960-64 grew up in the largest cohort ever (largest until the 2000s, when of course the whole American population was about 50 percent larger); and second, the Boomers grew up in a time of great cultural turmoil. The two facts may well have been connected.
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