BY JONATHAN METZL
BASIC BOOKS, 2019
352 PP.; $32.00
Almost everyone will be familiar with the general thesis of Jonathan Metzl’s book, Dying of Whiteness: that non-rich whites vote against their material interests when they vote Republican and have been trained to oppose legislation that would improve their lives because it would also improve the lives of them (a racialized and gendered collection of those who receive but don’t deserve help and steal help from those who do). “Ain’t no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it,” a white Tennessean named Trevor tells Metzl. (Trevor lives in low-incoming housing, is yellow with jaundice, and has to use a walker because of an inflamed kidney.) “We don’t need any more government in our lives. And in any case, no way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans and welfare queens.” Trevor’s suicidal hatred leads Metzl (a psychiatry professor at Vanderbilt University and director of its Center for Medicine, Health, and Society) to ask, “Of what was Trevor dying?” In practical terms it was the untreated jaundice, but on another level it was Trevor’s “willingness to die for his place in [the social] hierarchy.” For a man with nothing to be proud of, he could at least die in agony knowing he was better than them.
Metzl’s hypothesis about non-rich whites can be condescendingly expressed—those hicks and hillbillies are too stupid to know what’s good for them—but Metzl is careful not to be condescending. In fact, he’s somewhat impressed by non-rich whites’ “willingness to risk their bodies, and even die, in defense of their sense of whiteness.” For an ideology predicated on self-interest, “white backlash conservatism” asks its adherents to sacrifice family, liberty, and well-being just so the rich can get richer. During an election Abraham Lincoln told a crowd of white workers that whatever America’s ruling class did to black slaves would eventually be done to them. And much of the sacrifice and self-denial that non-rich whites have made throughout US history seems haunted by this truth; that even their whiteness has to be earned.
This isn’t Metzl’s explanation though. In fact, Dying of Whiteness doesn’t offer one. It offers plenty of description (some of which is quite poetic) but pretty much no prescription or explanation. The book is full of graphs and statistics as well as unedited transcripts of conversations the author had with dozens of heartlanders. And while it’s unfair to criticize a book for not being something it never promised to be, or for external factors that are out of its author’s control, as a citizen and as a reviewer, I can’t help but get a little irritated about the abundance of books published that don’t give the reader either spiritual nourishment or intellectual protection, just more facts. To use a medical metaphor, listing symptoms is an important part of curing a patient, but it isn’t the cure.
No doubt the transcripts in Dying of Whiteness will be informative for those living in a “liberal bubble,” that is for those who aren’t already personally close with or forced to interact daily with non-rich whites who believe all sorts of right-wing nonsense about welfare, education, and healthcare. But for those who don’t live in a liberal bubble, reading Dying of Whiteness will feel like listening to a story you’ve heard a hundred times before, told by someone who halfway through realizes they’ve forgotten why they were telling it.
The opposition to public action that Metzl hears in his interviews is rarely as racist and ideologically explicit as Trevor’s. Most of it is about how this or that social legislation will cost too much or the government is too inefficient to do it right. As Metzl puts it, cost “provided the logic for inaction” and was usually “a metaphor, a symbol, or a proxy for talking about a much larger societal debt.”
Everyone’s heard these justifications or excuses before—from moderate Democrats just as much from Republicans. Universal healthcare would be great, but we can’t afford it; free school breakfast and lunch would be great, but we can’t afford it; healthy food shouldn’t be the burden of shoppers but the mandate of producers, but we can’t afford it. The invocation of cost is supposed to be the great neutralizer of political disagreement; a way of seeming to be thinking seriously; a way of transferring politics from the moral realm of obvious right and wrong to the accounting realm of obscure costs and benefits.
Of course, if there’s something we can’t afford, it’s the system we currently have. We can’t afford for the DeVos family to have ten yachts, for Robert Kraft to spend some $100K to fly down to Florida for a “massage,” or for Robert Mercer to spend millions of dollars on toy trains. Not while people are refinancing their homes and going bankrupt trying to pay medical bills. Nor can we afford to be a country where over half the population is obese. Where so many of us are dying from hypertension, stroke, and cardiovascular diseases. Where food, water, and air are poisoned for bigger executive bonuses and shareholder dividends. We can’t afford for healthcare to be facilitated through private insurers. The costs are too high and the outcomes are too inadequate. “The white body,” Metzl writes,
that refuses treatment rather than supporting a system that might benefit everyone then becomes a metaphor for, and parable of, the threatened decline of the larger nation. Rather than landing a man on the moon, curing polio, inventing the internet, or promoting structures of world peace, a dominant strain of the electorate voted in politicians whose platforms of American greatness were built on embodied forms of demise.
Metzl is right that a dominant strain of the electorate has an almost wholly negative view of what the government can (and should) do—punish not rehabilitate, prohibit not build, kill not save. And what needs to be done is prove them wrong.
In 1957, Dwight Macdonald wrote an essay about what he called America’s “fact-fetishism”—that is, our “habit of reducing large issues to matter of fact” and of producing books that are little more than repositories for information. That is the primary failing of Dying of Whiteness. It takes a thesis that is generally well-known (and generally accepted as true by many) and does nothing except fortify it with more graphs and statistics.
In the 1950s and ’60s, historians and public intellectuals tried to understand the appeal of McCarthyism and Goldwater conservatism and came up with the distinction between what they called “interest politics” (I’m for this policy because it makes my life better) and “status politics” (I’m for this policy because it validates who I am or how I see the world). They hypothesized that interest politics was prevalent during economic slumps and status politics prevalent during economic booms. I’m not endorsing this explanation, but at least it’s an explanation.
What Metzl calls “white backlash conservatism” is more status politics than it is interest politics. (Although status politics isn’t just symbolic; it has real-world benefits, which Metzl briefly alludes to, such as the ability for white men to walk around with guns without immediately being murdered by the police.) Dying of Whiteness is a well-written and well-intentioned book; it just doesn’t leave the reader with much to do (or think about). Worst of all, it left me with the question no author wants asked after someone has read their work, “So what was the point, exactly?”