The problem of young men



Last Thursday was business as usual in America; that is, there was another school shooting. This one was about ninety minutes away from me, in Roswell, New Mexico. A twelve-year-old boy shot two of his classmates with a sawed off shotgun; a teacher stepped in and the shooter handed him the gun,  then sort of crumpled against the wall. The boy had recently written about wanting to bring the weapon to school in his English class journal, and had also confided in several of his friends.

“Evil visited Roswell today,” proclaimed a local official.

I’d have to agree: a desperate child in a violent national culture was ignored by a community of adults beyond his ability to endure it – while provided with unlimited access to lethel weapons

We will run out of everything else in rural New Mexico before we run out of guns. They are everywhere, seeming almost to be underfoot, and everyone over the age of ten knows how to use them. They are as close as your father’s pick-up truck, which is where I am 90 percent certain the Roswell shooter got his weapon.


As the  two wounded middle schoolers were flown to a Texas hospital, a fifeen-year-old boy lay dying of a heart attack in El Paso, alone in a U.S. border patrol detention room. He had risked swallowing a hopelessly deadly amount of liquid methamphetamine right in front of the agents, insisting it was only tea. They had relied upon the delusional  judgement of a young adolescent whose cognition was insufficiently developed to grasp cause, effect and mortality –  and left him to his death .

Earlier last week, not far from the checkpoint where the teenager would soon die,  one young man shot another to death over a $75 debt  — along with his target’s two young children

And today, a twenty-two year-old conveience store clerk I have come to know over the past year remarked cheerfully that he planned to put a bullet through his temple on his 30th birthday.

“I just know I don’t want to live any longer than that,” he said. “That’s when the things that make life bearable start to get outweighed by the things that make life unbearable. I’ve watched the same thing happen over and over. Guys like me, all we have is youth  – we can work hard all day and drink every night. But we get old fast – old drunks with fucked up backs and knees and feet. I’m checking out before that starts to happen”


There’s a huge toxic discrepency between what Americans say and what we experience: everyone responds to it. It isn’t that young men occupy some inexplicable separate sphere; rather, they respond like young men to the impossible  contradictions that choke the rest of us.

We tell 18-year-old boys they are men, and that a man stands on his own –  without providing millions of them any skills to support themselves. Just when their need for support in making a huge social transition is greatest, we leave them to themselves at a point when most  families are simply unable to fill gap.

We send them into armed combat before they are old enough to drink a beer, and incarcerate them as adult at 16 and 17,  even though we are well aware that key areas of  their brains (not involving intellect, but impulse control, judgement, and a full concept of the future) are years away from full development.  There’s simply nothing for it but to stop wailing about individual pathology ( anti-social,  crazy young white men) and hinting at cultural pathology (gang-related violence/young Black and Latino men) and focus on social policies that reflect our actual experience – by meeting our actual needs.

Our foreign policy makes our military crazy with the kind of wars that give an army PTSD.  Our Congress acts out the chilling contradictions of our domestic policies in a kind of grotesque  and surreal vaudeville show. Working-class people are middle class and poor people are invisible: yes,  this is class war – and not so nakedly revealed since the turn of the 20th century.  National “Conversations on Race” are obscene charades functioning to obscure the desparate trap to which white Baby Boomers abandoned a massive African-American underclass over 30 years ago.
Gay rights somehow became a new issue 43 years after those sissies at Stonewell astonished their tormenters with a fist in the face.  Disability rights have essentially disappeared from the conversation. Without the constant pressure historically required of them, Liberals have reverted to appropriating social and political inequities into a cottage industry, buttressing their traditional self-interest.

And what was that incredibly weird Year of the Woman ABOUT?  News flash: we won those gains 30 years ago. When did we agree to legitimize the fiction of a reasonable discussion by participating in it – and on such a simplistic level  How did we even get drawn into a conversation about working mothers in the first place? From there it was a slippery slope to reproductive rights – straight down to “legitimate rape”.

What’s wrong with young American men? Let’s diagnose and fix this crazy nation, and re-visit that question in ten years.


7 thoughts on “The problem of young men

  1. Excellent essay, thank you. What’s just as frightening to me is the way mainstream culture has appropriated the women’s equality movement to mean that women must behave just as macho as men in order to be granted access to upward mobility. We see this all the time now in the new cultural stereotypes of women ‘superheroes’ on the big screen—carbon copied from the male superheroes of yesteryear. Why do we assume in this culture that for a woman to be equal she has to behave like a man? And why do we continue to stereotype men as all aggressive, all violent, all unfeeling macho brutes?


  2. A great essay, for it addresses a fundamental societal problem that is generally taboo in America. The aggression and hyper-competitiveness which is often credited with “American exceptionalism” has a dark side that we dare not expose. That which gives us strength, so goes the meme, must not be hindered in any way.

    This philosophy is rooted in Calvinism, the so-called “Protestant work ethic,” and the concept of “predestination.” It essentially promotes resolution through conflict.

    Within this culture, young men are more susceptible for a whole host of sociological and biological reasons. When we treat the individual contributing factors, we are treating the symptoms not the underlying illness. Life today in America is becoming more stressful, and the incidence of gun violence – primarily by young White males – is rising accordingly.

    I’ll offer one criticism regarding this statement from the article, “… white Baby Boomers abandoned a massive African-American underclass over 30 years ago.” I’m one of those White Baby Boomers who did not abandon the plight of Blacks, and I am definitely not alone. Generalizations about specific age groups are frequently problematic, and the misperceptions of the Baby Boomers are unfortunately ubiquitous. Please see:


  3. Excellent observations, as usual, Claire. It’s hard to shake the feeling that we (or most of us) have simply given up on maintaining a healthy society and instead have decided simply to get ours while the getting is good. When did this happen? With Reaganism? Or am I just remembering a false picture of the good ole days?


  4. Yes Claire, it is class war and rather than a race to the top, it’s a perpetual race from the bottom for some. It’s ok for many Americans to be invisible and let the ruling class do all the talking for them as long as there’s an illusion of prosperity propped up by the banker’s cheap credit and expensive debt. But to be invisible and poor is a fate worse than death for most…to be one of them poor souls. Easier to just turn their backs on the lower classes and look to the uppity class for their validation and role models, i.e., Bill Gates, Warren Buffett.

    “There’s simply nothing for it but to stop wailing about individual pathology ( anti-social, crazy young white men) and hinting at cultural pathology (gang-related violence/young Black and Latino men) and focus on social policies that reflect our actual experience – by meeting our actual needs.”…this is a powerful statement and bears repeating until it sinks in. I came across this article about how the social work profession, which I used to be a part of, props up the status quo rather than challenges it. Interesting reading…


  5. Very distressing state of affairs. With a 20+% unemployment rate in under 25 year olds, young people don’t seem to have much to look forward to. Given the contraction in the economy, I suspect we’re looking at an entire generation that will be excluded from the economy and live on the fringes of society. If the rest of the society treats them like throwaway people, I expect they start to see themselves that way.

    It poses serious existential questions. I don’t think human beings are genetically programmed for wage slavery – I think it f**ks them up in really profound ways. Yet when that’s the only role model young people are offered, it lives them twisting in the wind.

    It turns out that Adam Lanzo called into Anarchy Radio shortly before the Sandy Hook school shootings. Listen to this:


  6. I know this is no consolation at all, but it is not only young American men. Young men in Jamaica are going through the same thing and make similar comments such as “Guys like me, all we have is youth…” It is tragic.


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