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Finding the Lost Boys of American Life
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Finding the Lost Boys of American Life

We are our brothers’ keepers.

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If you’re a politically minded person (and if you’re reading this newsletter, you probably are), the instant a tragedy happens, your mind likely races to the “big” solution. What are the policies that can solve this problem? I’m not here to condemn this impulse. We should be thinking hard and creatively about policy—especially when we face persistent and deadly challenges, like mass shootings. 

We also have to understand that there are some cultural diseases that policy can’t fully fix. There are wounds that politics can’t heal. And I’m convinced that our spreading epidemic of mass shootings falls into that category. Better policy can ameliorate the crisis, but fix it? I don’t see how. 

My own thinking about this topic has been deeply influenced by two people—Robert Putnam and Malcolm Gladwell. Putnam is most famous for his book, Bowling Alone, which identified the increased loneliness and isolation of American civil society long before we knew it was a crisis. But in 2015 he wrote a book called Our Kids that transformed the way I see childhood in this country. 

I don’t want to summarize the entire book (read it!), but one of the most impactful insights was the way in which kids in crisis often grow up in relative isolation from children in healthy families. It’s not that we see kids in crisis and ignore them. If we live in the right neighborhoods and integrate into the healthy civic associations, we don’t see kids in crisis at all

Sometimes these kids live, flounder, and die completely in the shadows, becoming another statistic in the grim toll of drug overdoses, suicides, mass incarceration, and intergenerational poverty. Other times they stay in the shadows until they burst into our consciousness through spectacular, vicious acts of violence. 

And that brings me to Malcolm Gladwell. I’ve cited his seminal 2015 New Yorker essay on school shootings multiple times. He pointed to the work of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter and argued that it’s a mistake to look at each incident independently: 

But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.

Gladwell argued that school shootings in particular (and later, mass shootings more generally) represent a form of slow-motion riot, with each new shooter lowering the threshold for the next. While every mass shooter is obviously deeply troubled, as the threshold for violence lowers, so does the threshold for grievances or mental dysfunction. Here was Gladwell’s conclusion:

In the day of [Columbine], we could try to console ourselves with the thought that there was nothing we could do, that no law or intervention or restrictions on guns could make a difference in the face of someone so evil. But the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.

Mass shootings have grown so common that we can now almost write a script. Is the shooter an alienated young man? Yes. Did he meticulously plan the shooting? Yes. Did he purchase the gun legally? Yes. Did he repeatedly broadcast his deadly intent on social media? Yes. 

Sadly, this week’s tragedy in Highland Park is the second recent mass shooting where the shooter could and should have been disarmed through the state’s red flag law. Police referred the Buffalo shooter for a psychiatric evaluation after he allegedly threatened his school. Illinois has a red flag law, yet we don’t (yet) have any evidence that any family member responded to his repeated postings of videos and other images of deadly violence. 

To work effectively, red flag laws require both knowledge of the law and a basic level of mutual care and concern. Nobody can use a red flag law if they don’t know it exists. Nobody will use a red flag law if they don’t invest enough in a young man’s life to know (or care) what they say or do. 

But the red flag law is an instrument of last resort. It’s an end-stage intervention that’s necessary when a young man is already obviously in crisis. The great cultural challenge of our time is preventing the crisis in the first place, and that’s going to require us to remember that when it comes to the well-being of the people around us, we are our brother’s keeper. We have to care, and we have to respond. 

Unfortunately, as I’ve written before, “We’ve trained ourselves to mind our own business, to delegate interventions to professionals, and to ‘judge not’ the actions of others.” Our kids might tell us about a friend in trouble, and we think, “That’s a shame” rather than “What can I do?” We think, “Somebody needs to do something” rather than “I need to act.” 

At an even deeper level, our nation has to address the spiritual and cultural crisis that grips all too many young men. The fact that men still do very, very well at the upper echelons of American society (in corporations, politics, and the military) is obscuring the reality that the vast bulk of young men are falling behind their female peers. Here’s Derek Thompson, writing in The Atlantic:

American colleges and universities now enroll roughly six women for every four men. This is the largest female-male gender gap in the history of higher education, and it’s getting wider. Last year, U.S. colleges enrolled 1.5 million fewer students than five years ago, The Wall Street Journal recently reported. Men accounted for more than 70 percent of the decline.

The statistics are stunning. But education experts and historians aren’t remotely surprised. Women in the United States have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men every year since the mid-1980s—every year, in other words, that I’ve been alive. This particular gender gap hasn’t been breaking news for about 40 years. But the imbalance reveals a genuine shift in how men participate in education, the economy, and society. The world has changed dramatically, but the ideology of masculinity isn’t changing fast enough to keep up. (Emphasis added.)

I couldn’t agree more with Derek’s last point. In fact, I’d say the “ideology of masculinity” is more dysfunctional than I’ve ever seen. It’s trapped between two competing extremes, a far-left version that casts common male characteristics as inherently toxic or unhealthy and a right-wing masculine counterculture that often revels in aggression and intimidation. One extreme says, “Traditional masculinity is toxic,” and the other extreme responds, “I’ll show you toxic masculinity.” In the meantime, all too many ordinary young men lack any kind of common vision for a moral, meaningful life. 

Public policy is a backstop against the inevitability of human vice. It does not develop character. It rarely provides a person with purpose. That’s what we must do, and not just with our own kids. There are too many fatherless children for any of us to content ourselves with mentoring our own families only. Until the lost boys of American life are found by men and women who care enough to intervene before their darkest days, the slow-motion riot will continue, and we’ll endure more terrible tragedies, like the tragedies in Buffalo, Uvalde, and yesterday’s in Illinois on the Fourth of July. 

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.