There will be those that look at Joe Stack’s life, read his extensive suicide note and see a great deal of themselves in the story that he told. Hard working, played by the rules they were taught and yet still seem to be thwarted at every turn by a federal government singularly focused on the uber-rich.
Then there are those who will look at Stack’s life, read his extensive suicide note and see precisely what is wrong with America in general – self absorbed, lack of values – and paint him as the epitome of the whining, baby-boomer generation.
Of course, neither side is entirely wrong, but no one is going to give much credence to the main truth. Which is that Stack was just one crazy individual who had the same problems as a lot of people. He just handled them in a spectacularly deadly way. That story is a much less sexy narrative than making Stack a sign of our recessionary times.
While the details are still trickling in, it’s pretty clear what Stack’s life was about. If you haven’t read his manifesto, or seen segments of it on television, I can save you the trouble of reading all 3,000 plus words. Go to any dinner party of upper middle class white baby boomers since 2007 and you’ll pretty much hear his story. Got a college degree, started a business in the 80’s, lost it all, got divorced, moved to California for the tech boom, got married again, moved to Austin for the tech slow down, and now the recession is biting him where the sun don’t shine. The only difference was Stack’s deep hatred for the government and his belief that America had done him wrong. And in many ways he had been let down by the “Red, White and Blue.”
America thrives on letting upper class white men, such as Stack, live with an unbearable sense of entitlement, and unrealistic expectations. Stack got to live the fantasy that if he got an education and worked hard that everything was supposed to fall into his lap.
Not all white men in America get to live with this attitude, but upper class white men such as Stack often revel in the duality of their privilege and their sense of victimhood. They believe that if you don’t get the hot wife, the house in a cul-de-sac, the promotion you wanted, and Jimmy Buffet tickets all the way into your 50’s, that you’ve been cheated. The irony of Stack burning down his half million dollar house, and then flying his personal plane into the IRS building to protest how he felt —marginalized and put upon by the American system — is both hilarious and sad.
His anger, while palpable and understandable, is born of an arrogance that most minorities and working class whites in this country aren’t allowed to wallow in. Most African Americans, Hispanics and Asians know that working hard and playing by the rules might get you the chance to wait in line with everyone else but you still might not get served. Ask some poor white kids from the rust belt – whose post high-school options are the military or trying to find seasonal construction work – if they empathize with a man who had a house to burn and plane to crash during a tax tantrum.
Amidst all of this, however, I think it should be remembered that this man is the exception, and not the rule. There is plenty in his manifesto/suicide note that will stoke the flames of the right and the left. He rails against Bush and his cronies in one paragraph then goes after the current administration and their fat cat bailouts in the next.
Nevertheless, the ugly truth is that most Americans, while frustrated, do not choose to act out the way that Stack did. Most Americans aren’t quitters. They recognize the corrupt system we live in for what it is. Rather than victimize their own families, nameless government employees and innocent bystanders with a suicidal temper tantrum, they trudge on, work hard and take one last look at their in-box for a response from Monster.com before going to bed.
Let’s not make Stack a hero, a martyr or a sign of our times. He was really just a spoiled brat who made his mid-life crisis everyone else’s worst nightmare.