American Stew by Stephen James is a portrait of America that’s at once hopeless and full of promise. Chapter by chapter James attempts to diagnose America’s problems on a cultural level – sociological, psychological, and anthropological – rather than dealing with policy. The picture he paints is not a pretty one. Though America is oftentimes called “The best country in the world,” this is something of a misnomer, given where America ranks in satisfaction on a number of different fronts. It’s not so much a pessimistic outlook, as realistic, revealing a number of hard truths about what is and isn’t working.
James smartly doesn’t make his book a left or right-wing polemic, as the problems the country faces cross political boundaries. However, it obviously leans more to the left, as James opines against torture and the War in Iraq, and quotes scholars like Noam Chomsky. But the point of American Stew is not to point fingers at the right or left, but to say our cultural issues are systemic to all of us or they wouldn’t be allowed to proliferate as they have been. In an election year where two anti-establishment candidates are getting a lot of support, there is obviously a lot of dissatisfaction with the status quo on both sides.
While there is a benefit to painting a broad brush about America’s faults, it also leads to some issues being unexplored. He may opine that America has tortured, and that’s wrong, but it really is only one side of the political spectrum that defends the practice. In other words, James’ book will be polarizing even if he attempts to call these “American” issues. And if that’s the case, what James is mostly doing is preaching to the converted. Granted, his polemic is expressed with great nuance and erudition, two things sorely lacking in American discourse, but likely those who most need to heed this message will be less likely to read it. In some circles, James is what would be called an “intellectual elitist,” which is exhibit A of American toxicity, as if being smart is a bad thing.
Where it falls most flat is pointing the finger in only one direction. He mentions the American problem with alcoholism, for example, but this is not a problem unique to America. This sequence would be more effective if he mentioned the alcoholic rates in other countries. This doesn’t absolve America of the problem by saying “other people do it too,” but it would explain more deeply why this is a uniquely American problem when combined with all of the other issues he covers.
Another significant issue is that he outlines a number of symptoms, but doesn’t pose many solutions. For instance, he has an interesting section about Ernest Becker whose major thesis was that people’s anxiety is fueled by the fear of death. In an American culture where the majority believes in a Christian afterlife, this is something of a contradiction. But it’s a contradiction that needs to be explored more fully than he does here. Likewise, on economic issues, many suffer from “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” syndrome – the idea that a huge voting bloc votes against their economic best interest in favor of social issues like pro-life and anti-gay marriage. The question is how to get past the polarization, and not just reach those who are predisposed to agree with his message.
This may not actually be a criticism of the book, so much as frustration that not enough people will take it to heart. Reviewing the book on its own terms – as a well-expressed diagnosis of the country’s problems – then James’ book gets an A+. And on the “preaching to the converted” front: if you already recognize some of what James is talking about, you will get a deeper examination into the flaws in the American way of life from many angles you might not have even considered. Overall, American Stew is a sobering and recommended read. It’s enormously engaging and well-written, and hopefully finds a large audience.