Where will the new ideas come from?
Cultural critic Stephen James offers a fresh perspective on the problems that plague America, as well as much-needed solutions. By applying modern social science and interdisciplinary thought to contemporary American issues, James offers a sweeping and relevant analysis of a culture that has become toxic for its members.
James proposes that our drive to become the most powerful nation on earth can be understood in terms of the theories of Ernest Becker. Becker writes that all human beings dread death, and all cultures have developed measures to deny death and create opportunities for immortality. Unfortunately, our culture offers an inadequate antidote to death anxiety, pushing us to success as a nation, while leaving us anxious, driven, and unhappy. Our own culture has evolved to oppress and exploit us. It is, in a word, toxic.
James suggests unique opportunities for hope, as well as new forms of heroism, new values, and fresh approaches to life that counter death anxiety and promote satisfaction on a deeper human level.
Intellectually bracing and highly readable, American Stew synthesizes ideas from a multitude of disciplines to help us better understand the complexities of culture and human motivation.
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Hope in a Toxic Culture
By Stephen James
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 Stephen James
All rights reserved.
What's Wrong with This Picture?
"What's Wrong?" is a game I enjoyed as a kid. It was an illustration on the back cover of Highlights for Children magazine. The picture was based on the front cover illustration but contained humorous changes. The young reader was challenged to identify the list of things that were wrong with the picture.
One reason why it was funny, to me at least, was not only the incongruity of a man walking down the street with a pot on his head, but that the man seemed totally oblivious to the fact. He was absolutely nonchalant, not only about his headwear, but also about the rabbit in the tree, the roast turkey in the baby carriage, the pizza in the bicycle wheel, and the dog wearing glasses. Everyone in the picture seemed perfectly content to be living in an alternate universe, a Bizarro World of oddly familiar, but slightly out of place, pieces of a once coherent reality.
This is what America looks like to many of us today. There is a feeling of nameless disquiet across our land, a feeling that something is truly wrong. (But it isn't funny.) We tell ourselves and each other that these are strange times, awful times, but that it is temporary; it will be fixed by the next leader, the next administration. But we quietly bemoan the midget stature of those who would be called our leaders. Something is wrong with this picture, and we can't name it.
We live with a nagging feeling that what we were taught as children, what we hear embedded into every political speech and debate, every marketing campaign, every Hollywood movie or TV show, every news report, every punditry, and what we identify with as Americans, contradicts what we observe and dare not articulate. Americans live in a world in which once trusted leaders are now assumed to be lying phonies, where we feel powerless to control our own affairs. Traditional beliefs and values are understood to be quaint remnants of a culture that doesn't exist for us anymore. As George Carlin once said, "This place is eating itself alive." What is wrong with our picture of America?
Our politicians and opinion makers tell us that it's the rest of the world that's got it wrong. We are often told that others are jealous of us, that they "hate our freedom," that everyone in the world wants to come live here to enjoy our wonderful way of life. And even though we may consciously debate it, we unconsciously go on as though we do believe it. The majority of us, judging by our response to September 11, 2001 (9/11), are patriotic believers in the American way of life. But there are deep contradictions between our exalted public image and our private concerns.
Americans who live or travel extensively abroad often say similar things about America. We have many conveniences, plenty of everything, and a political system that is mature and well functioning compared to that of other countries. But Americans appear to most observers to be far more uptight than other people. We push ourselves to get more of – and bigger – everything, and to get ahead. We work more hours, work harder, and take fewer vacations and holidays. Our stress levels are high, and we live with more tension and fear. What an interesting dichotomy. We have wonderful conveniences, political stability, financial security, and physical security, but we are stressed out, fearful, and pushy. What's wrong with this picture? Wouldn't you think that the citizens of the richest, most powerful country would also be the most relaxed citizens of the world, enjoying life to the fullest? Why are we so driven and afraid?
Many cultural critics maintain that our culture is not serving its members well and that its weaknesses are largely responsible for America's problems at home and abroad. Our values have shifted. We need to understand what is happening to avoid serious damage to us and to the nations with which we share a planet.
I have arrived at the conclusion that the American culture is now toxic to us, its members, to a large and growing extent. It is my contention, unique as far as I know, that the American culture has developed a mechanism, an unconscious strategy that is similar to nature's method of propelling humanity forward. It is nature's successful process of keeping human animals anxious and driven that has perpetuated and spread humanity's genes. Similarly, it is our culture's successful mechanism of keeping Americans anxious and driven that propels America into the forefront of the world militarily, economically, technologically, and socially. But it is a strategy that strains Americans to their psychological limits, leaving them exposed to rising levels of anxiety. This, I maintain, is a reason for so many of our social ills, what I start out calling "our symptoms."
At the same time there is a growing disconnect between our set of vital myths, fantasies, and illusions, and our intruding reality. Our image of America as a symbol of freedom and opportunity for all is increasingly less real. These myths, fantasies, and illusions are our defenses, and they are slipping. Yet we cling to outmoded ideas, not only out of habit or inertia, but as an unconscious defense strategy. As Sam Keen put it: "We have entered a time of great turmoil and creativity; the 'normal' majority is becoming increasingly reactionary in an effort to conserve the values of a passing era."
One reason for the change in our culture is that our multiple-value social equilibrium is being thrown out of balance as one set of materialistic values now dominates the others. Unfortunately, we have been ignoring or misunderstanding these signals, as well as intelligent explanations for them. We disregard and/or deny the discoveries of social science because they contradict our culture's strategy for moving our society forward.
This is a complex argument. To develop it, I will identify contemporary social issues in our toxic culture, analyze them in terms of modern social scientific ideas, illustrate and explain the toxic effects and results, and propose alternative approaches, ideas, and ways of living. I will not, however, make the argument that there is one and only one reason for our culture's many problems; I am not advancing toxic culture as a "magic bullet theory." But the concept must be explored as a root cause that runs deeper than the politicians, pundits, economists, and data analysts suggest.
I do not contend that our culture is thoroughly toxic, but only to a degree. I also do not contend that things are worse or better than they were in the past. I look to the past for explanations for how we got to this point, not to make comparisons. Whether it was always this way to some degree is a matter for historians and anthropologists. Whether every culture is toxic to some degree is also beyond the scope of this book. I leave those comparisons to others, as well. I am talking here about the American toxic culture in the present and what we must know and do to carry on.
My intention is to have people understand what their toxic culture is doing to them and their world, and to use that understanding to influence change in American discourse and behavior.
The word culture has various meanings. I am using the term culture in the sense of a set of shared values, beliefs, and practices that distinguish a group, in this case the United States of America. A culture is a pool of a society's collective intellect and memory. It contains our myths, legends, traditions, symbols, metaphors, group identity, group self-image, standards, morals, ideals, principles, beliefs, codes of conduct, etiquette, protocol, doctrines, dogma, philosophy, goals, outlook, and way of life. Examples of concepts and symbols that embody our culture include democracy, freedom, constitutional rights, the American Dream, the "boot-strap myth," the flag, country, capitalism, the nuclear family, the frontier, cowboys, and the good war.
Culture is made by all of us who are living and countless millions who are long dead. It is a massive creation that is as undirected as it is purposeful. Rarely is it a conscious construct. There have been attempts to create new societies, of course, such as our own American Revolution, Puritanism, Jonestown, and Salt Lake City, to name a few. Nazism and Communism were also attempts to create new societies. But cultures are not fashioned by conscious minds. The traditions and ancient values, the language and symbols, the group mindset that exerts pressure on every individual member of the society are the real creators of a culture. The social consensus is like a group mind that operates as in a dream, where linear logic is secondary and symbols hold sway. In talking about our toxic culture, we must keep in mind that a culture is not intentional; it does not think and plan. It has strategies, but does not strategize.
Let's turn to what I call "the symptoms," how many of us are struggling physically and psychologically, what constitutes a host of signs of a culture in difficulty. (Forgive, for now, all of the numbers and statistics.)
Psychological conditions are not like most physical conditions. With a broken leg, you either have it or you don't; psychological disorders, on the other hand, are usually a question of degree. Worry, for example, is a necessary warning signal of a dangerous or difficult situation. Without worry, we would have no way of anticipating difficulties and preparing for them. Worry becomes an anxiety disorder, however, when the symptoms become chronic and interfere with one's judgment, stability, reliability, and ability to function.
In Life Against Death, Norman O. Brown offered an important observation about neurosis: "We are all ... neurotic. ... Between "normality" and "abnormality" there is no qualitative but only a quantitative difference, based largely on the practical question of whether our neurosis is serious enough to incapacitate us for work."
There is a spectrum from mild to severe symptoms, from personality traits to serious mental illness, and many experts will tell us that most of us have mild symptoms of one kind or another. Our ordinary activities and states of mind are not harmful unless or until they are exacerbated by our surroundings. In this discussion we are looking at the 96% of us who are not suffering from a diagnosable disorder 8 but are suffering nonetheless from aspects of our culture that interfere with our ability to enjoy life. I am sure that there are mental health professionals who will disagree with this analysis, but step back for a moment and look at the wide-angle picture. The following numbers represent percentages of the U.S. adult population.
Depression – 9%
Anxiety – 18% (commonly in conjunction with other mental illnesses)
Stress – 33% (between 33% and 42% since 1994)
Workaholism – 25%
Substance Dependence and Abuse – 8.2% (8.6% treated for an illicit drug or alcohol use problem in 2013)
* Binge Drinking – 22.9%
* Heavy Drinking – 6.3%
Illicit Drug Use – 9.4% (not classified as addicted)
* Nonmedical Use of Prescription-Type Psychotherapeutic Drugs – 2.5%
* Overweight – 60%
* Obese – 34%
* Binge Eating – 2-5%
Nicotine Addiction – 25.5% (480,000 premature deaths per year plus 16 million people with a serious illness caused by smoking)
Sexual Addiction – 6%
Problem Gambling – 3%
Shopping Addiction – 5%
Insomnia – 20%
Suicide – 0.0126% (41,149 per year, 10th leading cause of death – more common than homicide)
Domestic Violence – 4%
Crime Rate – 9%
* Incarcerated – 2.7% (the most incarcerated country in the world)
Obviously, when you add all the numbers up and get over 100%, you reason that there is considerable overlap. It isn't hard to imagine a depressed, alcoholic, obese gambler or a stressed out, pill popping, anxious workaholic. It's not uncommon for someone with an anxiety disorder to also suffer from depression or vice versa. But it's safe to say that at least one major concern listed above directly or indirectly affects most of the adult population. Almost every American family has one of these problems. For example, more than half of all men and women in the United States report that one or more of their close relatives have a drinking problem. About half of the 47,000 traffic deaths every year are alcohol and drug related.
Economic stress is not always a matter of unemployment or fear of it. According to USA Today, a new kind of sweatshop has emerged in 21st century America. High pressure, high compensation firms, such as Salomon Smith Barney, Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, as well as many tech companies, hire bright, young Ivy League graduates and pay them $60,000 or more per year with luxurious perks, in exchange for 70-100 hour workweeks.
The dirty secret is, many sweatshoppers actually like it. This generation vied for status in college by comparing workloads. Many of them then dove like lemmings off the cliff into corporate America. A high-wattage job fills an almost religious need to be part of something bigger than yourself, and 16-hour days mean you don't have to deal with the messiness of life.
In times of national calamity levels of depression, stress, and anxiety go much higher. For example, in 2008 the number of Americans reporting stress jumped to 81% as a result of the economic downturn. But the fact that stress levels are as high as they are in a supposedly good economy indicates something much more disquieting at work.
Most Americans look at these concerns as individual issues. Addiction, violence, and crime are viewed as sins or personal failure. And they all may be. But rolled up together they form a startling portrait of American society. They are a group issue, a social issue; they are shared by all of us. Americans are not accustomed to thinking this way.
Let's look at our "What's Wrong ..." game again. If you passed a man with a pot on his head, walking down a busy street, you'd think he was a jokester or crazy. But if you encountered half of the people on a crowded street nonchalantly walking with pots on their heads, and the other half behaving as though everything was not only normal but the best it's ever been, you would have to wonder. You would ask yourself, "What's wrong with this picture?"
The concerns enumerated above are symptoms of something wrong with the group picture. There is a disconnect between what we believe and what a reality check reveals. This disconnect is an issue in itself, one that is worth exploring.
America's Questionable Group Behavior
We have been looking at questionable behavior by individuals, issues such as addictions, as social issues, essentially individual concerns observed broadly. Let's now discuss America's group behavior, how our collective actions affect ourselves and others in the world.
How We Treat Our Weakest
David Levine, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, summed up the highest and lowest positions in the American way of life:
Being born in the elite in the U.S. gives you a constellation of privileges that very few people in the world have ever experienced. Being born poor in the U.S. gives you disadvantages unlike anything in Western Europe and Japan and Canada.
Poverty is about wasted potential and wasted lives. It is about malnutrition, homelessness, illness from lack of medical care, shortened life expectancy, higher infant mortality, and a caste system that is becoming more and more rigid. There is evidence that poverty in the U.S. is in part the result of de facto racial prejudice. Today 46% of African American children and 40% of Latino American children live in poverty. Our treatment of welfare recipients, Native Americans, African Americans, ex-offenders, urban youth, and returning Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans is a national disgrace. Our society continues to be unable or unwilling to do much of anything about poverty in the U.S.
The way we treat victims and lawbreakers reveals volumes about our society. Consider:
The three strikes law
Removal of civil rights
* Voting rights – restricted sometimes for life
* License rights – no driving, employment
* Social safety net – no welfare, food stamps, public housing, WIC
* Privacy – public reporting of criminal history for life
* Arrest record permitted as a reason for denial of employment, even when there's no conviction
* Widespread barriers to employment, housing, and services
* Forced labor for minuscule wages while in prison
* Forced payment of fines and restitution through garnishing of wages upon re-entry
* The highest rate of incarceration in the world
* A national re-arrest record of 67%
Excerpted from American Stew by Stephen James. Copyright © 2015 Stephen James. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsChapter One What's Wrong with This Picture?, 1,
Chapter Two Tools to Think With, 33,
Chapter Three Driven, 76,
Chapter Four Winner Take All, 100,
Chapter Five Terror from the Skies, 135,
Chapter Six Fear Cloaked in Courage, 163,
Chapter Seven Of the People, By the People, 181,
Chapter Eight Black and White, 211,
Chapter Nine In God We Trust, 242,
Chapter Ten A Fault Line, 270,
Chapter Eleven Hope, 291,
About the Author, 335,