Even nearer the end of the book, Smith begins to disarm this fear. It arises only if one thinks like an American, he says, or — in some ways the same thing — like President Trump. It arises only if one imagines being the “single, messiah-like figure” whose intercession is the key to victory. This “fascistic impulse,” he explains, requires the “dismissal of community” and reveals “a narcissistic desire to be adored for an impossible heroism.”
America’s troubled times require action, to be sure. But that action begins with imagining oneself differently. This often requires more words, not fewer, which makes writers like Smith a precious resource for ethical reflection.
“More words” does not mean just any words, handled in just any way, though. Keywords work best and are best handled in the manner of the literary essayist: as aids to reflection and self-criticism, and with subtlety, humility and humanity. With, in short, the virtues that Smith displays and that the current occupant of the White House openly disavows.
“Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream” finds four words like this and uses them to reckon with Trump’s ascent and the America that enabled it. Those keywords — delusion, justice, accountability and freedom — name and organize the four short essays that provide most of the book’s pages. A forethought and an afterthought frame the four chapters with reflections on the way Smith came to the work, the way the project affected him and what he allows himself to hope for at its conclusion.
The argument is straightforward. We learn in the forethought, and are reminded in the afterthought, that Smith was dismayed by the election of 2016. (“Broken,” he says in one place. “Shattered,” in another.) This prompts him to consider the concerns about America and Americans that require his keywords.
Concerns like these: The idea of America is rooted in delusions. What we often call “justice” is anything but. Our attempts to hold people accountable for their misdeeds often obscure our own evasions of societal responsibility. And we often confuse the difficult search for real freedom with the dangerous quest for unfettered self-creation, unburdened by history or consequences.
The afterthought notes that Trump’s rise has upset the author’s long-standing accommodation with depression. (It has done this in part by hastening climate devastation and diminishing the chances of humanity’s survival.) It also raises the worry about writerly futility before closing with a diffident call for community, hope and faith in the possible.
The book is dotted with tight, eloquent passages that unite these concerns. For example, after pointing out that the uncritical acceptance of national myths limits our freedom to change for the better, Smith explains:
“This will happen so long as the fear of loss triumphs over a desire for justice and accountability. A nation unwilling to tell the truth about itself to itself will circle its delusions until there is nothing left to tether it to reality.”
What truths are we unwilling to tell? The United States is an empire, complete with colonies like Puerto Rico. Capitalism is a hustle. There are good reasons to hate the police and to say so openly. Stigmatizing and jailing criminals is a way of hiding the human wreckage of a dysfunctional society without addressing the dysfunctions. The presidency is a baggy repository of national myths and psycho-cultural investments, which makes it surprisingly unhelpful in achieving justice and democracy.
These claims may seem obvious — obviously right or obviously wrong, depending on one’s politics. Why bother with a book that spends almost 200 pages “telling you what I hope you already know, already feel”? Because Smith is writing in the tradition of James Baldwin and George Orwell and Audre Lorde, in the tradition of the political essay, which, like the sermon and the novel, aims less to tell us what we don’t know than to renew our relationships with the things we do.
Consider Smith’s discussion of capitalism. He laments labor exploitation and the ongoing production of poverty, and he does so at first in ways that in another kind of book would lead to leaden axioms or airy theories. Here, though, they lead to this: “I learned this lesson not from Karl Marx but from Iceberg Slim when I read the latter’s memoir Pimp.” Pimping, he goes on to explain, “is capitalism in its purest form.” And criticizing capitalism in this way reveals the essayist’s virtue in perhaps its purest form.
Iceberg Slim is just one of the characters that each chapter uses to dramatize its arguments. Bill Cosby, for example, is the main villain of the accountability chapter, and one of that chapter’s heroes is a stunningly self-composed young woman who shrugs off sexist verbal abuse on the subway. Shirley Chisholm, the pioneering Black congresswoman who ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972, figures prominently, with her constituents and political descendants (like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), in multiple places. Chisholm is a particularly helpful companion on Smith’s journey, both because she is a generally underappreciated figure and because she makes possible this marvelously concise sendup of our blinkered obsession with the presidency: “The kind of country that would elect Shirley Chisholm as president would not need Shirley Chisholm to be president.”
Smith gathers these figures around him like a chorus, where they amplify his voice as much as they exemplify his arguments. They also clarify the stakes of his study by showing that our predicament, and the resources for understanding it and withstanding it, involve living, breathing humans in community, not abstract principles or solitary saviors.
Which brings us to the characters who give the book its name. “Stakes Is High” is a song by the classic hip-hop group De La Soul. The video that accompanies the song shows impossible things, as videos are wont to do. This one shows a rapper beating an elite NBA player at basketball. This is an unrealistic fantasy. But it is a playful and self-conscious fantasy. It portrays the expansion of possibility without attempting to displace reality. It is, in this way, precisely not like the fantasies that animate American national life, and that propel odious politicians to power, and that raise the stakes of political engagement for everyone.
Smith’s book is about these damaging fantasies. But it is also about remembering and achieving more productive and revolutionary exercises of the imagination. It begins in dismay and grapples with fear. But it engages this moment with intelligence and courage, and invites its readers to do the same.
STAKES IS HIGH
Life After the American Dream
By Mychal Denzel Smith
Bold Type Books.
208 pp. $26