Well, to all my American friends and family, Happy 4th July. I wish you a great day of celebration and fun. That is always a little strange coming from a Brit. After all, you did rebel against us. But I think we’ve kinda gotten over it now (as you might put it). But it’s well-meant. America is a country I’ve grown to love (or at least certainly the bits I’ve visited). And as Bono has said more than once (perhaps explaining why he’s never forsaken his Irish roots despite his love for the US): Ireland’s a great country, but America is a great idea. And that’s what the 4th is all about at its best. A great idea.
But like all idealism, it often gets dislocated from reality. Patriotic fervour blinds us to the margins and the dispossessed. Which is why New Yorker staff-writer George Packer’s new book is so extraordinary. The Unwinding: An Inner history of the New America is nothing short of a masterpiece. The prose is superlative: understated, humane, at times even lyrical. The subject-matter is dealt with great sensitivity and non-partisanship. There are no political sideswipes here. He is merely trying to hold up a mirror.
This is more a careful diagnosis of a country that is greatly loved but for which is there is great (and justifiable) concern. For what is happening to the great American idea when such contrasting bandwagons as Occupy and the Tea Party have gained such traction? How did the Credit Crunch and the sub-prime mortgage scandal come about; what has happened to the much touted American sense of optimism? Why do the big institutions like the federal government, banks, media and the legal system all seem to be failing those who need them most?
Packer artfully manages to take the nation’s temperature by means of a handful of individuals, whose stories from the last 30 years he tells through the book. They are well-chosen: a small-business entrepreneur in North Carolina; a newspaper reporter in Tampa, Florida; an African-American single mother in the Rust Belt; an Indian immigrant struggling to keep her motel franchise afloat; a DC beltway insider who has been lawyer, Wall St drone, on Joe Biden’s senate staff, successful lobbyist; a key player in Silicon Valley. These stories are leitmotifs, around which Packer weaves thumbnail sketches of iconic figures in recent American history like Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam ‘Walmart’ Walton and short story writer Raymond Carver.
His thesis is striking for its moderation, in a way. He doesn’t detect a total collapse, as more histrionic or irresponsible journalists might. He simply calls it an ‘unwinding’, something which has happened from time to time in American history, and from which the country has often bounced back. But left unaddressed, the genuine grievances articulated here will lead to a problem far more serious than a mere unwinding.
When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money. … The unwinding is nothing new. There have been unwindings every generation or two. (p3)
Drawing on conversations with silicon valley billionaire Peter Thiel, there is an interesting point about the 2012 presidential election:
President Obama probably believed that there wasn’t much to be done about decline except manage it, but he couldn’t give another ‘malaise’ speech (after what happened to Jimmy Carter, no one ever would again), so his picture of the future remained strangely empty. Both Obama and Romney ended up in the wrong place: the former thought American exceptionalism was no longer true and should be given up while the latter thought it was still true. Neither was willing to tell Americans that they were no longer exceptional but should try to be again. (p385)
For foreigners like me, the notion of American exceptionalism is a tricky one. I can’t help but be reminded of the jingoistic pride of British imperialism 100 years ago. I say this with what I hope is sensitivity, but to consider one’s country as the best in every way is both fallacious and idolatrous. It is of course totally different to aspire to be great as a country, but one has to be very careful to choose the right criteria for measuring that greatness. Having the world’s biggest defence budget or largest economy might not be the best yardsticks, especially when there are such significant problems as personified by the testimonies recounted in this book. Again the libertarian-minded Peter Thiel has a challenging warning:
In the history of the modern world, inequality has only been ended through communist revolution, war, or deflationary economic collapse. It’s a disturbing question which of these three is going to happen today, or if there’s a fourth way out. (p372)
For all our sakes, but especially for those trapped at the bottom of a deeply divided society (and therefore a long way from experiencing true American liberty), let us hope there can now be a rewinding.
So, with great affection and appreciation:
Happy Independence Day.