The world is 7 billion stories waiting to be told. America is perhaps the only nation conceived on the principle that individual stories are worth telling, but in this era of foreclosure, it’s the nation most likely to walk back its promise to tell them.
No matter what America ever aspired to be, we’ve never come close to living its mythos. The greatness of America was not in providing greater opportunities for its citizens, but in that it aspired to provide them. The world is a cruel enough place that no state before the United States ever believed that individuals had dignity enough to treat as something more than a dot to move to its proper place among a massive collection of dots. But America was, at least in part, founded on the audacious belief that each dot has a unique composition worth appreciation. Even if America was founded on the idea that female dots and African dots were more dispensable, the path of individual rights was set with unalterable momentum, slowed down many times, but never thus far never stopped.
Yet most of the time, the ride feels slow indeed. Despair sets in all too quickly in this nation whose national religion is optimism. If America is so awash in opportunity and freedom, why are its people so consistently desperate? From King George to Vladimir Putin, when a despot sees a country like America who proclaims the rights of the individual so loudly, and violates those rights so often and flagrantly, how can they not think this faux-democracy’s unceasing demand for greater human rights is anything but hypocrisy? The greatest insult of all is that this jingoistic American establishment, with so much vested interest in proclaiming freedoms for their citizens they so seldom grant, is the closest thing to a friend these suffering American underclasses ever have. No one has a greater interest in prolonging the hypocritical suffering of the American poor than despots like Vladimir Putin, who want to show the world that it’s folly to ever hope for better lives. And no enemy of America has ever been more successful in showing American hypocrisy than this neo-Tsar whose conception of freedom was formed in the Middle Ages.
In eras like ours, mass movements of the Left and Right always emerge to tell us that until now, all American progress is a mirage. On one side, people who claim that slavery just took different forms, on the other, people who believe life would be better if we reverted to institutions more like slavery. What instantly strikes you about the nihilism of both movements is their self-defeatism. If all progress until now has been for nothing or regress, why keep struggling? Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, so why would anyone who believes them expect there that these struggles will ever result in anything better than before?
Ambiguities like these are the genius of George Packer’s non-fiction masterpiece, The Unwinding – An Inner History of The New America. Apparently taking his cue from John Dos Passos’s much celebrated and seldom read USA Trilogy (sitting on my shelf for a year), Packer constructs a gorgeously detailed fresco of recent American life – hopes, fears, anguishes, and all too few triumphs. He follows the life stories of Americans who could stand as archetypes for our era – the Southern entrepreneur thwarted into the poorhouse at every turn by corporations, the African-American lady frantically searching for ever-dwindling factory jobs to support a family perpetually on the verge of falling apart, the once idealistic public servant who sold his soul to make millions as a lobbyist, even the story of an entire city – Tampa – built on credit and loans which banks knew their citizens could never pay back, then convinced by right-wing media that the root of their problems is government interference, interference which should have prevented the financial sector from exploiting them. Against their biographies are pitted the biographies of the ‘great men’ (and women) of consequence whom in their various ways created the circumstances that lead to this moment in American History: Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, Robert Rubin, Oprah Winfrey, Andrew Breitbart, Jay-Z.
But a year after The Unwinding‘s publishing in 2013, the air of American life began to feel very different. The relatively subtle authoritarianism of Newt Gingrich became outright in Donald Trump. The unwittingly predatory finance of Robert Rubin’s Goldman Sachs became the deliberate predation of Jamie Dimon’s JPMorgan Chase. Andrew Breitbart’s misleading journalism as entertainment became the monolithic propaganda machine of Steve Bannon. The Unwinding is not the inner history of the new America, it’s the inner history of an already old America that we were in denial existed while it did, and created the America where we’re now deposited.
Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.