Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Oprah, Harvard, and Inequality. By George Packer.

Oprah, Harvard, and Inequality. By George Packer. The New Yorker, June 4, 2013.


Two weeks ago in this space, I wrote about the strange conjunction of America’s ever-widening inclusiveness and ever-growing disparity. Oprah at Harvard is a perfect illustration: her arrival at that summit is improbable and extraordinary, a parable of individual talent meeting social opportunity. She took the occasion to remind her audience of her triumph, and of the blessings that surely come in America today with the right alma mater and the right connections. Her presence was proof that the meritocracy really works, that equal opportunity is real—a reassuring thought in a time and place where social mobility has dwindled and American success stories are more and more likely to be born rather than made.

I don’t think there’s a causal relation between these two essential facts from the past generation: that a poor black girl from the Deep South can grow up to be an empire-builder, and that the gap in income and life chances between Americans with Harvard degrees and Americans without is getting bigger every year. They have happened at the same time, and they pull in opposite directions. One doesn’t necessitate or further the other. But my last column got a critical rejoinder from Samuel Goldman, in the American Conservative. Goldman claims that the two trends are intimately related, and that they’re somehow the doing of post-sixties educated liberals like me, and, perhaps, you, who have gone all in for tolerance, diversity, and lax moral standards while forsaking the troubled working class. It might not even be possible to have Oprah and fairness: “It is hard for a society characterized by ethnic and cultural pluralism to generate the solidarity required for the redistribution of wealth. People are willing, on the whole, to pay high taxes and forgo luxuries to support those they see as like themselves. They are often unwilling to do so for those who look, sound, or act very differently.”

Goldman is conflating a number of things here—among them, the ideal of equality before the law and the reality of a loud, consumerist, gadget-dazzled, indifferent society. Is there something about black enfranchisement, women’s quest for equal pay, and the right of gays to marry that required Americans to start overspending, paying their workers less, and neglecting their children? If so, should we return to segregation, bored housewives, and the closet on the chance that these might restore unions to health and revive public schools? Goldman’s argument is that, beyond a certain level of diversity, a democratic society—that is, one in which equal opportunity means something more than the chance for each of us to have our own TV network—stops being possible. This view takes us back to conservatism of a particular sort—not the universalist creed of the Declaration but the philosophy of the Know Nothings.

On the other hand, there’s this uncomfortable truth, pointed out by Ross Douthat, of the Times: the period of greatest economic equality and social solidarity, the years between the Great Depression and the nineteen-seventies, which I call the Roosevelt Republic, coincided with the doors being firmly shut to immigrants. The decades that came before and after this more secure era—from the Gilded Age to the nineteen-twenties, and the generation since the late seventies, the period of the unwinding—saw those doors swing wide open. Douthat suggests that waves of immigration have created social divisions and competition for jobs at the bottom, both of which have something to do with the fraying of the social contract. If human beings were better, it wouldn’t be so—but they aren’t, so it is. Douthat’s is a more subtle, less partisan argument than Goldman’s, and it poses a problem for liberals who want more equality and more immigration.

My book explores some of these questions in the indirect way of narrative. It makes no explicit arguments supported by statistics, social science, or political theory. There are plenty of good books on inequality, political polarization, institutional instability, the decline of the working class, the economic and social effects of globalization and the Information Age. I didn’t want to write that kind of book; I couldn’t have if I’d tried. I wanted to do something else: create a portrait of the country during years when freedom became maximal and the social contract frayed. I wanted to convey what this condition feels and looks and sounds like, in individuals’ lives, voices, nervous systems.

I saw no need to distribute blame in appropriate portions, in keeping with a political framework. There’s plenty to go around: the characters in “The Unwinding” aren’t helpless victims. They make big mistakes, they get pregnant too young, their marriages break up, they let their businesses collapse, they go broke, they invest their money unwisely, they fill their minds and stomachs with junk, they trust the wrong people, they get themselves fired from jobs they can’t afford to lose, they make bad decisions for their children. One family in particular—the Hartzells, of Tampa, who appear near the end of the book—have had such a hard time that they are currently homeless, with two children, in quite desperate circumstances.

Partly, it’s their own fault. And partly it’s the huge disruptions of recent history: the disappearance of blue-collar jobs, the Walmartization of the economy, the decay of public schools, the collapse of institutional structures that used to support the aspirations of the middle class, the atomization of everyday life where there is no secure living. Those upheavals, in turn, aren’t simply the product of blind forces, like hurricanes and earthquakes. They have happened because Americans have let them happen, sometimes without knowing it, sometimes with deliberate intent. “The Unwinding” has no ideology, but it does subscribe to the view that those with the most power and influence, who have benefitted the most handsomely, bear more responsibility than the Hartzells.

The Unwinding. By George Packer. NJBR, May 20, 2013. With related articles.

Oprah Winfrey Tells Harvard Graduates “Failure is Just Life Trying to Move Us in Another Direction.” By Molly Greenberg. InTheCapital, May 31, 2013.

5 Best Quotes from Oprah Winfrey’s Inspiring Harvard University Commencement Speech. By Vi-An Nguyen. Parade, May 31, 2013.

Oprah Winfrey Harvard Commencement 2013 Speech. Video. Harvard, May 30, 2013. YouTube.


It doesn’t matter how far you might rise. At some point, you are bound to stumble. If you’re constantly pushing yourself higher and higher, the law of averages, not to mention The Myth of Icarus, predicts that you will at some point fall. And when you do, I want you to remember this: There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction. Now, when you’re down there in the hole, it looks like failure. When that moment comes, it’s okay to feel bad for a little while. Give yourself time to mourn what you think you may have lost. But then, here’s the key: Learn from every mistake, because every experience, particularly your mistakes, are there to teach you and force you into being more who you are.
. . . .

You will find true success and happiness if you have only one goal. There really is only one, and that is this: To fulfill the highest, most truthful expression of yourself as a human being. You want to max out your humanity by using your energy to lift yourself up, your family, and the people around you. Theologian Howard Thurman said it best. He said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Cartoonist Steve Breen’s Homage to Jacksonian Patriotism.

Pledge of Allegiance. By Steve Breen. Go Comics, September 15, 2010.

The U.S. Should Be In the Dock, Not Bradley Manning. By Owen Jones.

The United States should be in the dock, not Bradley Manning. By Owen Jones. The Independent, June 2, 2013.

Seven Myths About Bradley Manning. By Chase Madar. The Nation, June 3, 2013.


There has always been a somewhat Orwellian quality to US foreign policy: “we have always been at war with Islamic fundamentalism”, for example. And yet in the 1980s, US arms were distributed through Pakistan’s secret services to the Afghan mujihadeen: they were freedom-fighters, you see. Then we ended up in a never-ending war in Afghanistan, battling on behalf of a corrupt and undemocratic government, against Islamic fundamentalist elements. Several hundred miles away, the US is proactively backing Syria’s jihadists alongside its Islamist fundamentalist ally, Saudi Arabia. Waves of Islamist fighters were recruited by the calamity of Iraq.

There is nothing patriotic about the poorly scrutinised actions of the US foreign policy elite. Scores of young men or women are sent to be killed or maimed: those who call for bringing them to safety are smeared as “unpatriotic”. US civilians are put at risk of “blowback”, a CIA word for the unintended consequences of foreign interventions. They can even fail disastrously on their own terms. Back in the 1950s, the US helped overthrow Iran’s last democratically-elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, fuelling anti-American sentiment that helped drive the Iranian Revolution.

That is why Manning has done us such a service. He has encouraged us to scrutinise the hidden realities of US power, and consider the dire consequences of decisions shrouded in secrecy. His actions should compel us to build a more open, balanced world, where great powers are less able to throw their poorly understood weight around. It would be a long-term investment: the US is in long-term decline, and autocratic China may take its place, quite possibly using its power more unjustly. Better, then, to challenge this world order now.

I happen to believe the creation of such a world is not a naïve fantasy. It can and must be built. And however your trial goes, you, Mr Manning, will be remembered for your own contribution in building it.