American Exceptionalism is meant to be the official element both in the ideology of self-perception and in the foreign policy of the USA. But, in terms of society, do people feel exceptional by being part of it? How and where do we draw the line between the romantic concept of a society built on the firm belief in itself and the day-to-day life, where visions and ideals are often not enough or even out of place? Books have already been titled “The End of American Exceptionalism”, prophesying or lamenting the fading away of this ideology. While reading “The Unwinding”, one ends up asking himself: Is it over with the great unbreakable American spirit? This is the foundation, on which the book is built, it is this contradictory mixture of the sensation of being left alone and being compelled to make it, precisely because and despite the fact that nobody helps you: this is how America works.
The book offers a look at the last 30 years of the American society and a story of its decay. Written in a clear, transparent journalistic style, “The Unwinding” doesn’t analyze or interpret, it tells, interweaves stories, stories are intertwined from the reader’s angle, like parts of a puzzle which displays a realistic picture of US-society and its day-to-day life, bare of slogans and ideologies. The king is naked.
What makes American society exceptional is the concept of individualism and the expectation to live up to it. But reality looks different, the foundations on which American society is built and is proud of like religious faith, vertical mobility, the classless society, are a myth, “Schnee von gestern”. Americans born after 1980 attend church far less frequently than young people did in the past, religious faith and values are losing importance. Vertical mobility seems not to be taken for granted any more: income and education are two of the main factors which dampen social mobility. Poverty is growing (holy 47%, Batman!, as Krugman exclaimed), the constitution is antiquated. People are concerned that a stronger social policy may turn the USA into a socialist country, individualism would wane.
“The Unwinding” restrains from judging, at first sight: Packer limits himself to tell a story, even if he sounds, at times, astoundingly personal. The characters comprise people from different social strata and build stereotypes, from members of the governing elites, who end up deeply disappointed by the political game, multimillionaires, self-made men, who support ingenious and ambitious young Americans to make the world a better place, through middle-class businessmen and rappers whose only goal is make money and write the story of their own glory, through bloggers and losers, to people who come from the lowest strata of society and manage to reinvent themselves and find stability.
Politics and economy play this game together. Like that Nothing in “The Never-ending story”, it is a mechanism which eats up, swallows everything and everybody on its way. Packer doesn’t ask, whose fault it was, it is. “Greed” is the word that slickers through the pages of the book. But, can we blame Americans for being the way they are? For having made themselves, as the rules of the American Dream require? To keep the image of being exceptional, one has to sweep certain things under the carpet. If you pray individualism, you can’t expect a social state.
One inevitably has to compare the country now with the story Steinbeck narrated in “The Grapes of Wrath” not so long ago, during the Great Depression, in which the family from Oklahoma set off on their journey to California towards a survival, and each day of that journey was a fight and victory against hunger, misfortune, bad luck, against life. Some things have not changed. Land used to mean money, and money meant power. Today, land has been replaced by technology, but life still seems to be a journey to the Promised Land. The tools have changed, some rules have changed, but the commodity, the human material in its essence hasn’t.
From the arrogance of a European point of view, life must be hard for the people living in “small town America”, in the central states, far from the bustling cities on the East and West coasts, where petrol means life, a job, everything, because otherwise, due to bad (or lack of) infrastructure one is isolated from the rest of the world. We compare their living standard with our ” Old-World”, European one: where cities and towns are packed with people and cars, but where infrastructure, public transport are -relatively- reliable, above all, they exist. One is never cut off, unless he wants it and, which is more important, is able to afford it. This is one of the merits of the social state: too much society.
On the other hand, a radical attitude towards academic education and the whole academic system is demonstrated by people on the top of society (top measured in income). Unless you want to get into politics and make a career, say, unless you want to be part of the system and play its rules, the system is useless. On the top of society, people openly accuse universities of being lazy, restrictive and encourage young academicians to create their startups and fulfill their dreams outside the academic system. Now, this must hurt. It doesn’t really leave us baffled, though: It is a logical effect of the highly praised American Individualism.
At European universities, until not long ago the concept of the university as a forum reigned, a place where ideas could be exchanged, ideals created, where great thoughts and movements could come to life. In the end, the good old and old-fashioned 19th– century model. But then, the Bologna educational reform was approved to make academic education more practical, functional, corresponding to society’s and world’s needs. Unfortunately, it has created students who go through courses, subjects, and exams mechanically. Very few of them excel thanks to their creative mind and a spirit to change things for better, thanks to inspiration. I’m not saying that America can boast about its superb, ingenious youth, but at least the possibility to grow unchained exists.
And yet, the real, authentic hero is the average American and with him, this overwhelming feeling of being impotent, a cog in the machine. A hero in the traditional, classical sense, who combats destiny and forges his future, despite politics and economy, because this is what he has always done. Americans are trapped by their own idea of exceptionalism, as it involves the assumption one has to make it on his own. Rules have an only relative importance in a society in which the extremes are so far away from each other. At some point, the author says that the American people have forgotten that they are exceptional, the only thing they need is to remember it and be exceptional again.
The book is a lamento and an ode to the American spirit, to the pride of being American, even if that means to fight and fall and stand up again, always alone. So full of admiration it may sound, this kind of rhetoric could never impress in Europe: too much society, too much state. Individualism is the main ingredient of that complex building called American Exceptionalism. And it can thrive and glitter and become greater and greater only in this society.
So, yes: America huele a moho, and it will need to rethink its identity and image. Values need to change, the concept of exceptionalism needs to keep pace with the time if Americans want to feel exceptional again. And this is not a question of taste, it is a necessity for the whole world, too many things depend on America.