Read any collection of reviews on The Unwinding, and you’ll find something remarkable: a range of incongruent opinions, all claiming this book as validation of their particular place on the political spectrum. They stand testament to Packer’s skill as a journalist in capturing something as complex as America itself. For some, the book provokes an understandable sense of disappointment and anger at the country’s demise. Yet it is hard to imagine that this was Packer’s intended effect on the American people: if anything, The Unwinding is a compelling argument for independent thought and self-determination.
For the most part, Packer leaves his main characters in a melange of exhaustion, hope, and uncertainty. Tammy, the single mother, has broken her back for a lifetime to send her kids to college. Connaughton, the ex-lobbyist, takes a shower to wash off the stink of Washington. The Occupy Wall Street guy finds an intense episode of coherence and purpose, only to end up homeless and alone. Breitbart ends up dead. Yet not all is doomed. Among the book’s colourful cast, Thiel, Oprah, Jay-Z, and perhaps even Dean Price achieve some form of lasting success - the American Dream, writ large.
To grapple with the American Dream is to be held tense between two beliefs. On one extreme, the belief that society is a meritocracy and that outcomes are a badge of ability. On the other, the belief that all discrepancies are evidence of oppression: some folks take more than their fair share, and justice can only be achieved by tearing down the institutional machinery which enables them.
The dichotomy above may traditionally be described as right versus left. Yet in 2017 - a year of painful polarization - both ends of the political spectrum can be seen doing the same thing: finding an “other” to blame.
For the left, this “other” usually takes adjectives such as heterosexual, white, male, or affluent. This collection of words is often packaged and flattened further into the idea of privilege, which serves as a neat catch-all for anyone who is perceived to be playing with an unfair advantage. On the right, the chosen strawman is a contemptible mob of post-modern crybabies who spend their lives competing for the coveted title of “victim” - a political identity which confers institutional power and social cachet.
What is lacking in both these coping strategies is a belief in the power of individual action. To grant another group the status of “oppressor”, however insulting the word may be, is to admit that they hold power which can only be opposed at some higher level of group identity. The individual is lost in the argument. Both sides claim to fight for American ideals, while throwing away the core belief of the American Dream: that questions such “who are you?” or “where did you come from?” should pale in comparison to the almighty question of “what can you do?”
Of the characters who found success in Packer’s book, there is a common theme among their worldviews: the individual in America can observe how the world behaves, take deliberate action, and achieve something worthwhile. Identity politics is at most a backdrop - ever present, but taking backstage to life itself.
Oprah “hated Black Power at Tennessee State in the early seventies, and didn’t care about politics at all”. She “had better relations with white people than with her own family, and later she would say that she never felt oppressed except by black people who disliked her very dark skin or envied her success”. For Jay-Z, dealing was a means to allow for rapping, music was just another hustle, and he approached them both with cold focus. All business. “Selfishness was a rational response to the reality he faced.” The only explicit mention of race comes at the end of the chapter, addressed to those who are unimpressed that Jay-Z only owns a small percentage of the Brooklyn Mets. He holds up his middle finger and reminds his critics that he was a black kid from a single parent house in the Marcy projects. “The fact that I have any ownership in this venue is fucking amazing”, he retorts. The implication: I drew a tough hand in life, and I achieved the impossible with it, so fuck off. The sentiment would feel right at home with one of Thiel’s: “Reject the unjust tyranny of chance. You are not a lottery ticket”.
Thiel is at once a stalwart promoter of libertarian values and a scathing denouncer of identity politics. His views are well-exemplified in one sound byte from the Republican National Convention of 2016:
“When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?”
In The Diversity Myth and Zero to One, Thiel’s makes his values clear. He believes in objective truths about the nature of the world which transcend identity and culture. He believes culture wars are a crippling distraction from American progress. He believes in the power of an individual acting on reasoned conviction. This conviction occupies the top left corner of this well-known diagram in Zero to One, and he calls it Definite Optimism：
A streak of such definite optimism runs through Dean Price, the entrepreneur. He discovers, by chapter one, that working for a large company is simply another form of mind-numbing servitude. A lifetime of debt and countless mistakes in execution cannot mar his vision of a concrete and positive future. He sees an empty highway, and imagines a chain of Red Birch stores enlivening the countryside. He sees fallow tobacco fields, and imagines a new agrarian boom in the rural south, powered by individual farmers who supply the crop for a biodiesel revolution. Price is reminiscent of John Reber, the schoolteacher lauded by Thiel in Zero to One, who audaciously put forth a plan to reinvent the entire San Francisco Bay, and was taken seriously by Congress despite having zero experience or credentials.
Besides - in a world that seems to be falling apart, experienced and credentialed experts may actually deserve wariness instead of respect. Kevin Moore, the trader, disobeys the head of his desk and runs for the elevator as soon as the South tower is hit. “Fuck you and your fire drill procedure,” he says. “You want to fire me, fire me. I’m done”. As he heads uptown against throngs of clueless commuters, a sentiment arises which will repeat itself during the 2008 financial meltdown: “In a crisis you realized that society operated without anyone knowing deep down what the hell was really going on.”
Granted, Packer is no Fountainhead-thumping libertarian: he certainly believes in the significance of a broader social fabric. The very title of the book presupposes the idea that there was a large and important something to be unwound in the first place. The book’s cover is a rotting American flag, implying that it laments an abstracted and broken nation.
Yet salvation comes shining through in the very structure of the book itself. His chapters are not organized around bombastic theories on which evil machine is to blame, but around the remarkable lives and choices of individual people. What makes this book compelling is Packer’s quiet tribute to the self-determining American, with an empathetic eye for reality that Ayn Rand never quite found. Institutions may rot and crumble, and the very fabric of society may be torn asunder. But the human capacity to do something stands as bedrock: it is all you have, and yet somehow, it may be all you need.