Harvard’s commencement speaker last week was none other than Oprah. I happened to be in Cambridge, flogging “The Unwinding,” and was more than a little interested in this fact. Oprah is one of the ten famous Americans whose lives are chronicled in the book, alongside the unknowns who are its main characters. The invitation from Harvard, along with an honorary doctorate, marked a kind of apotheosis in Oprah’s celebrated story of struggle from poverty and obscurity to colossal wealth, fame, and success.
“Oh-h-h, my goodness, I’m at Harrrrrvard!” Oprah exclaimed to the Class of 2013, letting the graduates in on her self-amazement. She told the story of her Mississippi childhood, her ascendant career, and her recent troubles in getting the Oprah Winfrey Network off the ground. After some embarrassing setbacks, she said, “I’m here to tell you today that I have turned that network around.” She offered her own tale of grit, determination, and inspirational thinking as a model for the students, who sat rapt before her. And she reminded them that, no matter what happens, they will always be able to say that they graduated from Harvard.
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.