The Unraveling of “The Unraveling of America”

When I read the recent essay “The Unraveling of America” by Wade Davis in Rolling Stone, I tried to ignore it. I tried to do the same thing I did for 13 years in Canada when confronted with spiteful, toxic anti-Americanism: stuff it down, pretend it didn’t matter to me, or — if I was at a social gathering or work event — rearrange my facial features into a rictus of a smile and attempt to move on to the next topic. But I’ve seen this essay posted and reposted on social media by multiple friends, many of whom are wounded and suffering from recent political events in the States, and I can’t just let it go. To quote a spiritual leader much wiser than I, “This aggression will not stand, man.”

From 2006 to 2019, I taught at the same university as Mr. Davis, the University of British Columbia. Last year I made the decision to leave a tenured position with a more-than-comfortable salary at a prestigious research institution in one of the most physically beautiful cities in the world to return home to the States and an academic position at the University of Mississippi. This is not a personal essay about why I made that happy choice, but the official story is that I missed America, and I could no longer sit comfortably by and watch as my country devolved into a state of fascism without doing whatever small things I could do to help fight. But that is the self-serving part of the rationale: the other part is more selfish, and it’s that I simply couldn’t stand living in Vancouver any more. Its shocking wealth disparity; the cruelty of its housing policies; and the isolation, loneliness, and cold unfriendliness of many of its residents eventually became too much to bear.

One of the reasons I cannot stuff down my reaction to this particular essay is that I cannot, I will not, let pass in silence Mr. Davis’s shocking misrepresentation of the state of the social contract in Vancouver — the second least affordable place to live in the world, second only to Hong Kong. In 2017, the average price of a single-family house in Vancouver was nearly $3 million, while the median household income was around $70,000, the fifteenth highest in Canada. In 2018, there were near-riots in the wealthiest neighborhood in Vancouver in response to a plan to mitigate the crushing burden of housing costs on nearly all of the city’s residents: a proposed tax of 0.2% on the value of homes worth between $3 million and $4 million, and a tax rate of 0.4% on the portion of a home’s value that exceeds $4 million, the proceeds of which was to be distributed to schools. (I’ll wait while you read those numbers again and let it all sink in.) Wealthy residents of Point Grey took to the streets in angry protest of the proposed “tax grab” that would chip away slightly at the unconscionable wealth disparity gripping the city. (I will extend to my readers the courtesy denied by Mr. Davis, and inform them that the tax actually had majority support in the wider province.) Meanwhile, the very small percentage of Vancouverites lucky enough to have profited from the booming real estate market blithely turn a blind eye to the real source of their new wealth, and to the fact that their city is essentially run by organized crime, real estate developers, and gutless political leadership working in concert. The international crime syndicates that wash dirty money back and forth between fentanyl production, casino gambling, and condo sales is so deeply entrenched — and successful — that it has been nicknamed “the Vancouver model.”

But here is my favorite bit. After puffing on about Canada’s reponse to COVID (which was the same as that of many, many countries on planet Earth, and the response that the vast majority of Americans would also have preferred), Mr. Davis indulges us by sharing the secret to British Columbia’s success. Allow me to quote at length:

When American friends ask for an explanation, I encourage them to reflect on the last time they bought groceries at their neighborhood Safeway. In the U.S. there is almost always a racial, economic, cultural, and educational chasm between the consumer and the check-out staff that is difficult if not impossible to bridge. In Canada, the experience is quite different. One interacts if not as peers, certainly as members of a wider community. The reason for this is very simple. The checkout person may not share your level of affluence, but they know that you know that they are getting a living wage because of the unions. And they know that you know that their kids and yours most probably go to the same neighborhood public school. Third, and most essential, they know that you know that if their children get sick, they will get exactly the same level of medical care not only of your children but of those of the prime minister. These three strands woven together become the fabric of Canadian social democracy.

During one of his many “interactions” with his local Safeway clerks, did Mr. Davis ever inquire where they lived? Unless they happened to be independently wealthy and grocery-store-clerking as an amusing hobby, it was almost certainly not within 30 miles of the area where he himself presumably lives and does his shopping. (I have no idea where Mr. Davis currently resides, but his official bio lists his birthplace as West Vancouver, a wealthy suburb whose average single-family home price was nearly $4 million in 2017.) It is impossible to live in metro Vancouver on a minimum-wage job — yes, even with unions! Of course, 70% of British Columbia’s workers don’t benefit from union protections, and they are in even worse shape. While Vancouver’s living wage — the salary required to meet the basic needs of a family of four — is $19.50 an hour plus benefits (actually a drop from last year), the minimum wage lags far behind at $13.85 an hour. “The checkout person may not share your level of affluence,” but if you’ve been paying the tiniest shred of attention to the people around you, Mr. Davis, then you know that they know that you know that they are barely surviving. By the time I left the city last year, storefront after storefront in my own neighborhood — the comparatively more “affordable” area near Commercial Drive — was shuttered due to labor shortages. Workers simply couldn’t afford to live in the city on the wages paid by a typical retail job.

But whatever. My real issue is not with the literally laughable vaunting of Vancouver as a model of social equity and justice. (In another essay, on another day, I will address its long history of entrenched racism and its pathological unfriendliness. Of course all three issues are connected.) I actually have a great deal of fondness for the city, and made many dear friends there whom I miss a lot. My issue is much larger and deeper: it is with the general sloppiness, laziness, and borderline irresponsibility of the essay itself. Mr. Davis is a well-regarded anthropologist. I am not intimately familiar with the ethical standards for the practice of that profession, but I can only imagine that they do not include observing a culture from afar through its media, and then characterizing the thoughts, beliefs, hopes, and fears of all members of that culture with sweeping metonyms that elide the crucial differences among individuals. Imagine if a professional anthropologist had published a study that included statements like “the Samoan cult of the individual denies not just community but the very idea of society” or “as they stare into the mirror and perceive only the myth of their exceptionalism, Tibetans remain almost bizarrely incapable of seeing what has actually become of their country.”

The sweeping, agent-less “Americans” statements are thick on the ground here. The technique is a favorite of hack writing since time immemorial: invoke the “spirit” of a group by mischaracterizing the statements and actions of some — in this case, a minority — as indicative of the values and beliefs of all. Mr. Wade throughout indulges in rhetorical feints that Journalism 101 students are carefully trained to notice and avoid. Here are some of my favorite moments:

As a number of countries moved expeditiously to contain the virus, the United States stumbled along in denial, as if willfully blind.

As I hope Mr. Davis is aware, the clear majority of Americans are not in denial or blind about the effects of the pandemic. Many of our politicians in Congress (and elsewhere) have been fighting hard to put in place measures to address and combat it, which have been stymied by Republicans in the Senate and at the state and local level. (Find your own damn links for those.) What does it even mean for an entire country to “stumble along in denial”? This is utter nonsense.

The nation that defeated smallpox and polio, and led the world for generations in medical innovation and discovery, was reduced to a laughing stock as a buffoon of a president advocated the use of household disinfectants.

Is Mr. Davis not capable of differentiating a “nation” from its “buffoon of a president”? People around the world rightly laughed their asses off at Trump’s touting of bleach as a COVID treatment, but only the laziest or most vindictive seized the opportunity to ridicule the entire United States of America and all of its residents in this moment. If we want to play that game, then let us all recall the time that the utterly laughable nation of Canada mandated the destruction of years of scientific research on climate change. Oh, did you say that was actually at the behest of Stephen Harper, the former prime minister, and most Canadians were actually appalled at his actions? I’m sorry; my bad.

Americans have not done themselves any favors. Their political process made possible the ascendancy to the highest office in the land a national disgrace.

Americans, Americans, Americans. I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Clearly it’s an attempt to do an end-run around the fact that, as Mr. Davis is well aware, the majority of Americans did not vote for Trump. But that’s an inconvenient fact when you’re trying to trash an entire country and blame all of its residents for the misdeeds of its current leadership, so through this pretty slipshod rhetorical sleight of hand Mr. Davis attempts to blame current “Americans” for the electoral college. I wonder whom he blames for the election of Doug Ford — a buffoon’s buffoon in the true Trumpian mold — to the premiership of Ontario in 2018? Here’s another juicy tidbit that utilizes the same … questionable logic:

Evidence of such terminal decadence is the choice that so many Americans made in 2016 to prioritize their personal indignations, placing their own resentments above any concerns for the fate of the country and the world, as they rushed to elect [Trump].

So many Americans. Like, 27% of eligible voters. (We can and should lament the fact that voter turnout is historically so low in the U.S. In 2016 just over 61% of eligible voters actually cast a ballot. Of course, in the most recent Canadian federal election turnout was 66%, while in 2008 it was only 59%.)

Those who flock to beaches, bars, and political rallies, putting their fellow citizens at risk, are not exercising freedom; they are displaying, as one commentator has noted, the weakness of a people who lack both the stoicism to endure the pandemic and the fortitude to defeat it.

This one’s fun! Now the small minority of Americans who defy masking and stay-at-home orders balloon to include an entire people (that must be an anthropological term of art) who lack stoicism and fortitude.

By the 1960s, 40 percent of marriages were ending in divorce. Only six percent of American homes had grandparents living beneath the same roof as grandchildren; elders were abandoned to retirement homes….[M]en and women exhausted themselves in jobs that only reinforced their isolation from their families. The average American father spends less than 20 minutes a day in direct communication with his child. By the time a youth reaches 18, he or she will have spent fully two years watching television or staring at a laptop screen…. Only half of Americans report having meaningful, face-to-face social interactions on a daily basis.

If only we could find some examples of other countries in which these same phenomena have been taking place! Oh wait — here are some: 40 percent of Canadian marriages end in divorce. Three percent of Canadian homes have grandparents living in them. (Note the slippage here: the percentage of homes with grandparents is not the same question as the percentage of grandparents living in others’ homes.) The percentage of older Americans living in retirement or nursing homes is 6.5%, whereas in Canada the figure is about 8% (hardly a widespread epidemic of dumping our elders on strangers in either case). As for the rest of the stats, well, I am getting tired of looking them up but I am willing to guarantee you — for I have recently lived for a number of years among the mysterious tribe of Canadians, closely observing their habits — that they’re pretty much the same for both countries.

On and on it goes, to the point of utter numbness on the part of the reader. And that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? If you throw enough groundless generalizations, ad hominem characterizations, and irresponsible uses of the passive voice (“COVID-19 didn’t lay America low; it simply revealed what had long been forsaken”) into a “think” piece, you muddy the waters to the point where the reader is simply swept along by its emotional tone.

As Mr. Davis is doubtless aware, the readership for this essay is almost certainly liberals and lefties — those drawn to its dire, scolding title (and those reading Rolling Stone in the first place). It is these very people — my semblables, my frères and sœurs — who are most hurting right now, most angry and disillusioned, swinging wildly back and forth between bitter hatred of the alt-right minority in our country and self-excoriation and shame. We are the bait for these clicks — I know, of course, because I was also drawn like a moth to a flame by the promise of yet another diagnosis of our ills and prognosis of our inexorable slide into fascist dictatorship. We can’t help but read these pieces, because we are in pain and we care about our country. The best of them — like the work of Masha Gessen — temper their bracing, cold-eyed analyses and dire prognostications with sophisticated insight, subtle reasoning, and empathy. Their authors know thoroughly and well both the strengths and weaknesses of America and, yes, “Americans” (whatever that means), and proffer both diagnosis and hope. The worst of them — of which this essay is certainly the worst of the worst — are thinly disguised rehearsals of ressentiment that do little other than expose the biases and hangups of their authors.

Let me be clear: we are in bad shape. America is in the shitter right now, and no thoughtful person either here or abroad fails to understand that fact. We’re at a crucial juncture in our nation’s history, and if this next election goes the wrong way we are basically toast. Several deep, longstanding, intractable social ills have led us to this place, many of which Mr. Davis, interestingly, chooses not to mention (and all of which Canada shares): colonialism, genocide, slavery, racism, a history of frontier individualism. But militating against those ills is the passionate commitment of many of us to the “American ideals, as celebrated by Madison and Monroe, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy” that are still floating around down here, and are currently finding their voice on the streets of cities and small towns across the country. Those ideals have always been in tension with our racist, genocidal past (and present), but it is a tension that is visible and dynamic, and on occasion gives rise to real and lasting change. Maybe the American experiment is not salvageable; that is a real and distinct possibility. Maybe we’re about to go down in flames this November. But faced with such an option, the only choice is to fight, and fight hard, and to look for succor and aid from those who wish us well.

English prof at University of Mississippi. Current book project on sustainability and utopianism in the 19th century. Team Cake. doctorwaffle.substack.com