My favorite exchange yesterday came when Senator Dan Sullivan took the microphone. He’s a Republican from Alaska, but he could as easily have been a Democrat of a certain disposition. He observed that Mr Zuckerberg had created his spectacularly lucrative global behemoth in his college dorm room at the age of nineteen. And then he said: “Facebook is an ‘Only in America’ story, right?”
The witness looked befuddled — as I do in, say, Marseille, when a bit of local vernacular runs up against the limits of my conversational French.
So Senator Sullivan attempted to clarify what he meant. “You couldn’t do this in China, right?”
Zuckerberg considered the matter, sincerely. “Well, Senator,” he said, “there are some very strong Chinese Internet companies.”
“Come on, I’m trying to help you,” growled the plain-spoken Sullivan, throwing in the towel. “Gimme a break, you’re in front of a bunch of senators: the answer is yes.” The audience laughed. But the child-man seemed genuinely nonplussed.
“Only in America” is an American expression. Nobody in Belgium says “Only in Belgium”, or in Tajikistan “Only in Tajikistan”. … Had some member of the committee brought it up when I testified before the Senate, I would have known enough, even as an unassimilated foreigner, to divine that you’re meant to agree.
But Mark Zuckerberg, the most successful American businessman of the 21st century, was baffled.
He didn’t even know enough to know that, even if you don’t really believe it, you’re supposed to pretend to, and move on: The phrase was as utterly alien to him as if he’d just landed from Planet Zongo. It had no purchase on him — as perhaps it doesn’t to the majority of Americans of his generation and background.
To be sure, I doubt he thinks of himself as a rags-to-riches story. If you’re inventing Facebook in a dorm room, it helps if the dorm room is at Harvard, which most Americans will never get anywhere near. In that sense, Zuckerberg might be more emblematic of a calcifying class system and diminishing social mobility. As the middle class shrinks, we’re moving toward a Latin-American social structure, with a rich, corrupt, self-reinforcing elite, and a great dysfunctional mass underneath, and ever less in the middle, and not much by way of a viable path for anyone at the bottom to advance toward the top. …
“Only in America”? Zuckerberg’s way beyond that. This is the Latin-American class system applied worldwide: an elite beyond borders, and the masses under 24-hour surveillance by the NSA, or Facebook, or a malign alliance of both.