There were many interesting moments in Mark Zuckerberg's testimony before Congress - starting with the gazillionaire child-man's decision to follow Larry Kudlow's advice and eschew his usual garb for a suit and tie. "I'm tired of that t-shirt, hoodie stuff," remarked Larry. "The guy's running one of the largest corporations of the world, for heaven's sake." This was reported by the leftie lads at ThinkProgress under the headline "Trump official rants about Zuckerberg's clothes".
I'm with Larry on this one. One of the reasons my old boss Conrad Black was resented by large sections of the proletariat (and, eventually, a decisive sliver of his Chicago jury) was that he looked like the masses' idea of a rich man, bespoke and luxuriously upholstered. I don't believe I've ever seen Conrad out in public in a top hat, but he was wearing one metaphorically. Like 19th century robber-baron cartoons and the Monopoly man, he hewed to time-honored preconceptions of the plutocrat. Zuckerberg does not. He is, as Larry noted, a "chief executive" of a "corporation", but he talks of it as if he's running a kindly charity - his customers are "the community", and all he does is "connect" them, a word that means harvesting your personal information as Planned Parenthood harvests your body parts. Streamlining traditional business models by discreetly transforming the customer into the product has proved infinitely more lucrative than making widgets. But it is necessary to be somewhat coy about this, and, if you think at this stage that the hoodie is not a consciously selected prop in this strategy, I've a bridge-building community-outreach social-media data-mining operation in Brooklyn to connect you with.
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". In 2000, when Al Gore chose the first Jewish running mate on a presidential ticket, Joe Lieberman beamed and said, "Only in America!" Only in America can you be nominated to be vice-president of America: Mark Zuckerberg might have been able to compute that one in a narrow literal sense. But his bewilderment at the phrase's broader talismanic power was revealing. There are plenty of public figures who truly believe "Only in America, right?", as Mr Sullivan does. There are others who don't necessarily but would feel obliged to defer to it because, as Sullivan explained, "the answer is yes". 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"? Why would Zuckerberg see it that way? His company's bigger than most countries, and he's a bigger global player than most presidents or prime ministers. I assume he still travels on a US passport, but, if you fly in and out on a private plane, you don't really have to get your papers out and show them to anyone terribly often: Your jet lands in Paris or London, Moscow or Beijing, and the immigration official boards the plane and your assistant hands over the passports of the handful of passengers and the flunky looks them over and returns them and the assistant tucks yours away and follows you down to the limo at the foot of the steps. I would doubt Zuckerberg has physically held his passport in many a year. In that sense, his citizenship is not a significant data point.
"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 NSAe, or Facebook, or a malign alliance of both. Mark Zuckerberg's territory is the planet; for most law-abiding persons of western nations, the horizons will be ever more circumscribed.
He's back on the stand today, and then out of the suit and back in his familiar dress to return to blathering about "connecting" his "community": The child-man colossus in T-shirt and hoodie. Little Brother is watching us.
~Mark will be back later today, Wednesday, north of the border with John Oakley on Toronto's AM640. Only in Canada, right? That's live at 5pm Eastern, and a couple of hours after that he'll be back here for Episode Six of our current Tale for Our Time for Mark Steyn Club members: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. If you've a friend who'd appreciate the gift of Steyn, we've introduced a special Mark Steyn Club Gift Membership. You'll find more details here - and don't forget, over at the Steyn store, our Steynamite Specials on books and much more.