Great Perturbations: On George Packer
In his 2000 memoir, Blood of the Liberals, George Packer mentions a post-collegiate encounter with one of his Yale classmates, a young right-wing pundit who had hired Packer—then dividing his time in Boston between carpentry jobs at construction sites and volunteer stints at a downtown homeless shelter—to build him a bookshelf. This was the mid-1980s, and the conservative was a young man in a hurry, tacking confidently into the post-liberal zeitgeist. He was “an apologist for radical laissez-faire economics and a kind of high-Tory moralism on social issues,” Packer writes, “with an attitude toward the poor of contempt mixed with noblesse oblige: get rid of the welfare state and they would have to clean up their lives, emulating the behavior of their industrious and charitable betters.”
As if to drive the point home, the pundit initially paid Packer for the bookshelf with a bounced check, and tersely commanded the carpenter to gather up some materials left behind at the worksite or they’d be tossed. For Packer, the lesson of the episode couldn’t be plainer: “We were no longer equals as we’d been in college and he now felt obliged on principle to treat me in a different way, which is to say, badly.” Some years later, the ungracious right-winger made a desultory swipe in one of his newspaper columns at a piece that Packer had published in Harper’s Magazine, noting that time had essentially passed him by; Packer, the scribe observed, had been ”a keenly intelligent, earnest boy” destined for “great things,” but who instead had “vanished off the face of the Earth after graduation.”
This year, that same pundit—chastened by a tour of duty as a speechwriter in the George W. Bush White House and an infamous cashiering at the hands of the American Enterprise Institute for urging Republicans to compromise on the 2010 healthcare overhaul—has quite graciously offered a blurb on the back cover of The Unwinding, a chronicle that Packer, now a staff writer for The New Yorker, has published to great acclaim. “The hearts and lives broken in this second great depression have now found their eloquent voice and fierce champion in George Packer,” enthuses David Frum. “The Unwinding is an American tragedy and a literary triumph.” George Packer and David Frum are equals once more.
Admittedly, this set piece in literary reputation-making is a small thing, particularly when set beside the grand, sweeping narratives of the American Republic’s steady erosion under the pressures of a newly footloose global capitalism that Packer patiently erects in both Blood of the Liberals and The Unwinding. Still, it’s worth lingering on this curious moment of reputational recalibration, because it says a great deal about Packer’s worthy intellectual ambitions (his un-disappearing, if you will) and the straitened conventions of political narrative in our “second great depression.”
On the one hand, the post-meltdown convergence of Frum’s and Packer’s views could be viewed as a heartening occurrence—a long-overdue recognition on the left and the right that real Americans have been plunged into a prolonged state of malign neglect, earning little more than rhetorical condescension and lip service from the leading institutions and policy-makers that choreographed the great socioeconomic unwinding of the past four decades. Perhaps the cocky, check-bouncing, right-wing churl of the Reagan era—best known for helping to craft the invasion-friendly phrase “axis of evil” during the post-9/11 heyday of the Bush doctrine—has permitted shades of gray, and nuances of economic self-doubt, to enter into his Manichaean view of the world. And perhaps Packer, who had famously sidled up to the liberal-hawk consensus during the same grim prelude to the American imperial errand—a posture he painfully clawed back in his book on the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, The Assassins’ Gate (2005)—could now speak with renewed authority on the struggles of ordinary Americans to overcome the brute forces of remote privilege and all-too-immediate economic privation.
More glumly—and, as it turns out, more plausibly—one might suppose that the new millennial accord between these old Yale-bred antagonists suggests that the explanations of our economic woes have become depoliticized, unmoored from any clear sense of who exactly benefits from the ransacking of the once-robust communities of working- and middle-class America. Like many other efforts to chart a path to civic revival amid conditions of economic ruin, The Unwinding is fueled by an ardent hope that our political institutions can be made more responsive to our most pressing material needs, but it pivots upon a fundamentally fatalistic account of institutional drift and human agency in our society—one that makes it extremely difficult to imagine just how this long-hoped-for change might come to pass.
Instead, we’re left to ponder, in The Unwinding, a chronicle of the fraying of our productive lives (albeit an immensely readable and compelling one) that shuns cogent ideological or political explanations of the causes of our present crisis in favor of a thick narrative description of its symptoms. Nearly every character in Packer’s panorama of economic free fall—major and minor, famous and obscure—is a well-meaning and almost always tragic figure, caught up in impersonal economic trials that blow through their lives in the manner of a 1930s dust storm, leaving them bewildered, dispossessed and increasingly desperate to wrest some durable sense of personal meaning from the maelstrom.
The ’30s analogy is especially apt here, because Packer models the narrative structure of The Unwinding on John Dos Passos’s landmark U.S.A. trilogy of Depression-era social realist fiction—The 42nd Parallel, 1919 and The Big Money. Like Dos Passos’s innovative cut-and-paste mimicry of the rhythms of social displacement in the modern age, The Unwinding oscillates between the close-up portraits of its principal protagonists—Youngstown machinist Tammy Thomas, DC lobbyist and civil servant Jeff Connaughton, and North Carolina alternative-energy executive Dean Price—and larger American vistas, evoked through frenetic and semaphoric snatches of period headlines, song lyrics and thumbnail biographies of the era’s representative celebrities, from Colin Powell and Oprah Winfrey to Robert Rubin and Newt Gingrich.
But whereas Dos Passos’s pioneering use of this technique yielded a rich panorama of the social convulsions behind the dramas of ego, economic distress and global confrontation of his era, Packer’s assemblage has a curiously flattening effect. One obvious explanation of this contrast is that Dos Passos knew well enough the social forces his narrative was battening itself against—the destructive chaos of mass industrial capitalism, which leveled both the human personality and the prospects for a humane political future. Packer, meanwhile, can’t bring himself to attribute the personal misery and frustration he chronicles in such heartbreaking detail to any particular system of resource allocation, finance or political privilege. Instead, as most of the vital signs of the American economy gradually flicker into darkness across the pages of his saga—as manufacturers relocate overseas, mortgages sink into oblivion, farms and small businesses collapse, and college students graduate into a lifetime of debt peonage—Packer laments a diffuse failure of American institutions and American citizens to stir each other back to life.
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