Great Perturbations: On George Packer
It’s worth recalling that some of the more accomplished chroniclers of our first Great Depression grasped this core dynamic and reported on it in impressively personalized detail. (This was not, by the way, the strong suit of Dos Passos; as the great literary historian Alfred Kazin wrote, “History in the most tangible sense—what happened—is obviously more important in Dos Passos than the people to whom things happened.”) Edmund Wilson, in his own panoramic collection of Depression journalism, The American Jitters, from 1932, cataloged a wide range of familiar American scenes turned upside down by economic distress, from communist rallies to the assembly lines of Detroit to construction sites to jail cells. Novelists such as John Steinbeck, James T. Farrell and Tess Slesinger sought to chronicle the struggles and setbacks of the nation’s embattled working masses, as well as the decade’s more highbrow (and sometimes quite unserious) moods of intellectual and ideological revolt. In retrospective studies, journalists like Studs Terkel and Murray Kempton took clear-eyed measure of the fleeting solidarity and more enduring cultural legacies of the 1930s.
Indeed, as it happens, Melville House and The Baffler (a magazine I work for) have recently published for the first time Cotton Tenants, the undated manuscript that arose out of James Agee’s 1936 Fortune assignment to sojourn among the impoverished tenant farmers of the Deep South. This was the magazine project that would go on to furnish the basis for Agee and Walker Evans’s landmark 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; near the outset of the manuscript, Agee offers this overture to his own closely observed study of lives laid low by a system of brutal privation:
A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage; is worthy neither of the name nor of continuance. And a human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings, and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only, having much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea.
Only if we hold such truths to be self-evident, and inescapable, and quite possibly more serious and quite certainly more immediate than any others, may we in any honesty and appropriateness proceed to our story: which is a brief account of what happens to human life, and of what human life can in no essential way escape, under certain unfavorable circumstances.
Put another way, it does little good to lament the atrophy of our institutions without some clear accounting of the values that are alleged to animate them. If the calamities of our recent economic history have taught us nothing else, it is that most of the institutional fixtures of our common life are empty forms at best and, at worst, the repositories of outmoded and toxic superstitions.
Packer’s book hints at the deeper distempers lurking beneath its tale of corrosive economic decline and displacement, but it can never bring itself to own up to the fundamental moral invocation that Agee summoned. At one point, The Unwinding alights on the story of Mike Van Sickler, an earnest investigative reporter for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). In the wake of the mortgage collapse—which came to Florida much earlier than 2008, and still looks to cripple the state’s economy for some time to come—Van Sickler had uncovered the story of Sang-Min (Sonny) Kim, a house-flipper in Tampa who had colluded through a shell company in the flipping of more than 100 mostly abandoned properties around the city, and cleared more than $4 million in profit.
Van Sickler’s story led to a high-profile federal indictment of Kim on money laundering and fraud charges, but the reporter wasn’t satisfied. He pushed against the complacent truisms about the mortgage meltdown that were being retailed by the other prominent outposts of his profession: “We don’t know why, we just got really greedy, and everybody wanted a house they couldn’t afford,” he says, summing up the prevailing consensus in the mediasphere. Van Sickler adds, “I think that’s lazy journalism. That’s a talking point for politicians who want to look the other way. We’re not all to blame for this.”
After Kim pleaded guilty, the United States attorney for Florida’s Middle District announced that more indictments, of far bigger fish in the mortgage food chain, were in the offing. They never came. “Where are the big arrests?” Van Sickler wonders. “Where are the bankers, the lawyers, the real estate professionals?” Packer finishes the thought for him, in a refrain his readers by now know quite well: “Kim was just one piece of a network—what about the institutions?”
But that wasn’t the question Van Sickler was asking; “institutions” are blank abstractions to any good investigative reporter. Van Sickler needed to know the names of the specific people who were profiting from this particular derangement of our civilization. Unfortunately, he won’t find them in The Unwinding, any more than he can expect Tampa’s federal prosecutors to uncover them. No wonder David Frum likes Packer’s book so much.