George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America — October 7, 2014

George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Tattered American flag

I’m familiar with two George Packers. On the one hand there’s Condescending, More-In-Touch-With-The-People-Than-Thou George Packer, who came to us in [book: Central Square] and [book: Assassins’ Gate]. In [book: Assassins’ Gate] we see Packer very publicly agonizing over his support of the Iraq War, lecturing at the rest of us who knew from the very beginning that it was a lie delivered to us by criminals. In [book: Central Square], Packer works with the homeless in my beloved neighborhood, and spends a couple hundred pages telling upper-middle-class white people that they’re doing it wrong.

His heart is in the right place. At his best — in [book: Blood of the Liberals], for instance — he wants to understand why people have turned away from liberalism, and why they would support something like the Iraq War. At his best, he spends his time with people who disagree with him. At his best, he tries to remind the rest of us what the real problems are that liberalism needs to solve (rampant income inequality, the disappearance of good jobs), and explains why ordinary people believe that liberalism has lost touch. At his worst, he doesn’t realize that we’re already thinking about this, and spends his time lecturing us while we all reply, “We know, George, we know.”

[book: The Unwinding] is by Good George Packer. While it’s actually impossible for him — for anyone — to avoid inserting an authorial voice into a book like this, Packer basically stays out of the way and lets his characters talk. He interviews a single mother in collapsing (collapsed) Youngstown, Ohio; an entrepreneur (who’s also, maybe, possibly, kind of a crank) in the South who’s trying to combat peak oil with his Next Big Thing based on canola oil; a whole host of folks in Tampa, who ride home prices up and fall down just as catastrophically when the bottom falls out of the market; Jay-Z (sic); Oprah; Elizabeth Warren; and Jeff Connaughton, self-described one-time Biden Guy and author of <a href="http://www.amazon.com/dp/1935212966/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_S_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=AY9MVINOEZDE&coliid=I1MRJ4BCKBQS35"%5Bbook: The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins].

Each of these people has something to say about the structure of today’s United States. While Packer is a little angry at the Oprahs and Jay-Zs of the world for their unbridled materialism, I think he sees them more as instances of a bigger problem. There’s such desperation in the U.S. to get a good job and do right by your family, and there seem to be so few opportunities to make it, that people latch onto whatever impossible roads to riches they can find: flip homes, have Oprah toss some baubles your way, and be a big player like Jay-Z who can raise his middle finger at everyone while the money rolls in.

It’s sort of a bleak story, with no real good answer at the end. There are bits of hope, like Elizabeth Warren, or the entrepreneur who, despite all evidence to the contrary, jumps out of bed every day convinced that today’s the day he strikes it rich and changes the world for the better. It was sort of a half-hearted optimistic ending for Packer; I think he’s actually pretty sad about the state of the world. And I don’t know that he has any answers, other than to find people who love their country and who want to do right by it.

I don’t get any great morals out of [book: The Unwinding]. In fact I find the exact opposite of great morals: Packer tries hard to let everyone speak without interruption, to the extent that he even lets their verbal tics (e.g., “frickin'”) slip through. And every time someone says something that’s probably false, Packer lets it through. These are just individuals, speaking their minds. This is a book about a problem; it’s a portrait of a country. If you’re into that sort of thing, this one is quite good. In 50 years, people will read this and get a very sad — though very true — portrait of what life was like for a lot of Americans.