Thursday, April 17, 2014

George Packer's "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America": Book Review

Packer explains his title as a chronicle of what happened for those born since 1960: we never knew a country bound by "the coil which held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip." Gaps opened as factories closed, exurbs boomed and busted, schools sagged, and farms faded. Instead, the "void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money." (3)

As John Dos Passos in his U.S.A. trilogy did in one of my favorite examinations of an earlier cultural and political change after WWI, so Packer tries to compress into a few hundred, fast-paced pages. He combines profiles of protagonists across the ideological and demographic spectrum with timelines and vignettes (Newt's smugness, Oprah's New Age platitudes, Raymond Carver's struggle, Sam Walton's stinginess, Colin Powell's stoicism, Alice Waters' self-absorption, Robert Rubin's schemes, Jay-Z's avarice, Andrew Breitbart's muckraking, and Elizabeth Warren's populism) which illustrate the generations who came to power in the past thirty years as wealth concentrated and the "former middle class" sought, as Packer sums up Warren's judgment, to survive. Meanwhile, jobs migrated, workers wearied, wages stagnated, schools worsened, a few desirable areas with better schools drove prices way up, and families who sought to find a foundation gave in to more debt as "mortgage-based securities" and loans lured millions into risk which, as we know by 2007 and 2008 threatened the financial system.

The choices left to those who had to bail out the bankers, and to watch as some of those who perpetrated what Packer implies was another Ponzi scheme were rewarded with positions in the current administration, remain fewer than bonuses or mansions. Reading this, one realizes how those firmly in place on both sides of the partisan divide bear responsibility. Repealing Glass-Steagall under Clinton, giving Chris Dodd control of the Senate Banking Committee, and courting the rich who "donated" to either party's politicians, those in power connive with those who fund them. Newt's party doesn't come off much worse than that of Clinton and Obama, in this coverage. As Jeff Connaughton finds out early in his career spent largely pursuing a bumptious Joe Biden, it's neither the merits of the candidate nor the positions espoused that matters, it's calling in favors to donors.

When one senator tries to rally a return to the regulation of Glass-Steagall,  Packer dramatizes how the foxes guard the henhouse. "Shortly before the vote, Dianne Feinstein of California, one of the wealthiest members of the Senate, asked Richard Durbin of Illinois, 'What's this amendment about?' 'Breaking up the banks.' Feinstein was taken aback. 'This is still America, isn't it?'" (292)

Alienated from this plutocracy, Dean Price tries to revive an agrarian tradition in the New South, marred by strip malls, fast-food, and uncaring, poorly-fed, complacent consumers as much as anywhere else by now in the U.S. "He was seeing beyond the surfaces of the land to its hidden truths." (176) He attempts to connect biofuel with stations and stores, to loop a self-sustaining local economic model which frees a peak-oil plagued nation from foreign dependence on fuel or goods.

Meanwhile, in Youngstown, Tammy Thomas moves from laid-off factory toiler to community organizer, Peter Thiel rides the waves of money from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, and Kevin Moore reveals the tedium behind the drama of making millions in Manhattan during the greed is good era.

Tampa connects the housing market's flips and falls with the faces of those despairing in hotel rooms, cars, and trailers. Breitbart joins the political-cultural war--if for self-serving purposes: "A barely employed, autodidactic Gen-X convert with an ADD diagnosis and an Internet addiction was uniquely well armed to fight it." (304) While Packer's phrasing of the anger of a Tea Party member seems to mock her rather than convey her disgust, he sympathies with Occupy Wall Street's trio--as Moore watches it and learns. A techie turned homeless man from Seattle and a local NYC leftist activist join those who tried to rouse the underclass to speak out against a political and economic front that, no matter if under Bush or Clinton, Reagan or Obama, continued to side with the wealthy.

In two memorable sections, Packer energizes the emotion felt by many forgotten people. The foreclosure machine that processes, factory-like, thousands of court decisions runs through another story of loss every three minutes, as the bank's attorney calls it in; Tampa's judge may too, by remote. Occupy around pp. 273-274 for a moment, appropriately, brings together those by social networking and by actual meetings in rallies across the nation many who over the course of the book have suffered downsizing and been left to fend on their own. Cops move in to shut down the assemblies. A few who were apolitical, radicalized out of their conservatism by injustice, wonder how to fight on.

The book closes with Thomas continuing to try to assist as scattered jobs start up around the region. She keeps trusting Obama. Connaughton, sick of the Beltway, retires to Savannah. The troubled Hartzell family in Tampa shops at the Wal-Mart they can barely afford and where one of their family works at but despises until, confessing such a hatred, he's fired from it. Thiel's libertarianism and transhumanist passions expand into funding grants for smart drop-outs from Stanford who want to pursue entrepreneurial innovations. Price pursues his vision of canola and reclaimed cooking oils as practical methods to free Americans from fossil fuel dependence and wasteful living. That's about it.

It remains, therefore, in the near-present, suspended. I liked this very much. Did I love it? The pace dragged slightly as the chapters went on; after OWS, one senses a letdown in the energy, however appropriately. As an admirer of Dos Passos, I looked for a similar integration of ideology with commentary. Packer's sympathies clearly align him where Dos Passos at the time of his trilogy had been: with the progressives. I do aver that Packer handles the Tea Party's objections far less deftly than he does Occupy, and trying to find the common objections these populist (at least in theory!) movements had might have generated a more novel analysis, one rarely raised in the mainstream press to what ails our nation. But Packer's objections to the corrupt plutocracy that rules post-Reagan America, and which is upheld by nearly every politician able to attain and secure major office, connect stories of those who, on the inside or ignored by those in power, wonder what went wrong.
(Amazon US 3-21-14)  P.S. The day I wrote this, I found out about the "peaceable right of assembly" and the crackdown on our constitutional right: Cecily McMillan's Occupy trial and Civil Liberties. More context here as a follow-up on her trial and sentencing to seven years.

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