The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

Divided We Fall

George Packer
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)

It takes just a quick glance at recent New York Times headlines—“Federal Furloughs Loom,” “Turning Around Failing Schools,” “Hiring in U.S. Tapers Off as Economy Fails to Gain Speed,” “Latest Updates on the Gun Violence Debate”—to realize that we’re at a critical moment in United States history. When did our once-prosperous nation fall apart? In his new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer can’t pinpoint the exact moment when or assign a single reason why America began to come undone. But he notes that for those born around or after 1960, “you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding.” The past three decades have seen farms, factories, and schools collapse, with nothing to replace these institutions except the “organized money” of Wall Street, Packer observes.

Lest we begin on too ominous a note, Packer, a political journalist and New Yorker staff writer, reminds us that “unwindings,” such as the Civil War and the stock market crash, have occurred every generation or two since America was founded. These events ripped apart society as Americans knew it, but then allowed the country to rebuild itself into something even better and stronger. But this most recent decline seems particularly perilous. Everything—schools, banks, newspapers, businesses, every level of government, farming, manufacturing jobs—is a shell of its former self or not operating in a way that helps Americans live comfortable lives and achieve their dreams. How can Americans cope with these changes and live successful and fulfilling lives? Alone, Packer thinks.

In this sprawling, trenchant narrative Packer builds his argument, that Americans “have to improvise their own destinies, plot their own stories of success and salvation,” by carefully layering the accounts of everyday citizens while also examining celebrities, cities, and current events. Packer traces the lives of four Americans: Dean Price, the son of North Carolina tobacco farmers who is trying to reinvent the Southern economy by refining biodiesel; Tammy Thomas, a factory worker in Youngstown, Ohio, who grew up amidst violence and poverty and then raised three children; Jeff Connaughton, who campaigned for Joe Biden’s 1988 presidential run, and now alternates between jobs in government and as a lobbyist in order to support himself and feel like he’s making a difference; and Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who invests in start-up companies but is skeptical about why we’re producing small gadgets instead of aiming for large-scale technological advancements, such as the space program. Packer also profiles the city of Tampa, which was positioning itself as “America’s Next Great City,” according to its own 1985 city motto. But Tampa never flourished, in part because most of the population lived in subdivisions around the urban center, drawn out by lower crime rates and lower prices. Although the city itself wasn’t thriving or attracting new residents, the state continued to waive fees for developers and finance its budget with sales taxes and real estate fees instead of an income tax, a plan that some said resembled a Ponzi scheme. There was little industry beyond new real estate, and the Tea Party led a platform against creating a public light rail system, which boosters argued would have created jobs and encouraged people to get off the train and walk around the neighborhood, leading to more restaurants and retail. (If some of these subjects sound familiar, it’s because Packer has already written about Jeff Connaughton, Peter Thiel, the Tampa real estate market, and others in the New Yorker. Compiled here, they serve as evidence of Packer’s larger argument.)

Packer follows his subjects through mostly difficult circumstances, from their youthful dreams to the changes they’re now making (or trying to make) in the world. Some have financial troubles, like Price, who lost his restaurant franchises and biodiesel truck stop during the 2008 financial crisis, and Thomas, who took a buyout after the electric plant she worked at for 19 years reduced production and aggressively slashed its staff. She was then recruited to work as a community organizer to try to turn Youngstown around. There are crises of character, like when Connaughton finally finds political fulfillment in helping Democratic Senators Sherrod Brown (OH) and Ted Kaufman (DE) draft the 2010 Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Efficient Banking Act, an amendment to the financial reform bill that would have limited the size of banks—had it passed. When his term as Kaufman’s chief of staff ended six months later, Connaughton immediately left Washington, moved to Savannah, and wrote a book, The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins.

The narratives are broken up with short profiles of the “celebrities who only grow more exalted” as societal institutions collapse. Packer writes about people like Oprah, Newt Gingrich, Alice Waters, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Jay-Z, and Sam Walton, “icons [who] sometimes occupy the personal place of household gods, and [who] offer themselves as answers to the riddle of how to live a good or better life.” Despite the divide between the lives of these celebrities and ordinary people, many of them converge during the chapter on 2011’s Occupy Wall Street, a movement about which everyone has an opinion. Gingrich said to tell occupiers, “Go get a job right after you take a bath.” Jay-Z sold “Occupy All Streets” t-shirts, but defended anyone with the entrepreneurial spirit, whether they were the 99% or the 1%. Warren studied bank regulations for three decades. It seems as though the struggles of the last 30 years were leading everyone to this moment. The Occupy movement is still striking and protesting in 100 U.S. cities and 1,000 cities around the world. Citizens, politicians, investors, entrepreneurs—a large part of the population—have realized that things have to change, and now is the time to make that happen.

Packer is a thorough, insightful journalist, and his in-depth profiles provide a window into American life as a whole. He marks off every couple of years with pages of lyrics, headlines, tweets, and other words from that year—time is moving forward, but we aren’t moving forward with it. In this new America, we aren’t linked to the past in the way we once were, and the only thing that endures are the individual voices, which are, in Packer’s opinion, “open, sentimental, angry, matter-of-fact, inflected with borrowed ideas, God, TV, and the dimly remembered past.” But those voices, and Packer’s, are also imbued with hope. The Unwinding is a harrowing and bracing panoramic look at American society—things are bad everywhere, for everyone, but there’s still a sense of optimism. Through hard work and dedication we can pull ourselves out of the financial, political, and social mess we’ve created and become stronger as individuals and ultimately as a society.


Amy Cavanaugh

AMY CAVANAUGH writes about food, travel, and culture from her home base of Chicago.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

All Issues