Inter Alia #2: George Packer and the Fetishization of Politics

July 5, 2007 | 1 book mentioned 11 2 min read

Generally, the appearance of a new in-house blog at one of the country’s major media organs arouses in me roughly the same degree of enthusiasm I feel when the Yankees sign yet another star free agent. Granted, there are some fine journalists doing casual posts for The Atlantic and The New York Times (and presumably for less money than Matsui). But with various parent corporations already feeding me much of what I read in print or see on the tube, I’m content to reserve my time online for voices from outside The Glittering Heart Of It All. That said, I was pleased last week to see that The New Yorker’s George Packer has launched a blog.

You see, I’m one of the “predictable” yahoos who happens to feel that Packer’s coverage of the Iraq War and its discontents has been more incisive, forthright, and morally engaged – more, in a word, serious – than almost anything else in the major- or minor-league media.

coverIt is true that Packer has declined to flagellate himself publicly for his initial support for the war. Nor has he attempted to dissemble. His “ambivalent,” liberal-interventionist stance is announced early (and without undue pride) in his book, The Assassin’s Gate, whereas the paragraph that summarizes every last damned wrong thing about the war is held until well after page 400. Indeed, it is part of the structural and ethical intelligence of The Assassin’s Gate that most of what comes in between focuses on the people Packer interviews and the things he sees. As Lawrence Weschler might put it, Packer “reports the s–t” out of this story, without trumpeting the risks he runs to do so.

That The Assassin’s Gate emphasizes the tactical as well as moral folly of the war may suggest to ideologues of a different stripe that Packer still sees the war’s goals as “noble.” A considerably more nuanced reading of the book suggests that Packer hopes to illuminate anew how hell is reached through good intentions as well as bad. Which is crucial in an age that has, in Frederic Jameson’s formulation, forgotten how “to think the present historically” – that is still shucking and jiving about what went on five years ago. In struggling to correct for ideological bias through the careful accumulation of evidence, Packer managed to convince me (who marched against the war) that the harm of our continued presence outweighs our responsibility to buy what we broke. His subsequent reporting has strengthened, not softened, this conviction.

Though I recognize that aiming for the Ideal may be the surest way to change the Real, I’m not certain that the ideological purity tests rampant among my fellow leftists haven’t contributed to a political muddle that continues to permit this war. Indeed, they sometimes strike me as a form of blindness. In declaring his own politics as such and then reporting facts that expose them as misbegotten, George Packer has been, it seems to me, precisely and honorably opposed to Christopher Hitchens. And for that matter, George Bush. Moreover, though a pageant of public contrition may be something we’ve come to expect from our presidents, of our reporters we should merely ask them to report. On the evidence of his first few postings to “Interesting Times,” George Packer continues to do just that.

(Click here to read “Inter Alia #1: Notes Toward a Sporadic Column.”)

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. "Packer hopes to illuminate anew how hell is reached through good intentions as well as bad."

    I guess Packer must know how this happens, since he as much as anyone helped to get us there. I just wish he and his other "liberal" enablers would admit they've wrought hell on earth and would at least apologize for it. In my opinion, his "reporting" on how everything got fucked up is just a way of continuing to postpone this reckoning.

  2. Dan,
    Thanks for commenting. On your first point…yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. I think one of the thrusts of The Assassin's Gate is that Packer discovers how good intentions such as his own and (to judge by Packer's account and Weschler's (Calamities of Exile)) Kanan Makiya's led to the current inferno as surely as did the bad intentions of, e.g. Dick Cheney.
    And I think you acknowledge above that Packer's reporting on how everything got f—-d up.

    I'm assuming you've read the book; if so, you know that another thrust is reporting "how f—-ed up everything is." In this larger respect, The Assassin's Gate is, as Michael Hirsch has suggested, exemplary. The more so in that Bush and his more advertent enablers (Hitchens et al.) have consistently refused to furnish the public with this information, and have cowed many putatively mainstream publications into downplaying it for the sake of "balance."

    While I agree that a Packer essay called, "Why I Was Wrong About Iraq," whatever apology he owes is implicit in the work he's doing, particularly in that devastating late passage in The Assassin's Gate I referred to. I just don't understand your expectation that he obsess over his own failings rather than over the war itself; that is, I understand neither the moral nor the ethical purpose that would be served. Packer wasn't reporting Iraq for The New Yorker before the invasion; as far as I know, if he'd told us in The Assassin's Gate that he'd been staunchly pacifist since 2001, only his friends would have known the difference. It's not like the guy was beating a drum.

    I have friends for whom the deposition of a totalitarian despot had some appeal; I argued strenuously against them, on the principle that war is hell; none of us did anything, really, but talk talk talk. Consequently, I feel no need to extract apologies from them; they're honest enough people to know they were wrong, and my rightness, in the absence of power to execute it, gives me no satisfaction. I consider myself responsible for the war, too.

    And frankly, I'd rather have Packer out there surveying the wreckage of his idealism, however misguided, than remaining on the sidelines, letting the real a–holes bring us the Gospel. So I'm not sure what would be gained by shouting him down. Does this make sense? Or do you still smell cover-up?

  3. paragraph 3 above should read: "I'd eagerly read a Packer essay called 'Why I Was Wrong About Iraq.'"

  4. I'm not interested in an apology-for-apology's sake. I'm interested in people like Packer a) taking responsibility for the catastrophe they helped bring about and b) conceding that invading a sovereign country has nothing to do with "ideals" or with liberalism. I want them to start helping in the effort to undo the damage to liberalism they themselves inflicted by suggesting that Bush's war, as well as his "plan" to win it, were somehow compatible with liberalism.

  5. Dan,

    Did you read the book? I'm suggesting that it is in itself a form of (a)–"taking responsibility"–and (c) "helping in the effort to undo the damage…" Though it should be noted that the damage to human lives is far more important, and permanent, than "the damage to liberalism." I recognize that the latter may enable the former, but they're not identical properties.

    As to your point b)… Here, it seems, is the matter about which we're actually disagreeing–and about which reasonable people should be able to disagree: the proposition that ideals and ideologies are intimately bound up in world-historical events. I actually see you disagreeing with yourself a bit, as follows.

    If the proposition is true, then we have good reason to worry about "the damage to liberalism." But we would also have good reason to expect reporters on Iraq to investigate its mediation by ideals and ideologies. Which I'm saying Packer explicitly does (granting that, if you've read the book, you may have preferred that he spend more time recanting his own errors of judgment, rather than merely striving for transparency about them).

    If the proposition is false, then you're right that "invading a sovereign country has nothing to do with 'ideals' or with liberalism." But then why are you worrying about "the damage to liberalism?"

    Consistency is indeed the hobgoblin of little minds, and given the stakes, I feel frivolous and overly literal articulating the proposition this way. Maybe we're really arguing HOW and TO WHAT DEGREE ideology is bound up in history. But my point throughout the discussion has been that clarity of vision is a virtue, and that muddle, of whatever ideological provenance, is a flaw. (Which is not to prejudice a final judgment on Packer either way). Certainly, we muddled our way into this war.

    I'm on your side, Dan! I just want to suggest that we choose our artillery according to a clear assessment of the nature of the threat. Having read The Assassin's Gate, can you see a difference between Packer and Hitchens? And Clinton? And Wolfowitz? Bush?

  6. I have read the book, and I don't see the "taking responsibility" you see. Here and still in his subsequent writing I see–"George Bush and his incompetence ruined it all!" Packer is sorry for having trusted Bush, but not for having supported invasion.

    Insofar as the proposition that invading sovereign countries if your motives are pure is at issue, I gotta say that, no, I don't see that much difference between Packer and the people you mention.

  7. Okay. Your first paragraph clarifies some things for me. You're certainly entitled to your feeling that Packer's writing blames Bush, rather than the invasion itself (and even to your suspicion that this error of emphasis is not a conclusion drawn from facts, but a psychological convenience that allows George Packer to sleep at night).

    Just as I think we "predictable" sheep are entitled to our sense 1) that reporting "facts on the ground," thoroughly and transparently (I won't raise the "objectivity" question), is a form of taking responsibility for those facts, regardless of the politics of the reporter; 2) that ideological transparency is a form of humility, and thus (Hellenistically speaking) of virtue; and 3) that Packer rather emphatically suggests that "abstract ideas" such as purity of motive were a strong contributing factor to the mess we've made–that, whatever the ideas were, their very abstractness short-circuited precisely the kind of self-criticism, accountability, and analysis you, I, and George Packer, following Orwell, would like to see.

    Granted, we each of us arrive at quite different conclusions, but Packer, unlike you or I (or Hitchens or Clinton or Wolfowitz) has enlarged our common pool of verifiable facts along the way. And regardless of what Packer thinks should happen next, which is harder to infer from his reporting than I think you let on, it's noteworthy that the cumulative effect of The Assassin's Gate on me and to another staunchly anti-war friend to whom I lent it was to allow us to let go of the idea that any good could come of a continued U.S. presence in Iraq. (I had been laboring under the delusion that since we destroyed the country, we had a responsibility to be there and face the music. Packer's writing suggested to me that the music will never be faced, so long as we stay there. I feel anguish even as I write this. )

    Anyway: to the degree that we let the ideological pitch of the war debate prevent us from making assessments of degree and kind about the war–that is, to think about it–I'd humbly suggest that may be part of the problem, even as we lament the vanishing horizon of a solution.

  8. "has enlarged our common pool of verifiable facts along the way"

    Well, perhaps. That is, if you're satisfied that these are indeed the "verifiable facts" and not just selective facts he's latched onto as part of the "psychological convenience" you refer to. I can't say that I am.

    I don't criticize Packer out of some pre-established malice against him. I liked his book *Blood of the Liberals* quite a lot, and in general I admired the essays he published in *Dissent* during the 90s. That he would turn out to be, where going to war is concerned, a kind of neocon fellow traveler was deeply disappointing to me. I'd like to admire his work again, but his continuing reluctance to revisit his assumptions so far makes that very difficult.

  9. To wrap up, then: Thanks, Dan, for commenting at such length. I think I have a much clearer sense of where you're coming from on The Assassin's Gate, and I think any reader interested in the book will take some good points and counterpoints from this discussion, and will then be armed to judge for him- or herself. This also helps clarify a bit more for me how I hope this "sporadic column" will work. Thanks again.

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