Societies are problematic things. Empires, too. They never seem capable of locating that moment of stolid clarity, when all is good on God’s earth and everyone can get about his or her business without being inordinately harassed by barbarians or the taxman. Either they’re on the ascent and nervous about keeping up appearances, or the downward slide has set in and everybody’s yelling to hang on. Civilizations, by definition saddled with a commentariat that likes to opine about such things, can be like patients eternally on the analyst’s couch. Things aren’t going well, they might say. It all seemed fine a few years ago. And then…things just changed. I’m not sure when it happened, or how. This colors how we look to the past. Most analyses of the Roman Empire skip past the glory days and settle in for a good long Gibbon-quoting look at how things fell apart. That’s the good stuff, it would seem.
The United States is thrashing through a rough bout of self-analysis, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the doom-saturated 1970s. Most of today’s agita stems from a legislative and executive branch whose dysfunctionality could make Italian politicians sigh in relief at for once not being the worst on the scene. Faux-libertarian partisans scamper over each other to tear down every institution or rule that impinges on their narrowly-defined “freedom” while fatally indecisive progressives bleat from the sidelines. Both sides withdraw into self-selected ideological ghettoes. A miserable economy, terrorism, and a sense of the inevitability of environmental collapse don’t help matters. Why else the flood of apocalypse fiction and films?
A sign of just how bleak the country’s sense of the future is can be found in Max Brooks’s World War Z. Although the speculative novel — which rather cleverly reimagines Studs Terkel’s The Good War as an oral history of a world-spanning zombie onslaught — spends much of its time in rather bleak scenery, it also contains a clear trumpeting of hope. Because after Brooks gets done reporting how different nations respond to the assault of the undead, the interviewees (particularly the Americans) talk about how they fought back. Not only do they restructure a shattered nation, they recapture the concept of purpose, of collective action, of citizenship.
It’s a kind of hope that is almost nowhere to be found in George Packer’s awe-inspiring X-Ray of the modern American soul, The Unwinding. It’s a big and unwieldy book with outsize aims and somewhat foggy construction. The book — a couple sections of which have appeared previously in The New Yorker — tries to grasp at the ineffable, to get the patient on the couch to dig deep into their subconscious and say how that makes them feel. By the end of everything, the book may not have achieved one great breakthrough in the manner of cinematic shrinks, but it has illuminated a lot of dark corners and diagnosed a host of concerns. The cure, that’s something else.
Packer takes a similarly broadminded view of his subject as he did in 2005’s The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, his last substantial work of nonfiction. There, his reportage covered everything from the corridors of power and ineptitude in the Pentagon and the Green Zone to the dust- and shrapnel-littered streets of Baghdad. Here, the sweep is just as big, but with potentially broader implications: the unraveling of American society:
If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape…When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life: organized money.
The structure of The Unwinding is a curious one. Instead of taking the literal approach of the journalist who has logged the miles and filled notebooks with impressions and quotes, Packer decants his theory into an episodic string of personal narratives of ordinary citizens. They live the days and nights of a country where bulwarks against rapacious greed and antisocial behavior have been steadily dismantled by forces on all sides of the ideological divide. Those alternating narratives are then interspersed with several thumbnail portraits of celebrity Americans (politicians, rappers, TV stars) whose collective grandeur provides something of a chilling and distant counterpoint.
Packer’s people make a lively mix, and one that doesn’t feel mechanically plotted. He delivers as lyrical oral history the lives of a factory worker from Ohio, a North Carolina entrepreneur, a tech billionaire libertarian, and a number of Tampa residents just trying to keep their lives from unraveling after the bursting of the real estate bubble. The writing attempts to catch each one of their voices without aiming for mimicry. There is clipped data delivery in the chapters on Peter Thiel (the PayPal billionaire who began using his monies for libertarian causes), a richer flow from Dean Price (the North Carolinian progeny of nails-tough tobacco farmers), and an evenhanded, slightly depressed viewpoint from former Democratic political operative Jeff Connaughton.
Again, Packer doesn’t come at the subject directly. One imagines a multi-volume corpus, each one spilling over with appendices, if that were the desire. He comes at it laterally, with a multitude of viewpoints from inside the collapse. The wearied but iron-backed voice of Tammy Thomas details the twinned collapse of the industrial backbone of the Ohio River Valley and the norms of working- and middle-class society that stitched its formerly proud neighborhoods together, black and white. The silence of the factories (dismantled by faraway executives in leveraged buyouts far removed from practical matters of mere profitability) is mirrored by the collapsing, ghostly blocks of once-tidy homes. “She was still amazed by the gaps and silence where there had once been so much life,” Packer writes. “Where had it all gone?”
That keen sense of loss and cloudy chaos rings chime-like through The Unwinding. Packer starts each chapter with a cacophony of voices plucked from a particular year’s media stream. Then the oral histories themselves show people thrashing about as they always have — for careers, for love, for purpose, for the damn rent — only increasingly without any help from a larger society. Unions decline, families fall apart, executives break the company apart for a stock dividend, and politicians cower in terror of the almighty bond market.
Set against the fears and dreams of those trying to hang on to the ladder, or just find out where the rungs have gone, Packer’s vignettes of the powerful come with more of a bite. The Colin Powell shown here is a sympathetic and flailing figure, a striving child of striving immigrants who can’t grasp how much the system he has mastered could fail him so: “He needed structure to thrive, but the structures that had held up the postwar order had eroded.”
As a non-dogmatically progressive writer, Packer’s profile of Newt Gingrich as an opportunistic and cynical blimp of self-aggrandizement is to be expected. A few short paragraphs sum up the corrosive contributions of the helmet-haired flamethrower and lover of total war to the body politic (“Whether he ever truly believed his own rhetoric, the generation he brought to power fervently did. He gave them mustard gas and they used it on every conceivable enemy, including him”). But less expected is Packer’s stinging critique of the unforgiving nature of fanatic self-improvement cultists like Alice Waters and Oprah Winfrey:
But being instructed in Oprah’s magical thinking (vaccinations cause autism, positive thoughts lead to wealth, love, and success), and watching Oprah always doing more, owning more, not all of her viewers began to live their best life. They didn’t have nine houses, or maybe any house…they were not always attuned to their divine self; they were never all that they could be. And since there was no random suffering in life, Oprah left them with no excuse.
In Packer’s view, Americans in the age of institutional failure and social nullity are particularly vulnerable to this special, new gilded age breed of manic preachers. After all, where else are they to turn? One line of description about an Indian immigrant to Florida, Usha Patel (who elsewhere gripes about the laziness of her adopted countrymen) sums it up best: “Usha Patel was not a native-born American, which is to say, she wasn’t alone.” That solitude is one of the book’s uniting factors, whether it’s the emptied and distrustful neighborhoods of Youngstown where Tammy Thomas becomes a community organizer or the cheap, Ponzi-scheme Florida suburbs where everybody is broke, overmedicated, underemployed, and barely aware who their neighbors are.
Solitude isn’t a problem for the likes of Thiel, whom Packer seems to regard as a particularly perfect creature of the age. An innovator with less patience for society than even most of the technically-minded, Thiel embraced libertarianism early in life (partly rooted in his selective reading of science fiction, much like Gingrich and his love of Isaac Asimov) and spent his riches on trying to make those techno-fantasies come true. At the same time, he covered himself in ostentatious displays of wealth, like some latter-day Gatsby miserably inhabiting the corners of his own parties.
That splashing-out of previously obscene monies receives Packer’s most vituperative treatment in his capsule biography of Robert Rubin. While flitting as fiscal “wise man” from Wall Street to the Clinton administration through the 1990s and 2000s, Rubin preached the new gospel of deregulation. He amassed a vast fortune for his advice ($126 million between 1999 and 2009) and when the economy collapsed under the weight of toxic deals he did not want regulated, no apology or reconsideration was forthcoming.
Throughout, Packer is channeling not just his subjects but the writers from that last epoch of vast class divisions in America, the 1930s. His writing echoes both the determined corps of WPA oral historians and the novels of John Dos Passos (the latter of which he explicitly credits). The book draws heavily on the land itself, at least what can be seen of it through the crush of worry about debts, chaos, security. Packer begins and ends things with Price’s dream of a house on ancestral acreage. Packer’s last line is a hopeful one, but one charged with struggle: “He would get the land back.”
The tone of The Unwinding is that of long and anxious conversations unspooling into the night, on a breeze-strafed porch in a foreclosure ‘burb or in a living room where the TV yammers on mutely. There is a lot of passion in the book, forlorn frustration, and anger to spare. Most thankfully, the book doesn’t end with that dread affliction of the modern issue text: the “What Can I Do?” epilogue packaged with an easy 10-point plan to restore America, and some social media links. The societal decline that Packer illuminates is deeper and broader than can be helped by some Facebook likes. But the book keeps the wider perspective. Though there’s anger here, fury even, hysteria doesn’t make an appearance. After all, as Packer notes, “There have been unwindings every generation or two…Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.”
All the country can hope for is a good old-fashioned zombie apocalypse to help everyone remember the appeal of community…also that freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.
For civil libertarians, the inauguration of President Barack Obama augurs not only a brighter future, but a chance to shed light on the recent past. It goes almost without saying that the Bush Administration has, with its declaration of permanent war and attendant claims of executive privilege, sought to move the balance of power in this country in the direction of monarchy. Its (unsuccessful) arguments before the Supreme Court in the Hamdi and Rasul cases amounted to: “L’etat, c’est moi.” Now, to judge by the op-ed pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, those responsible for torture, for the lawless detention of American citizens, for illegal state surveillance, and for perjury may finally be brought to justice.Such a development would not be universally acclaimed. Bush partisans, not to mention the former President himself, have suggested that once Obama gets “read in” on still-classified interrogation and wiretapping programs, he may embrace their utility in fighting terrorism. Other conservatives have argued – less tendentiously, I think – that any “truth and reconciliation” process for former White House officials would touch off a political firestorm sufficient to engulf the rest of the Obama agenda. But, in the absence of a legal reckoning, the civil libertarians wonder, how will we ever learn what went wrong?The contours of this debate, as it currently stands, obscure an important fact: that the Bush Administration’s gravest depredations are already matters of public record. Thanks to Seymour Hersh’s Chain of Command, George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate, and Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth, we know, for example, that the Vice President, the Director of the C.I.A., and the Secretary of Defense signed off on the torture of “enemy combatants.” Whether or not this merits prosecution is open to discussion, but there is little need to establish a new set of institutions to expose the Bush Administration’s wrongdoing. We’ve got an institution that works well. It’s called investigative journalism.Two of the most recent and compelling books about the outgoing administration – Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side and Barton Gellman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency – argue persuasively that the Bush approach to civil liberties departed from previous presidential scandals less in degree than in kind. While Clinton and Nixon broke the law, Vice President Dick Cheney and his bureaucratic enforcers attempted to rewrite it: to place executive power on a footing other than the inalienable rights of man.Of the two books, Gellman’s comes the closest to offering the satisfactions of good literature, and thus should probably be approached with the most caution. Still, at least one of those satisfactions – a rich and complex protagonist – lends Gellman’s reporting the ring of truth.In its relentless detail, Angler would seem at first to bolster the leftist caricature of Cheney as merely the Machiavellian power behind the throne. Gellman uncovers several incidents with profound legal and national-security implications in which Cheney “rolled” the president. Moreover, he documents a pattern in which vast tracts of what would become the most important areas of public policy were knowingly entrusted to the judgment of the vice president. Cheney’s former counselor Mary Matalin explains that he arrived in office with a ‘preordained policy portfolio’ that spanned ‘the economic issues, the security issues – even before 9/11, we had homeland security – and the energy issues… the iron issues, I don’t know what else to call them. The steely issues. Apart from those, ‘we had the go-to guy on the hill’ because of Cheney’s Senate duties and experience in the House.”That was a remarkable list,” Gellman notes:war and peace, the economy, natural resources, and negotiations with Congress. Nor was Matalin’s description complete. It omitted, among other things, a preeminent role for Cheney in nominations and appointments, which did not stop with the transition. Cheney’s brief, all in all, encompassed most of the core concerns of any president.On the other hand, Gellman is careful to complicate his portrait. For example, he shows a connoisseur’s appreciation for Cheney’s remarkable gifts as a bureaucrat. The Vice President, a former White House Chief-of-Staff, evidently brought to his new office a mastery of personnel matters: whom to place where, and which jobs mattered. He also had an innate understanding for what to keep secret and what to leak, and created in his office what amounted to a parallel government, carrying out in duplicate the functions of the National Security Council (NSC), the Office of Management and Budget, and – crucially – the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC).Through the use of proxies (most notably the frightening David Addington, the hapless Alberto Gonzalez, and the delusional John Yoo); through discipline and secrecy; and through an acute sense of the vulnerabilities of his targets and opponents, Cheney would become not only the most powerful but, on his own terms, the most successful Vice President in history. Over eight years, he recast “the steely issues” in his own ideological image.To be sure, Gellman’s tight focus on Cheney leaves something to be desired. A kind of foreshortening makes certain tangential objects – notably, the President – appear smaller than they likely were in real life. But Angler is no partisan hit-job; Gellman understands that Cheney is sincere in his sense of mission. The book quotes a letter Cheney wrote to his grandchildren on a day when he briefly became acting president (Bush was under anesthesia. There’s a punchline here somewhere.):’My principal focus as vice president has been to protect the American people in our way of life. As you grow, you will come to understand the sacrifices that each generation makes to preserve freedom and democracy for future generations.’And were the Obama Administration rapidly to dismantle Cheney’s pet programs – and were, God forbid, a terrorist attack to occur on American soil soon after, after seven years without – we might view his instincts (if not his methods) in a different light. This may strike you as simplistic. Then again, so are the moral contours of the universe in which the Vice President believes himself to be operating.Jane Mayer’s book, more broadly focused on “How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals,” revisits many of Gellman’s sources, and essentially corroborates his assertion that, under Cheney and Addington, OVP (the Office of the Vice President) sought to eradicate rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions. Because The Dark Side does not center on a single character, it lacks some of the narrative propulsion of Angler, but it probably offers a more comprehensive view of the workings of the Bush White House.That White House was not uniformly indifferent to civil liberties, Mayer shows. Her account illuminates not only the ineptitude of Gonzalez and the lawlessness of Yoo, but the supreme decency of Republican civil servants like Jack Goldsmith, head of OLC, and John Bellinger III, head counsel at NSC. Their adherence to the law – presumably a prerequisite for attorneys – comes to seem like heroism in comparison with what surrounded them. “Protect your client,” one told Gonzalez, warning that torture could lead to prosecutions. Of course in the Bush White House, it was competence that rarely went unpunished.Through her meticulous sourcing and her dogged aggregation of the circumstantial evidence, Mayer persuades the reader that the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, the “black sites,” and foreign prisons were not only licensed but encouraged high up the chain of command. This helps to explain why patterns of abuse migrated so quickly from Guantánamo to Iraq – those two chains converge at the very top. The President himself – well-meaning, shrewd in his way, but hostage at some deep level to his insecurities – emerges as the efficient cause for his Administration’s human rights abuses. “We do not negotiate with ourselves,” he says at one point. As a candidate, George W. Bush was much maligned for his malapropisms, but it was these royalist flourishes – “I intend to spend [my political capital]. It is my style” – that hold the key to the Presidential personality.Ultimately, the most valuable function of The Dark Side is to shred the Cheney camp’s justifications for torture. In meticulous detail, the book explains why the abuses are illegal; why they are immoral; why they were uncalled for after September 11; and why they have been ineffective. And unlike Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus or Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans, they almost became the permanent law of the land.Due to the heroic work of a small and shrinking cohort of investigative reporters, they will not. Ordinary Americans, their fears and longings expertly stoked by the White House, have so far seemed willing to stop there, to quit while we’re ahead. Whatever we choose to do about the Bush Administration’s misdeeds moving forward, though, we are no longer entitled to claim ignorance. And should our preference for attractive illusions over unpleasant truth allow some future president to reclaim the right to arrest without charges, to hold without habeas corpus, and to inflict on human beings “suffering ‘equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure… or even death,'” we will have no one to blame but ourselves.Bonus link: Vanity Fair’s “Oral History of the Bush White House”
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.It 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.”)
This morning, when I finished reading George Packer’s long article in this week’s New Yorker, I felt like crying. Not out of sadness so much as out of frustration. Reporting from Iraq, Packer discovers yet another in a seemingly interminable series of managerial and moral failures: the U.S. government’s failure to support the Iraqis who have risked their lives serving the occupation as interpreters and administrators. I hope to have more to say on this article, and on Packer’s book, The Assassin’s Gate, sometime soon. In the meantime, I wanted to point out an area where similarly frustrated Americans might be of service.Packer introduces us to a U.S.A.I.D. official named Yaghdan who has been exposed by extremists as an aameel – a collaborator – and threatened with beheading. His request to be moved to a post outside of Baghdad is ignored. And so he flees on his own. Having amassed years of U.S.A.I.D. work, he ends up working for a United Arab Emirates cleaning company. Yaghdad’s U.A.E. visa expires; Qatar rebuffs his request for a visa; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has no personnel in the Emirates. “Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job offer – nearly impossible to obtain,” Packer tells us,or by marrying an American, so he didn’t bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. “It’s like taking the decision to commit suicide,” he said.It occurred to me that there may be well-placed Americans at various firms who might be willing to tender job offers to Yaghdan or to other qualified Iraqis in Yaghdan’s position. A young American U.S.A.I.D. named Kirk Johnson has, Packer reports, compiled a list of current and former occupation staffers who have put their lives on the line for us, and now that they face death at the hands of militias, would like to live here in safety. Packer argues convincingly that this is a growing crisis, and that American leadership lacks the political will to deal with these invisible refugees. I have no way of knowing if job offers do indeed lead to visas, but perhaps some enterprising person looking for an administrative assistant will, after reading Packer’s article, want to get in touch with him or with Kirk Johnson. Perhaps the sense of helplessness might, however briefly, abate.