George Packer’s American Fables

2024-06-25 09:47:358
David Klion , June 15, 2021

American Fables

George Packer seeks refuge in political myth NYPL Digital Collections
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Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewalby George Packer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pages.

George Packer is the quintessential establishment liberal intellectual: a staff writer at The Atlantic, and before that The New Yorker; the author of a dozen books of both fiction and nonfiction; a National Book Award winner and a Pulitzer finalist; a co-drafter of last year’s infamous Harper’sletter in support of free speech and open debate; a repentant supporter of the Iraq War; and a self-described member of “the Orwell cult.” His previous two books, The Unwinding (2013)—a kaleidoscopic reported account of the failure of the American dream over the previous several decades—and Our Man (2019)—a juicy biography of the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke and a history of American folly abroad from Vietnam to Afghanistan, which I reviewed for The Nation—shared similar virtues and flaws. Both were elegantly written and peopled by memorable characters, famous and obscure, whose stories shed light on the contradictions of contemporary America. Both were also undermined by Packer’s insistent need to defend the mid-century American social contract and a set of high-minded ideals that he acknowledges America has never come close to living up to.

George Packer’s American Fables

In a great book—and I have no hesitation calling The Unwindingand Our Mangreat books—such romantic authorial blind spots are forgivable. But Packer’s latest, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, is all blind spot. At barely more than two hundred pages, it manages to feel more indulgent than his previous books, respectively two and three times as long. Packer is a gifted reporter and storyteller but a mediocre polemicist, and with Last Best Hope, he has embraced polemics at the expense of reporting and storytelling. Richard Holbrooke—with his bullying negotiating style, voracious sexual appetite, and incorrigible vanity—was a literary subject worthy of Packer’s talents. Packer’s own anxieties about American identity are not.

Last Best Hopeis shaped by the context in which it was written: during a period when Packer, like many of us, had a lot of time to kill and a lot of things to get off his chest. He began the book at the height of the pandemic, which he spent at a dacha in an unspecified rural area far from his home in Brooklyn, and finished in the wake of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Given this backdrop, he reasonably fears that America is in deep crisis. “I am an American,” he writes in the book’s opening lines. “No, I don’t want pity.” Two sentences in, Last Best Hopealready feels a bit dated. Yes, the United States had an especially rough pandemic by global standards last year, but this year’s vaccine rollout has already done much to restore the familiar order of things, with the United States now resuming normalcy (in part by hoarding vaccine doses for Americans) as other nations are only just starting to experience the worst of Covid-19. Similarly, while we are still dealing with the fallout from the Capitol putsch, and while the Republican Party remains doggedly anti-democratic, in many ways Washington has already returned to the pre-Trumpian status quo that Joe Biden promised. If there was a recent moment when Americans were being pitied, that moment has likely passed.

In a nod to its slightness, Packer writes that the book “was inspired by political pamphlets from other periods of crisis,” listing examples by Walt Whitman, Walter Lippman, Marc Bloch, George Orwell, and James Baldwin—as well as, inevitably, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose nearly two-century-old insights on American national character might be getting just a bit stale. Packer evidently believes his accomplishments to date have earned him a place in that lineage—and who am I to argue—but it’s hard to imagine any of the aforementioned taking up Last Best Hope’s crude conceit, which taxonomizes all of present-day America’s political tendencies into four pithy, caricatured “narratives”: Free America, Smart America, Real America, and Just America, each of which Packer seems to disdain. “I don’t much want to live in the republic of any of them,” he writes.

If there was a recent moment when Americans were being pitied, that moment has likely passed.

To summarize these narratives with barely less nuance than Packer does: Free America is the pro-business libertarian elite around which the conservative movement was ostensibly oriented before 2016, the one that believes in free enterprise à la Ayn Rand; Smart America is the liberal, college-educated, NPR-listening Professional Managerial Class of which Packer himself is clearly embarrassed to be a member; Real America is the angry, gun-loving, anti-intellectual rural and exurban white population that propelled Sarah Palin’s brief political stardom and Donald Trump’s presidency; and Just America is the “woke” multiracial millennial generation demanding that middle-aged liberal writers declare their pronouns and acknowledge bodies and spaces. All four of these equally unpalatable Americas, Packer argues, are byproducts of the unraveling of the postwar egalitarian social contract since the 1970s and the liberal elite consensus behind it. In order to emerge from our decades-long crisis, of which Trump was only one prominent symptom, we must construct a new narrative, rooted in our older ideals, that transcends the divisions thus diagnosed.

It’s only fair to acknowledge that all of these narratives have some basis in contemporary American reality, and that identifying fouris a clever way to get outside the partisan binary that shapes so much lazy political discourse. But granting these four narratives equal weight, and holding each in equal contempt, is substantively the same as the “both-sidesing” tendency that establishment media mandates—a tendency that has permitted the illiberal right to mainstream itself in one party while the other party is still run by anodyne moderates. Packer is no doubt aware that few in Real America are likely to read his book, and that his audience will consist primarily of fellow denizens of Smart America. Indeed, he drops plenty of hints that Last Best Hope is written from and for this quadrant. In the opening pages, Packer recounts being horrified by the Trump signs his rural next-door neighbors put up weeks before the election. If he wanted to write a persuasive critique of Smart America’s values—of obsessive meritocratic competition over status-signifiers, and of the snobbery, materialism, and elite condescension that predictably result—then painting it as the mirror image of Real America might not be the most effective framing.

While one of Packer’s new neighbors runs for town supervisor and manages to get his vote—“in spite of our differing politics, because she’s our neighbor, because she cares deeply about her hometown, because government at this level should be nonpartisan, and because I want to preserve a sphere of life where the country’s cold civil war can’t invade and lay waste to everything”—his attitude toward the millions of Americans who share their views, especially in the wake of the Capitol uprising, is one of unresolvable frustration. He can’t justify what his neighbors believe in, or even their basic perception of reality, but nonetheless he feels obligated to share a country and a national identity with them, and to find some way to accommodate them while still getting the substantive outcomes he prefers.

The outcomes Packer prefers, which he spells out toward the end of Last Best Hope, are hardly centrist—rather, they are the outcomes anyone in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party would prefer, and that our existing political system seems practically designed to obstruct: “universal healthcare, child care, paid family and sick leave, stronger workplace safety protections, unemployment insurance that doesn’t fail in a crisis, a living minimum wage.” He wants to break up the big tech monopolies, to democratize education by funding public schools at the federal and state rather than the local level, and to revive organized labor. This all sounds great to me, and probably to you, Bafflerreader. It also sounded great to Bernie Sanders during his two recent presidential campaigns, but Sanders is only mentioned once in this book, grouped with Trump as a symptom of voter exhaustion with establishment politics. The political tradition Sanders represents, which has enjoyed a significant revival among Americans under forty, is briefly alluded to in order to be dismissed:

The American consensus for equal opportunity rather than equal results is very old—Eugene Debs, the greatest American socialist, revered Lincoln, champion of the self-made man. Americans won’t accept the leveling hand of government in every corner of our lives. Socialism that proclaims itself enters any election with a debilitating handicap. Having spent a decade in a socialist organization, I’m acquainted with the hairsplitting futility that these long odds impose.

Anyone who has followed the intra-left recriminations in the wake of Sanders’s defeat last year can probably relate to Packer’s last point above. But regardless of its shortcomings, the Sanders campaign was the only one among well over a dozen Democratic primary contenders that demonstrated any appreciable support for an alternative to Biden’s familiar brand of centrism—and to whatever extent President Biden has governed to the left of expectations, the strength of the Sanders campaigns undoubtedly played a role in getting him there. Packer doesn’t say who he voted for in last year’s primary, but he profiled Elizabeth Warren warmly in The Unwindingand gives her a favorable mention in Last Best Hope; if he’s looking for a progressive economic agenda that doesn’t define itself as “socialist,” then Warren seems like the obvious fit for him. I have no interest in bashing Warren—like Packer, she has some good ideas—but it’s only fair to note that her campaign demonstrated no traction outside of the tiny bastion of Smart America that Packer himself ridicules. Sanders, meanwhile, drew the overwhelming support of millennial voters of all races, a generation that Packer dismisses as Just America—and he did so not by emphasizing “wokeness,” although he paid fealty to the basic precepts of social justice, but by offering exactly the kind of economic justice and solidarity that Packer claims he wants.

Sanders offered, in other words, a theory of political change, one that was imperfect but still provided some kind of blueprint for regular Americans to assert themselves—by identifying hegemonic forces to be challenged, by tapping into righteous anger at the establishment, and by building class consciousness and leveraging it to gain power. Having read Last Best Hope, I’m still unclear how Packer thinks political change actually happens; he seems far more concerned with how individual change agents ought to conduct themselves.

Liberal nationalist mythmaking is offered as a direct alternative to woke cancel culture, which Packer repeatedly criticizes throughout the book.

In one chapter, Packer establishes a pantheon of “equalizers” who he sees as representative of the kind of engaged yet pragmatic activism he hopes can repair the civic fabric: Horace Greeley, “a journalist whose vocation was to be a citizen”; Frances Perkins, “as woke as any social justice warrior”; and Bayard Rustin, who “blamed self-flagellating liberals, nihilistic radicals, and a minority of militants who claimed to speak for the majority of Black people for taking up the racist notion of ‘the undifferentiated black community’—a lie that would only leave Black people powerless.” Citing these examples, Packer argues that the past decade has seen too much activism in the form of protest, both from right-wing “Real America” and from left-wing “Just America,” when what we really need is an “activism of cohesion” that “doesn’t separate Americans into like-minded factions but brings Americans together across tribal lines.” Of course, all three of his champions faced dedicated, often violent opposition from the right, and the victories they helped achieve—abolition, the New Deal state, the civil rights movement—were understood by whole sections of the country as catastrophic defeats, to be reversed by any means necessary. Temperamental moderation and a generous public spirit are all well and good, but political change requires picking a side and recognizing the hard truth that some of our fellow citizens must be politically defeated.

In Last Best Hope, however, Packer explicitly rejects hard truths, even as he warns against the dangers of lies and disinformation. “The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact checking,” he writes, defending his project:

We are supposed to be suspicious of myths and to go around puncturing them wherever we find them, ruthlessly replacing them with the truth. We know by now that democracy depends on a baseline of shared reality—when facts become fungible, we’re lost. But just as no one can live a happy and productive life in nonstop self-criticism, nations require more than just facts—they need stories that convey a moral identity. The long gaze in the mirror has to end in self-respect or it will swallow us up.

Here, liberal nationalist mythmaking is offered as a direct alternative to woke cancel culture, which Packer repeatedly criticizes throughout the book. As is so often the case with the present culture wars, a lot of what is packaged as principle seems to come down to petty media beef. Take Packer’s commentary on Ta-Nehisi Coates, who, in Last Best Hope, he lumps in with Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, and, implicitly, Nikole Hannah-Jones (whose 1619 Project is singled out twice) as a leading prophet of “Just America”; he describes this cohort’s pessimism about race in America as a “dead-end street.” Readers who don’t follow industry gossip closely will likely miss the context of Packer’s ire: In 2017, Coates wrote an essay for The Atlanticcalled “The First White President,” in which he rejected the conventional wisdom that Trump’s base was rooted in the working class, arguing that white voters of all classes had formed a mobilized backlash against the Obama era. He specifically called out Packer for empathizing with the white working-class in The New Yorker, which drew an irate response from Packer. Later that year, the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams—a friend of Packer’s who is thanked in the acknowledgements for Last Best Hope, and who also spearheaded the Harper’sletter—further litigated the Packer-Coates feud in theNew York Times.

Packer also seems inordinately upset about the Timesforcing out its opinion editor, James Bennet, one year ago, after Bennet published an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton calling for martial law to put down riots spurred by the murder of George Floyd. You’ve probably encountered Packer’s basic critiques of Black Lives Matter, social justice activism, and “wokeness” in dozens of articles and Substacks over the past year, so I won’t belabor them, but suffice to say he considers them crises on a par with the right-wingers who stormed the Capitol, and if anything, works harder to sympathize with the latter.

Late in Last Best Hope, Packer tells the story of Doug Sweet, a fifty-eight-year-old handyman from Virginia who joined in the orgy of destruction on Capitol Hill. Forty-five years before he joined a mob in defiling it, a young Sweet had visited the Capitol and supposedly been inspired by lofty ideals of equality. What do we do with the millions of Americans who have experienced the same descent into right-wing conspiracy theories? “I’m tempted to say the hell with them. . . . Let’s make America again without them,” writes Packer, before acknowledging this might not be realistic. Instead, he concludes, “we have to look for those ideas and policies and dreams that will make it possible to live together as equal Americans.” But what if there are no such ideas and policies and dreams? As he reaches the end of his polemic, Packer has left us with a binary choice between willful naivete and nihilistic rejection of America. Is it not possible to take a clear look at this country, reach sober conclusions, and live with those conclusions even when they’re unflattering?

A week before the 2020 election, Wallace Shawn published an essay in the New York Review of Bookstitled “Developments Since My Birth,” in which he attempts to draw some early lessons from the Trump presidency. He recalls a childhood in the aftermath of World War II and a young adulthood inspired by the optimistic liberal internationalism of John F. Kennedy: Shawn was born just two years after Richard Holbrooke, also in New York and also to a Jewish family. Where Packer seems determined to rescue and revive that mid-century optimism, Shawn writes of how, as he entered middle age, “I became more curious about what my government was doing in distant lands. I read books, I talked to people, I even traveled, and I was astounded by the atrocities I learned about—unspeakable massacres perpetrated in my name, and for my benefit, and paid for with the money I’d provided in taxes.” By the time of the Iraq War, “The idea that we all were eager to help our fellow humans didn’t ring true anymore. In fact, that sort of rhetoric embarrassed people and made them feel bad, because it spoke of a compassion that they knew they didn’t feel.” Of Trump supporters, Shawn writes, “A lot of people turn out to have been sick and tired of pretending to be good.”

Packer has left us with a binary choice between willful naivete and nihilistic rejection of America.

Shawn’s essay isn’t a prescription for fixing anything. It isn’t a political pamphlet. It could be read as despairing and fatalistic. But it does take an honest look at America as it actually is—at the meanness and selfishness of so many of its people, and at the destruction wrought in its name—devoid of illusions about what it once was or might theoretically become. From his own reporting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, Packer knows well how American mythmaking tends to work out in practice. Even so, at the end of a long gaze in the mirror, he still hopes America will come away with what he has come away with—something closer to self-regard than self-respect.