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The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America Hardcover – 13 Jun 2013
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Packer's is an American voice of exceptional clarity and humanity in a tradition of reportage that renders the quotidian extraordinary. When our descendants survey the ruins of this modern imperium and sift its cultural detritus, American voices like this will be the tiny treasures that endure. (David Goldblatt Independent 2013-06-15)
The historic scope of Packer's book - from the late-Seventies economic downturn right up to the recent Occupy Wall Street protests - is as impressive as its immense ambition and its cumulative narrative power ... A Great American Novel in the guise of a Great Nonfiction Epic, The Unwinding asks us .... that daunting, unsettling question: do we truly like the world we have made for ourselves? (The Times)
Epic, sad and unsettling history of the last four decades in the US ... It is a testament to Packer's talents that The Unwinding is powerful, rather than off-puttingly earnest or just depressing, and that it lingers so long after reading. The sense of loneliness - of isolated souls, failed by their institutions, pummelled by the forces of big money - seems to seep under your skin, and to stay there. (Oliver Burkeman Guardian)
Packer is among the best non-fiction writers in America ... In its sensibility, The Unwinding is closer to a novel than a work of fiction. It is all the more powerful for it. (Edward Luce The Financial Times 2013-06-16)
The Unwinding by George Packer is a remarkable, moving book on the USA in crisis, by the country's finest political writer.See all Product description
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Written through the eyes of half a dozen characters the 'Unwinding' really does get to the heart of the decline of a once great nation - lessons for us in the UK as well.
It is well written but the overall concept of the book just didn't work for me and I found myself reading it simply to finish it rather than because I was actually enjoying the content which rather defeats the object of the exercise.
But like all idealism, it often gets dislocated from reality. Patriotic fervour blinds us to the margins and the dispossessed. Which is why New Yorker staff-writer George Packer's new book is so extraordinary. The Unwinding: An Inner history of the New America is nothing short of a masterpiece. The prose is superlative: understated, humane, at times even lyrical. The subject-matter is dealt with great sensitivity and non-partisanship. There are no political sideswipes here. He is merely trying to hold up a mirror. This is more a careful diagnosis of a country that is greatly loved but for which is there is great (and justifiable) concern. For what is happening to the great American idea when such contrasting bandwagons as Occupy and the Tea Party have gained such traction? How did the Credit Crunch and the sub-prime mortgage scandal come about; what has happened to the much touted American sense of optimism? Why do the big institutions like the federal government, banks, media and the legal system all seem to be failing those who need them most?
Packer artfully manages to take the nation's temperature by means of a handful of individuals, whose stories from the last 30 years he tells through the book. They are well-chosen: a small-business entrepreneur in North Carolina; a newspaper reporter in Tampa, Florida; an African-American single mother in the Rust Belt; an Indian immigrant struggling to keep her motel franchise afloat; a DC beltway insider who has been lawyer, Wall St drone, on Joe Biden's senate staff, successful lobbyist; a key player in Silicon Valley. These stories are leitmotifs, around which Packer weaves thumbnail sketches of iconic figures in recent American history like Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam 'Walmart' Walton and short story writer Raymond Carver.
His thesis is striking for its moderation, in a way. He doesn't detect a total collapse, as more histrionic or irresponsible journalists might. He simply calls it an 'unwinding', something which has happened from time to time in American history, and from which the country has often bounced back. But left unaddressed, the genuine grievances articulated here will lead to a problem far more serious than a mere unwinding.
"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 unwinding is nothing new. There have been unwindings every generation or two." (p3)
Drawing on conversations with silicon valley billionaire Peter Thiel, there is an interesting point about the 2012 presidential election:
"President Obama probably believed that there wasn't much to be done about decline except manage it, but he couldn't give another `malaise' speech (after what happened to Jimmy Carter, no one ever would again), so his picture of the future remained strangely empty. Both Obama and Romney ended up in the wrong place: the former thought American exceptionalism was no longer true and should be given up while the latter thought it was still true. Neither was willing to tell Americans that they were no longer exceptional but should try to be again." (p385)
For foreigners like me, the notion of American exceptionalism is a tricky one. I can't help but be reminded of the jingoistic pride of British imperialism 100 years ago. I say this with what I hope is sensitivity, but to consider one's country as the best in every way is both fallacious and idolatrous. It is of course totally different to aspire to be great as a country, but one has to be very careful to choose the right criteria for measuring that greatness. Having the world's biggest defence budget or largest economy might not be the best yardsticks, especially when there are such significant problems as personified by the testimonies recounted in this book. Again the libertarian-minded Peter Thiel has a challenging warning:
"In the history of the modern world, inequality has only been ended through communist revolution, war, or deflationary economic collapse. It's a disturbing question which of these three is going to happen today, or if there's a fourth way out."(p372)
For all our sakes, but especially for those trapped at the bottom of a deeply divided society (and therefore a long way from experiencing true American liberty), let us hope there can now be a rewinding.
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