Thursday, May 30, 2013

George Packer: Don’t CEOs have any shame?

George Packer
George Packer: Don’t CEOs have any shame?
Salon, by Dan Oppenheimer
May 26, 2013

Of all the compliments I’m inclined to pay to George Packer’s new book, "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America," the one worth paying first is that it’s a pleasure to read, though not in the way I anticipated.

Packer is intelligent, explicitly analytical and happy to give himself plenty of word count to interrogate his subject from every angle. It’s a style he brings to his reporting in the New Yorker and to books like "The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq."

"The Unwinding" is complex and intelligent, but these qualities are coalescent rather than explicit. And the narrative space of the book is highly pressurized. The chapters are short. The sentences shoot forward. The descriptors come quick and sharp and loaded for bear. The perspective jumps from one protagonist to the next rapidly, with nothing connecting the many characters — knowns like Newt Gingrich, unknowns like struggling biofuels entrepreneur Dean Price — except for Packer’s masterful location of them within the larger drama of the "unwinding."

"If you were born around 1960 or afterwards, you spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding," writes Packer in his prologue. "You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape — the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition — ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. 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."...

... When I got the angriest, while reading the book, was when you were talking about the foreclosure courts in Tampa. We encounter a lawyer who’s advocating for people who were in danger of losing their homes. He discovered that the banks’ cases fell apart if he put up the least resistance. At that point, reading it, I assumed the court would dismiss the banks’ cases against these people, let them stay in their homes. Instead the default assumption was on behalf of the banks. It was infuriating.

There is something almost Dickensian about those foreclosure courts. You just want to come up with some elaborate metaphor out of "Bleak House" to describe the remorseless, inhuman, machine-like quality they have, just grinding through case after case after case, totally disconnected from what we think of as justice, and certainly from what seems best for the human beings involved. Thirty cases in an hour. As one woman said to me, your house is gone in less time then you spend at the McDonald’s drive-up window.

I had thought of the courts as one institution that was still functioning reasonably well, but these state foreclosure courts were a picture of chaos. Documents are missing. There are phony signatures. No one is even asking the basic question: Can’t we find a way to keep people in their houses?

It’s just not good for anyone for millions of people to lose their homes. It’s not good for the bank. It’s not good for society. It’s certainly not good for the homeowners. But we just did not have the wherewithal as a country to come together with a solution. Tampa is kind of the heart of the matter. It’s where the problems are at their most palpable....Read more here

"The Unwinding": What’s gone wrong with America
Salon, by Laura Miller
May 19, 2013

Think of George Packer’s new book, "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America" as the un-Internet take on the transformation this country has undergone in the past 35 years. It’s wide ranging, deeply reported, historically grounded and ideologically restrained. To write "The Unwinding", Packer clearly had to spend a lot of time out of his own habitat and in the company of other people, listening more than talking, and largely keeping his opinions to himself. Imagine that! It’s called journalism.

Packer’s inspiration, as he explains in the book’s afternotes, was the "U.S.A." trilogy by John Dos Passos, three novels that use a third-person choral method to portray American life in the early 20th century. "The Unwinding," while nonfiction, is narrative rather than polemical or analytic. Each chapter is a story, or an installment in a story, about a person or place. Some of the subjects are famous (Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Alice Waters) because such people, Packer writes, now "occupy the personal place of household gods, and they offer themselves as answers to the riddle of how to live a good or better life." But the key figures, the ones whose trajectories arc through the entire book like ribs or rafters, are unknowns: an African-American factory worker turned organizer in Ohio, a disillusioned lawyer who drifts from public service to finance and back again, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist with extreme libertarian beliefs and a scion of North Carolina tobacco farmers trying to make it as an entrepreneur. In the book’s most bravura chapters, the city of Tampa, Fla. serves as yet another character. Read more here

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