Leonard Quart: The unraveling of America

Friday July 26, 2013

NEW YORK About 50 years ago I wrote a Masters’ history thesis on John Dos Passos’ trilogy, "U.S.A." In the ‘30s, Dos Passos, whose name is barely remembered today, was viewed as one of America’s major novelists. "U.S.A." combined experimental and cinematic techniques -- newspaper clippings, biography and autobiography (the camera eye )-- with the realistically depicted life stories of dozens of fictional characters.

Dos Passos’ ambitious goal was to parallel his unhappy fictional characters, whose youthful dreams usually ended up being shattered, with a strikingly pessimistic depiction of the politically and economically divided country during the first decades of the 20th century. He summed up the painfully inequitable situation by memorably stating, "all right, we are two nations."

George Packer, a New Yorker staff writer, has produced a scrupulously researched and evocative contemporary variation on Dos Passos’ book (to whom he makes clear he owes a "literary debt"), "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America" (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux). Packer’s book, however, is no work of fiction. The last four decades in American life rendered as a narrative of dissolution.

The decades are viewed through the lives of five central characters (one of them a city -- Tampa), interspersed with collages of headlines, and penetrating capsule biographies of public figures like Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton of Wal-Mart, and Packer’s political heroine, Elizabeth Warren. He offers no policy solutions, or an overarching analysis or theory for what has occurred, but allows the life stories to speak for themselves, and they resonate deeply.

In our time Packer sees the painful decline or outright collapse of economic and social institutions, like factories, small businesses, schools, farms, and housing subdivisions, and filling the void -- the dominant force in American life -- "organized money." And values that dominate the society are hustling, greed, and excess, without concern for those who fail or are victimized in the process.

The people he describes run a range from the adventurous entrepreneurial son of a failed tobacco farmer whose business ventures make money and then go bust, to a black daughter of a heroin addict struggling to survive in a Ohio Rust Belt of closed factories and few employment opportunities, who turns into a dedicated community organizer.

Also, there is a skilled political pro disappointed in working for Joe Biden, who then becomes a Washington lobbyist making big money, and returns again to politics to try to make a difference as chief of staff to a senator. However, feeling utterly disenchanted, he quits when he finds that the government is unwilling to take on the all-powerful plutocracy.

Another figure is an elitist libertarian Silicon Valley billionaire and PayPal founder who is a big winner in the struggle among high tech capitalists but ultimately dissatisfied with what he achieves. Finally there is Tampa, where development was turned into a religion, until after the housing crisis hit, when many of the owners of foreclosed houses, most of them bought with sub-prime mortgages, felt as if "the angel of death" had visited them.

Almost every person Packer depicts lives a life free of institutional restraints that leaves them untethered. In his America, people, all across the class and economic spectrum are restlessly on the move, changing jobs and homes, and endlessly reinventing their lives. The sense of freedom can be heady, but more often than not its underside, anomie and aloneness, triumphs.

Most of his subjects are viewed as representing what’s wrong with America. It’s predictable that he finds Gingrich demagogic and "grandiose." But he also dislikes the "empathetic’’ billionaire Oprah -- the incarnation of the American Dream and conspicuous consumption -- who he sees as a shallow purveyor of "magical thinking" and model of empowerment for her prime audience of aging, white, lower middle class women.

The one politico who gives him hope is that champion of ordinary people, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a passionate advocate "of the need for a fair playing field" and regulating the excesses of the financial industry. But Warren is only one voice, and there aren’t many others, including few effective grass roots movements agitating for change.

Packer feels its his disillusioned political pro’s book, "The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins," which "says everything." The people he writes about can dream and read books on positive thinking, but the social and political obstacles make the power of individual will insufficient. The game is fixed.

Packer’s vision is bleak, but from my vantage point seems only slightly exaggerated. Barely a day goes by without my reading another article about how the government serves the corporations, for example by charging them a fraction of the corporate tax rate, simply by allowing deductions and legal loopholes that are not available to private citizens.

Democrats may replace Republicans in office, but as countervailing institutions like unions lose their force, the supremacy of the financial and corporate sector seems inexorable.

Leonard Quart writes for cinwrit@aol.com


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