Authors: George Packer
Tags: #Political Ideologies, #Conservatism & Liberalism, #Political Science
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FOR LAURA, CHARLIE, AND JULIA
No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together
in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way. Like any great change, the
unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways—and at some moment the country,
always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.
If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have 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—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.
The unwinding is nothing new. There have been unwindings every generation or two:
the fall to earth of the Founders’ heavenly Republic in a noisy marketplace of quarrelsome
factions; the war that tore the United States apart and turned them from plural to
singular; the crash that laid waste to the business of America, making way for a democracy
of bureaucrats and everymen. Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released
energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.
The unwinding brings freedom, more than the world has ever granted, and to more kinds
of people than ever before—freedom to go away, freedom to return, freedom to change
your story, get your facts, get hired, get fired, get high, marry, divorce, go broke,
begin again, start a business, have it both ways, take it to the limit, walk away
from the ruins, succeed beyond your dreams and boast about it, fail abjectly and try
again. And with freedom the unwinding brings its illusions, for all these pursuits
are as fragile as thought balloons popping against circumstances. Winning and losing
are all-American games, and in the unwinding winners win bigger than ever, floating
away like bloated dirigibles, and losers have a long way to fall before they hit bottom,
and sometimes they never do.
This much freedom leaves you on your own. More Americans than ever before live alone,
but even a family can exist in isolation, just managing to survive in the shadow of
a huge military base without a soul to lend a hand. A shiny new community can spring
up overnight miles from anywhere, then fade away just as fast. An old city can lose
its industrial foundation and two-thirds of its people, while all its mainstays—churches,
government, businesses, charities, unions—fall like building flats in a strong wind,
hardly making a sound.
Alone on a landscape without solid structures, Americans have to improvise their own
destinies, plot their own stories of success and salvation. A North Carolina boy clutching
a Bible in the sunlight grows up to receive a new vision of how the countryside could
be resurrected. A young man goes to Washington and spends the rest of his career trying
to recall the idea that drew him there in the first place. An Ohio girl has to hold
her life together as everything around her falls apart, until, in middle age, she
finally seizes the chance to do more than survive.
As these obscure Americans find their way in the unwinding, they pass alongside new
monuments where the old institutions once stood—the outsized lives of their most famous
countrymen, celebrities who only grow more exalted as other things recede. These icons
sometimes 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.
In the unwinding, everything changes and nothing lasts, except for the voices, American
voices, open, sentimental, angry, matter-of-fact; inflected with borrowed ideas, God,
TV, and the dimly remembered past—telling a joke above the noise of the assembly line,
complaining behind window shades drawn against the world, thundering justice to a
crowded park or an empty chamber, closing a deal on the phone, dreaming aloud late
at night on a front porch as trucks rush by in the darkness.
I want to have a frank talk with you tonight about our most serious domestic problem.
That problem is inflation.…
twenty-twenty-twenty-four hours to go / I wanna be sedated
… We must face a time of national austerity. Hard choices are necessary if we want
to avoid consequences that are even worse. I intend to make those hard choices.…
nothin to do nowhere to go-o-o / I wanna be sedated
Seven years of college down the drain. Might as well join the fucking Peace Corps.
CARTER DEALT MAJOR DEFEAT ON CONSUMER BILLS
… I don’t know if the people of Mahoning Valley realize that the closing of the Youngstown
Sheet and Tube Campbell Works not only affects the steelworkers and their families,
but the community …
THE LURE OF OUR MANY CULTS
The communards, most of them over the age of fifty, subsisted on a meager diet of
rice and beans. They worked the fields from dawn to dusk while Jones harangued them
with lectures and sermons over a public address system.
… What man could afford to pay for all the things a wife does, when she’s a cook,
a mistress, a chauffeur, a nurse, a babysitter? But because of all this, I feel women
ought to have equal rights.…
Unfortunately, most low tar cigarettes tasted like nothing. Then I tried Vantage.
Vantage gives me the taste I enjoy. And the low tar I’ve been looking for.
FILIBUSTER DEFEATS UNION ORGANIZING BILL
… The leaders of industry, commerce and finance in the United States have broken
and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a past period
of growth and progress.…
ELVIS LOVE LETTERS Fans pour out their hearts; Plus Super Color Special: The day Elvis’s
home became a shrine
… Noise pollution in a New York slum! People are being mugged right and left, children
are being bitten by rats, junkies are ripping out the plumbing of decaying tenements—and
the EPA is worried about noise pollution! These same EPA officials, of course, go
home at night and tranquilly observe their children doing homework to the accompaniment
of thumping, blaring …
CALIFORNIA VOTERS APPROVE A PLAN TO CUT PROPERTY TAX $7 BILLION
“The hell with county employees,” said one man as he left a precinct polling place
in a Los Angeles suburb.
At the turn of the millennium, when he was in his late thirties, Dean Price had a
dream. He was walking to his minister’s house on a hard-surface road, and it veered
off and became a dirt road, and that road veered off again and became another dirt
road, with tracks where wagon wheels had worn it bare, but the grass between the tracks
grew chest high, as if it had been a long time since anybody had gone down the road.
Dean walked along one of the wagon tracks holding his arms out spread-eagle and felt
the grass on either side hitting the underneath of his arms. Then he heard a voice—it
came from within, like a thought: “I want you to go back home, and I want you to get
your tractor, and I want you to come back here and bush-hog this road, so that others
can follow where it’s been traveled down before. You will show others the way. But
it needs to be cleared again.” Dean woke up in tears. All his life he had wondered
what he was put on earth for, while going in circles like a rudderless ship. He didn’t
know what the dream meant, but he believed that it contained his calling, his destiny.
At the time, Dean had just gotten into the convenience store business, which was no
calling at all. It would be another five years before he would find one. He had pale
freckled skin and black hair, with dark eyes that crinkled up when he smiled or laughed
his high-pitched giggle. He got the coloring from his father and the good looks from
his mother. He’d been chewing Levi Garrett tobacco since age twelve, and he spoke
with the soft intensity of a crusader who never stopped being a country boy. His manner
was gentle, respectful, with a quality of refinement that made the men drinking vodka
out of plastic cups down at the local Moose Lodge question whether Dean could properly
be called a redneck. From childhood on, his favorite Bible verse was Matthew 7:7:
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened
unto you.” What he sought his whole life was independence—especially financial independence.
His greatest fears, which haunted him all his life, were poverty and failure. He came
by them naturally.
His grandparents on both sides had been tobacco farmers, and so had their grandparents,
and their grandparents, back to the eighteenth century, all of them on the same few
square miles of Rockingham County, North Carolina. They all had Scotch-Irish names
that fit neatly on a tombstone: Price, Neal, Hall. And they were all poor. “It’s like
if I were to walk down to the creek, I’m going to wear a path,” Dean said. “And every
day I’m going to go the same way. That’s how the roads in this country were built,
basically. The people that built the roads followed the animals’ paths. And once that
path is set, it takes a tremendous amount of effort and energy to take another path.
Because you get in that set pattern of thinking, and it’s passed down generation to
generation to generation.”