- - Monday, August 5, 2013

By George Packer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27.00, 434 pages

A few pages into George Packer’s “The Unwinding,” I was reminded of the closing scene in “Touch of Evil,” the last Hollywood movie Orson Welles directed and starred in. Welles played Hank Quinlan, the fat, drunken, corrupt police chief of a small Texas border town. By the time it was filmed at the end of the 1950s, no padding or special makeup was required. Quinlan ends up a corpse floating amid the debris of a Rio Grande mud flat, after planting false evidence and committing murder, besides numerous lesser peccadilloes. Ironically, it turns out that the suspect he tried to frame really was guilty and would have been caught anyway.

Contemplating Quinlan’s bloated remains, a straight investigator turns to Marlene Dietrich, who plays Quinlan’s longtime mistress, a rather shopworn Mexican prostitute, and says, “He was a great detective.” To which Marlene wearily replies, “… but a lousy cop.”

George Packer is a great — or at least a very able — writer, but a lousy reporter. He writes eloquently about the people folded into his narrative that, according to his publisher’s blurb, is about the “[s]eismic shifts during a single generation [that] have created a country of winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown, and setting citizens adrift … .” But by cherry-picking very atypical characters and trying to make the odd experiences of their unrepresentative lives emblematic of contemporary America, he fails as a reporter, much less as a serious social commentator.

The narrative teems with the dysfunctional products of dysfunctional families, the failed offspring of failed parents, and highly prejudiced portraits — some blindly adoring, some fueled by unthinking animosity — of leading public figures ranging from Newt Gingrich to Bill Clinton, from Oprah Winfrey to Colin Powell. The result is not so much a cogent presentation of the unwinding of the American way of life as the unraveling of the author’s putative case for same.

Mr. Packer’s claim that America as a society is coming apart abounds in colorful but irrelevant non-sequiturs, encapsulated in an interview he gave to Publishers Weekly: “You hear about miraculous new upgrades to the iPhone and then how the Detroit Fire Department doesn’t have enough money to buy toilet paper. What a strange thing, to live in a time when the extremes are so great, but there’s nothing holding it together at the center.”

Part of what his book is about, Mr. Packer adds, “is what happens when there’s so much freedom that people get lost,” and — horror of horrors — “have to make their own way.” What Mr. Packer seems to find a nightmarish prospect — making one’s own way — has always been an ingrained part of the American character, one of the strengths that have spared us the deeper financial woes and more crippling unemployment of foundering European welfare states.

The dislocations we are seeing today are fairly representative of a nation where rapid change, innovation and shifting economic balance have more often been the rule than the exception. If anything is atypical in American history, it is the several decades of unearned, seemingly perpetual upward mobility that kicked in after World War II. Never before — and probably never again — will one country find itself in the position of economic, military and political omnipotence that befell the United States while all of the world’s other major powers, whether they sided with the Axis or the Allies, had to dig themselves out from the rubble.

It was during this period that the myth of automatic, unearned entitlement to progress and prosperity took root; each succeeding generation was supposed to live better and earn more while working less. It couldn’t go on forever, and America, as it has so often in the past, is now reinventing itself. As always, there are winners and losers, but far from unwinding, America is in the sometimes painful but ultimately rewarding process of rewinding — of developing new ways of learning, earning and communicating. That the median income has declined during a deep and lingering recession should come as no surprise, especially when millions of illegal immigrants working for minuscule wages distort the graphs and drag down the stats. But to claim that the end is nigh and that the problem is “so much freedom” is the worst sort of liberal twaddle.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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