Tuesday, January 07, 2014

"The Unwinding - an inner history of the new America", a view by George Packer

Talk about feeling late to a party.  Like minded thinkers have no doubt already devoured this book.  It was published in the summer of 2013 and was somehow missed here.  When George Packer writes a Talk of the Town piece or article for "The New Yorker" it is generally the first thing that I read in whatever issue, and immediately.  Maybe the "improved" post office system did not deliver certain items which is now a way of life, late or never, maybe there was other reading that distracted, maybe there was a health issue, and certainly our anti-intellectual library would have been unlikely to order it.

Over the last week since the book came to my attention, it has been read.  It is certainly one of the most creative non-fiction books that has ever been read here.  Packer cuts between chapters focused on well known politicians, celebrities, journalists, and business leaders to chapters focused on two radically different areas(Tampa and Silicon Valley) and those focused on "regular" Americans, meaning people who went through the great recession and played roles that most are completely unfamiliar with.

What a surprise it was to see that the unfamiliar character written about most frequently was from Rockingham County, North Carolina and had his largest businesses just north of that county in Martinsville, Virginia but also in hometown Danville, Virginia, in Rockingham County of course, and other towns in a triad with Greensboro at its southernmost point.  Through the creative eternally optimistic but financially unlucky or too much of a risk taker Dean Price, Packer identifies the issues of the area thoroughly and repeatedly uses the word "depression" to describe the overall southside Virginia area as opposed to "great recession".

He details the tough and first election of Tom Perriello as a pragmatic, committed and not right-wing congressman from the 5th district of Virginia(which includes Danville and Martinsville as well as the more liberal Charlottesville) in 2008 and his defeat in 2010 to a member of the old inherited regime.

The book's purpose is to detail the major changes in values that have occurred in management and politics over the last 30 plus years and the loss of some of the characteristic American optimism that once existed.  A major theme is the destruction of communities by the housing crisis, business closures, and the destruction of local businesses by chains that ship almost all profits elsewhere.

While this book could not be recommended more here, even if many of the views expressed were already firmly in place,  there were two short segments of the book that were somewhat flawed from this perspective.  There is a chapter on Jay-Z that comes out of nowhere, and tells his story of coming out of the projects, being a major East Coast drug dealer and then seamlessly becoming a major rap star.  There just seems to be something missing from this chapter, some insight, some missing facts.  Of course the man has a talent that worked, but what this has to do with the overall book is completely unclear.

The second chapter that simply adds no new information or insight is the one on Occupy Wall Street.  Certainly taking over a small park in downtown Manhattan in the midst of the financial district drew lots of attention, and had some well meaning supporters and  almost constructive anarchists who made a huge effort to start something worthwhile.  But all of its cliches could only last so long and it eventually attracted more miscreants and party seekers than dedicated political types who really understood what was going on, at least that seemed clear here from first hand observation.  Packer simply does not analyze this at all and that was disappointing.

Those two exceptions aside, the book is brilliant reading.  Too bad it took six months to make it to my reading chair.  There is much more in this book than can be highlighted here, such as the consistent self-centered behavior of Joe Biden and the way he exploits and then forgets those who work for or help him.


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