George Packer talks about the 'unwinding' of America
George Packer discusses his new book, 'The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America' – a country no longer assumed to be a global leader, even as its internal economic gulf widens.
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On the coasts, and in the big cities, this is not considered a terrible thing, because these places have done well. I live in one of them, Brooklyn. But once you leave these so called creative cities, and go into these old industrial cities, or even the small towns, that weren’t particularly industrial, it’s a real landscape of depression, where Wall Street is not loved. You can point to all the blind forces that have led to this, to globalization and automation. But that is not much good to people who had a middle class life, and don’t anymore. What I heard over and over again: in Ohio, North Carolina, and in Florida, is that there is not a middle class, there is just rich and poor.Skip to next paragraph
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You also speak about the shift in American popular culture, where celebrity worship became primarily about money. You use Jay Z and Oprah as two examples. When did it become almost acceptable to flaunt your wealth as your sole motivation as an artist or a celebrity in America?
I think celebrity comes to the fore of people’s consciousness in times of inequality, when they stand in for the old institutions that used to guide more ordinary aspirations. Modern celebrities were invented in America in the 1920s. Celebrity itself requires a machine-made diffusion. So celebrities grow in power and in influence. Today when I hear Jay Z at concerts, I get the feeling that he is telling his fans: Just give it to me. I will live it for you. And you can fantasize about it through me. But you are not going to get here, even if you wear my clothes, and flash my corporate logo.
Even Newt Gingrich did something to politics, where he turned it into an entertainment industry. He was willing to say anything, the more outrageous the better. He was willing to break down old taboos about what you could call your colleagues in Congress, and how much you could boast to a reporter, and how viciously you could try and tear down the president or [Congressional colleagues].
I guess what I am getting at is a collapse of taboos at that level of society that says: This is actually a rigged game. The old rules don’t work. If you are continuing to play by them, you are a sucker. Jay Z’s story tells you: Don’t hold down an honest job and stay in school, and hope that you move up. No, go for all of it, by any means, and then success will be its own justification. So that is why Jay Z interests me. I think he is a talented individual, but I also think that his story is one of success at all costs.
You also observe how social interaction is on the decline in American suburbs. Could you speak about this increasing isolation in American life, a disinterest in community. Where do you suspect this comes from?
Well I’m not the first to point this out. There was a famous book by a Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam, who wrote a book called "Bowling Alone," which said that Americans don’t join groups much anymore. There are a number of reasons for this. Most of them are not political. It’s just the way people live in the suburbs.
You speak about Tampa Florida as one example of this?
Yes, Tampa is a great example of a vast ex-urban place, where people want to get away from the city, and people end up in these sub-divisions where they have no roots. Then as soon as the housing market goes down, everyone leaves and it’s a ghost town. But that is changing, in that more and more people are moving back into cities.
Today in America the suburbs are becoming poorer, with the housing collapse all around Florida, and other states that had a big boom. The suburbs look like impoverished areas. It’s the cities that are attracting people with money, education, and talent. So I think the whole thrust of how Americans live is shifting back towards an urban life. Because there you are around people you don’t know, and exchange ideas with them, and that sparks growth.
This book looks at the unwinding of America from inside the country. Did you think about this unwinding in terms of external forces? For example, the idea that America might be presently at the last stages of a fallen empire?
I didn’t think about it writing the book, and if I had, I don’t think the book would have been very good, because I would have been worried about it being true to a grand vision. Grand visions are not very good for storytelling. It’s better to focus on a small subject, and illuminate a large one through it, rather than take it on directly.