These are distressing times in America.
Recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has been lethargic and uneven. The income disparity has widened, while unemployment remains stubbornly high. Wall Street kingpins, the culprits of the housing collapse that affected millions and ignited the recession, escape retribution. We are divided into red states and blue states. Animosity and mistrust are the only things that our political parties share, leading to paralysis in Congress and the White House. It all seems to be unraveling: our institutions, our values, our sense of purpose, our shared interests, even our hope for a better future.
In “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” George Packer wades into this world of high anxiety and low expectations to ask how: How did we reach this point and how have we been affected by the unsettling events of the past decade?
He seeks answers by profiling the famous and the unknown. Among the former are Newt Gingrich and Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, assailed as among the architects of our national unwinding. Gingrich, according to Packer, gave the Republican Party “…mustard gas and they used it on every conceivable enemy, including him. At the millennium the two sides [Republicans and Democrats] were dug deep in opposing trenches, the positions forever fixed, bodies piling up in the mud, last year’s corpses this year’s bones, a war whose causes no one could quite explain, with no end in sight…”
“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.”
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart contributes to what ails America by “laying waste to local hardware stores and pharmacies…”
Subterfuge is not beneath the chain: “Wal-Mart stores put up MADE IN THE U.S.A. signs over racks of clothing imported from Bangladesh…” “Over the years, America had become more like Wal-Mart. It had gotten cheap. Prices were lower, and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters.”
Less illuminating is the chapter on hip-hop mogul Jay-Z. Packer cannot resist engaging in rhymes. “The crack game didn’t end the rap game,” he writes. Otherwise, Jay-Z’s life story is presented as an ironic example of how a one-time drug dealer can achieve fame and fortune, while those who play by the rules struggle to get by.
Packer is at his best writing profiles of the ordinary people who find themselves swept up by the economic and social forces they cannot control. He travels across the country to create a tapestry of the unwinding: technology gurus in Silicon Valley, Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York City, predators and victims of the housing bubble in Tampa Bay, and more. It is a disparate and sometimes desperate cast of characters.
Packer chronicles their attempts to achieve success with sympathy and skill, even though he finds that the odds are stacked against them. “The unwinding brings freedom,” he writes, but “…with freedom the unwinding brings its illusions, for all these pursuits are as fragile as thought balloons popping against circumstances.”
There is Dean Price, born and raised in a small town in North Carolina. Price struggles mightily to overcome poverty, self-doubt and the abusive, racist father whose failures Dean fears are in his DNA. Disillusioned by the rigidity of corporate America, Price quits the job that had been his dream and goes into business for himself. There he finds betrayal and bankruptcy.
Tammy Thomas is a black, single mother navigating her way through the unwinding of Youngstown, Ohio. (The city’s demise is chillingly similar to Detroit’s.) As crime and drugs visit her family, Thomas lands a factory job that frees her from the welfare roles. Still, she struggles, losing her home and being cheated of her life savings. Only after being recruited as a community organizer does she begin to find fulfillment.
There are no grand moments of enlightenment or end-of-the-rainbow success in these stories. Because the lives are ongoing — isn’t the unwinding ongoing? — Packer abandons his subjects in mid-air, leaving time to determine their fates. He does so with a certain degree of hope.
“The unwinding is nothing new. There have been unwindings every generation or two…[and] Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.”
When that cohesion arrives is anyone guess.