New Yorker staffer, author of bestselling “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” spoke at University Hall
Thursday, October 30, 2014
Packer shared a number of stories from his New York Times bestselling book “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” which won the 2013 National Book Award in nonfiction. At a reception following his lecture, Packer signed copies of the book while chatting amiably with attendees.
Packer’s book tells the story of America over the course of 35 years, through the eyes of various individuals, from a working mom in Youngstown, Ohio, “Detroit on steroids” (owing to its decimation via the disappearance of its signature industry, steel rather than automobiles), to a Washington lobbyist to hip-hop mogul Jay-Z and other household names.
Today, Packer said, we have celebrity bankers (JP Morgan Chairman Jamie Dimon), celebrity media moguls (Arianna Huffington and her eponymous “Post”) and real estate tycoons (Donald Trump). However, the institutions that once kept in check the financial, media and housing industries are scorned and bereft of any regulatory power.
“Institutions that underpin a healthy democratic society” have fallen into decay, Packer said. Instead, the celebrities themselves have become the institutions and, “If you are the institutions, you don’t have to play by the rules.”
Rather than the imperfect postwar “social contract” of the New Deal (which wasn’t much of a bargain for African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, or gays and lesbians), today’s celebrities/institutions adhere only to “the hackers code: ask forgiveness, not permission.”
It would be one thing if celebrities remained tabloid fodder and mere distractions, but their centrality to the daily lives of most Americans causes harm, he said, by lulling the have-nots into a false sense of inclusion and familiarity with the haves. “Their success is based on leaving the rest of us behind,” he said.
He offered talk-show host-turned-lifestyle maven Oprah Winfrey as an example.
“As she got bigger and bigger … she never lost touch with her audience,” he said, but added that, while she had billions of dollars, “they had things she didn’t: children, debts and spare time.”
Eventually, as Oprah’s profile grew to include influence over the publishing industry, and the occasional free-car giveaway, she became something of a spiritual leader, steering her adherents via “magical thinking” toward questionable health regimens and dangerous personal philosophies.
“And since there’s no random suffering in life” according to the ethos of Oprah’s experts, “Oprah left (her audience) with no excuse” for their financial reversals, the breakdown of their families and other personal and societal maladies reflecting the national malaise.
However, earlier in the evening as Packer kicked off his remarks, he warned that he wasn’t about to deliver any suggested solutions to the problems he has spent much of his career highlighting. “I’m not an expert in anything, which makes me a journalist,” he quipped.
He also warned that chronicles of historical decline tend to coincide with the chronicler’s 50th birthday.
Still, Packer decided to write “The Unwinding” in the wake of the Iraq War, which he called a “spectacular failure” and a “stress test on the body politic,” and the collapse of the U.S. financial and housing markets. “It felt pretty apocalyptic to me,” he said of the confluence of the new century’s events in America. So, in 2009, he began traveling around the country in search of the people who would tell the nation’s story firsthand.
Before long, he could see the dismantling — the unwinding — taking place all around him in real time. In his visits to Youngstown, Ohio (locked in “a death spiral of gangs and violence and crime), and Tampa, Fla. (“Ground Zero of the foreclosure crisis”), he saw that middle America was continually the loser in the country’s emerging economic order, and Wall Street, Silicon Valley and the cult of celebrity enjoyed the spoils of victory.
Worse, the often-corrupt institutions and regulators of the past — which at least served as a brake on egregious income inequality — were sacrificed to cynicism.
“Suspicion of government has been in the American DNA” from the time of the Revolutionary War, Packer said, but today’s distrust of government is more akin to nihilism. As a result, financial inequity is at its highest “since the days of the robber barons.”
For instance, Packer said, the six heirs of big-box retail pioneer Sam Walton own as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of Americans. But Walmart, which reaps profits by advertising cut-rate prices to low- and middle-income Americans, is hardly the only exemplar of an out-of-whack economy and national values system. There might be greater social equality today, but far less shared prosperity than during the New Deal, or what Packer called “the Roosevelt Republic.”
“We now have gay Boy Scouts, but chances are they attend lousy public schools,” he said.
Packer was introduced by Dr. Caroline Heller, Lesley University professor of graduate educational studies, who studied writing with him, and Lesley graduate student Ramona Islam. Heller jokingly recalled her former teacher as “so perceptive, as I thought only a woman could be,” while Islam pointed to Packer’s “enduring belief in democracy and social justice.”
The lecture was sponsored by the Friends of Lesley, a group of influential alumni and community leaders who share the university’s passion for education and recognize its centrality to individual opportunity, economic growth, community development and democratic principles.
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