The Ten Books of Christmas: Between Christmas and New Year’s FlaglerLive customarily reduces production. It helps us, and no doubt you, exhausted reader, to take a break from outrage and lurid politics. This year I’m doing something a little different. Instead of only running the usual end-of year sum-ups and fillers, I’m launching the Byblos column and offering the Ten Books of Christmas: every day I’m publishing an original piece of mine on one of the books of the year I found most notable—books old and new, fiction and nonfiction, whether inspired by covid, confinement, covfefe or just the libidinous, inebriating pleasure of reading. No doubt only six or seven readers out there are interested in this sort of thing. That's OK. They’re ignored the rest of the year, so this is for them. I hope they find these, ahem, brief reflections (rather than reviews) at least a little provocative. The days' installments are listed below.
There is a lot of information before you get to the first chapter of George Packer’s Last Best Hope:America in Crisis and Renewal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), published in mid-June. Even before you take in those eight grandiose words.
The title, subtitle and author’s name on the cover appear as if caged, the capital letters a dark, chipped and weathered blue. Packer, a tortured liberal, might have put himself there. (“I am an American and there’s no escape,” he writes near the end of the book.) He had been among those many supporters of the Iraq war at one point, if only “by a whisker,” as he described it, but still. He’d supported a folly and a crime of momentous proportions whose costs and political consequences we’re paying for in more ways than we acknowledge, including the blowback of paramilitary policing and violence affecting the “homeland” that Last Best Hope is in part a reckoning with. A little penance isn’t a bad thing.
There are the obvious allusions of the title itself. Even outside its historical context the title assumes too much. It pretends to know the future, implying that all is lost if nothing is done now. We’ve been saying this at least since John Winthrop dreamed his city on a hill in 1630. A century and a half later the white founders in Philadelphia thought they were their race’s last great hope, and three generations later it was Abraham Lincoln’s turn. “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth,” he wrote Congress in December 1862, a month before his Emancipation Proclamation. The war wasn’t going well and Lincoln was still flirting with recolonizing Blacks to Africa. Best hope for whom?
In 2007 Richard Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education, called his history of the United States America: The Last Best Hope, that “the” of the title leaving no doubt that Bennett was flipping the bird to the rest of the world even as his best hope was ravaging the Middle East and entering a second depression. And every four years almost since 1800 presidential candidates have been assuring us that theirs was the most important election of our lifetime. There’s been so many last best hopes, it’s no wonder we have little hope left.
Could Packer’s use of the phrase have been intended ironically? No. “Something has gone wrong with the last best hope of earth. Americans know it–the whole world knows it,” he deadpans a few pages into the book, though his own bibliography suggests the going sideways wasn’t so recent, and in fact about 100 pages in he tells us the country began splitting in 1968, specifically when Democrats fractured at their national convention in Chicago.
Packer had used the picture of an American flag on the cover of his book two titles ago–The Unwinding, a history of post-Great Recession America. That flag was rusty and runny, as if to say, these colors do run. He couldn’t very well reuse the image, though the same flag, perhaps shredded this time, would have fit with the analysis to follow in Last Best Hope, especially when it agonizes over the mob’s January 6 attack on the Capitol in Washington. So he uses that fading, metallic blue.
The book in between, Our Man: Richard Holbrook and the End of the American Century, is a non-fiction update of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a 600-page requiem to the hubris of American foreign policy. Holbrooke can be summed up in one line from Greene: “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” With the other two it makes up a trilogy of Packer’s liberal agony and shows how depressing liberals have become.
The Unwinding was written in staccato chapters, borrowing from John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy by telling the story of America through the biographies of a dozen-odd people, real as opposed to Dos Passos’ fictions, some ordinary, some well known, even borrowing the trilogy’s thick-font manner of introducing chapters with the news of the decade. Dos Passos was angered by the materialism of a society devouring itself with greed and selfishness (Ayn Rand was gestating around the fountain). Packer described an America diminishing itself with narcissism and self-satisfaction in iPhone- and Facebook-like inventions that haven’t done a whit to improve standards of living, diminish inequalities or civilize politics. To the contrary. And that was during the Obama years.
“Over the years,” Packer wrote in The Unwinding, “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. The small towns where Mr. Sam [Walton] had seen his opportunity were getting poorer, which meant that consumers there depended more and more on everyday low prices, and made every last purchase at Wal-Mart, and maybe had to work there, too. The hollowing out of the heartland was good for the company’s bottom line. And in parts of the country that were getting richer, on the coasts and in some big cities, many consumers regarded Wal-Mart and its vast aisles full of crappy, if not dangerous, Chinese-made goods with horror, and instead purchased their shoes and meat in expensive boutiques as if overpaying might inoculate them against the spread of cheapness, while stores like Macy’s, the bastions of a former middle-class economy, faded out, and America began to look once more like the country Mr. Sam had grown up in.”
The country Mr. Sam grew up in was Depression America, when he traveled around Missouri with his dad, watching him repossess farms for an insurance company. The Unwinding left the reader with the impression of an America exhausted by self-inflicted ravages. We’d manufactured a tornado and unleashed it on ourselves. Then came Michael Brown and Ferguson, Trump, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, the pandemic, the insurrection, a third of the country willing to nullify democracy. It could make you wonder if, like Dos Passos, who eventually spat on his liberal past, Packer was heralding his own reactionary turn with Last Best Hope.
Packer isn’t there yet. He tries hard to come off as an optimist (the opening quote is Walt Whitman’s). It’s a more personal book than The Unwinding. He’s trying to work something out, to convince himself that yes, it’s still possible to get there. But he’s not so sure. Richard Rorty’s spanking of liberalism in Achieving Our Country a quarter century ago was confident and cheerful. Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s alarm about “Leftwing political correctness” in The Disuniting of America was written with the same certainty that the country could get over that the same way it did McCarthyism. I was hoping for an updated synthesis in Last Best Hope. Instead Packer’s vision of America is as dour and paranoid as a Cotton Mather sermon.
So we get to the opening line of Packer’s prologue: “I am an American.” This is not Dos Passos anymore but Saul Bellow, recalling the opening line of The Adventures of Augie March: “I am an American, Chicago-born.” Bellow’s line was a clarion call of exuberance, beginning the novel of a joyous, limitless America. He was writing in the early 1950s. For Packer, “I am an American” doesn’t mean what it used to mean. His second sentence is: “No, I don’t want pity.” From there the sentences reach for Xanax: “In the long story of our experiment with self-government, the world’s pity has taken the place of admiration, hostility, awe, envy, fear, affection, and repulsion. Pity is more painful than any of these, and after pity comes indifference, which would be intolerable.” I don’t know that we should be so concerned with identifying ourselves by how others define us. It’s as presumptuous as “last best hope.” We are in this state in part because of our too-high self-regard. A little indifference from the world would do us good.
“Strange Defeat,” the 50-page chapter that gets the book going, is an exhausting review of the too-recent calamities of 2020, from the impeachment of Donald Trump to the pandemic to the George Floyd murder and Black Lives Matter protests to the Jan. 6 insurrection (“the most flagrant attempt to subvert democracy since Fort Sumter”), with a few additional shocks along the way. Were you aware that the nation’s 600 billionaires increased their wealth by nearly 50 percent during the first year of the pandemic? “The richest of them all, Jeff Bezos, added around $70 billion to his net worth, while 20,000 of his employees came down with the virus.” I don’t know how you read a line like that and not think that America’s morals have had a meltdown of nuclear proportions. No one won in 2020, not even the Biden coalition, considering how much the nation lost. It is a nation confused, rudderless, too blindly angry to figure out how to proceed even in a year when it attained a miraculous vaccine. Some dourness is in order.
But we weren’t that much happier when a conventional Democrat was in office and the economy was in top form. “For those on the right,” Daniel Bell wrote in 1995, in the middle of the largest economic expansion to date, “we are two nations: the moral and the immoral, adherents of the traditional culture and the counter-culture respectively. For the liberal left, the United States is a society increasingly divided by rising inequalities of wealth and income, which denies economic opportunities to the poor, and has not as yet overcome a latent racism that is demonstrated in the persistently lagging conditions of the black community.”
Packer’s is not just two Americas but four. He calls them “Free America,” “Smart America,” “Real America” and “Just America.” None of them is working, none of them has his admiration, least of all the one he falls in–Just America, the progressive, woke one. The pages on “Four Americas” make up a third of the book and are its sharpest: Packer is a merciless diagnostician. But like so many “just” Americans, he’s seduced by the myth of balance. His four Americas are an exercise in guilt equivalence that ends up condemning everyone, so no one is accountable.
Free America is the old Reagan-Bush-Bush coalition, the Ayn Rand libertarians, evangelical conservatives and neo-confederates who cheered so loudly when Reagan spoke the words “states’ rights” during his 1980 campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi (very near where the bodies of the three murdered voter-registration workers were found in 1964). They were“the most reliable code words,” Rick Perlstein writes in Reaganland, “Southern demagogues could deploy to activate their audiences’ most feral rage against African American civil rights.” (They remain so, as Gov. Ron DeSantis’s confederate fetishism reminds us.) Between Friedrich Hayek’s dogmatic Road to Serfdom and Rand’s adolescent Fountainhead, “Reagan made free-market economics sound like the ally of the ordinary American, and government the enemy.” Reagan still knew the art of compromise. His followers, Newt Gingrich especially, denounced it. “The quality of free America’s leaders steadily deteriorated—falling from Reagan to Gingrich to Ted Cruz, from William F. Buckley to Ann Coulter to Sean Hannity—with no bottom.” (It’s an indication of Packer’s own elitism that he considers Buckley somehow on a higher plane than Coulter, when the only difference between the two was a manner of speech and Coulter’s more enjoyable humor.) So the insurrection was foretold. It was the enactment of that deterioration.
Smart America is the America of the meritocracy, of credentials, of homogenized self-improvement, assuming you can afford it. You have a hard time telling what part of the country “smart” Americans come from “because they speak in the same public radio accents and their local identities are submerged in the homogenizing culture of top universities and elite professions.” David Brooks had almost satirized the culture in Bobos in Paradise 21 years ago. Almost, because he was a Bobo himself, what he described as “the PBS-NPR cohort: vineyard-touring doctored, novel-writing lawyers, tenured gardening buffs, unusually literary realtors, dangly-earringed psychologists, and the rest of us information-age burghers.” This is the out of touch woke crowd Eric Adams, the new Democratic mayor of New York, was alluding to when he said Americans “want to have justice and safety and end inequalities, and we don’t want fancy candidates.” (Adams was a cop. One of his opponents was a Dartmouth graduate and an attorney.)
The Democratic Party of Gary Hart and Bill Clinton embraced Smart America and ignored the working class, a radical reversal from its history since 1930. The tools designed to combat inequality like merit and higher education have been cooped by Smart America in its own self-preservative grasp. All that concern about racism and multiculturalism is a smokescreen. “So these two classes, rising professionals and sinking workers,” Packer writes, “no longer believe they belong to the same country.” It’s also why Smart Americans are uneasy with patriotism. They don’t hate America, but they don’t show their love for it because they fear being identified with working class Americans. God forbid their Bruckner mixed with Bob Jones. And so “abandoning patriotism to other narratives guarantees that the worst of them will claim it.”
Real America is the anti-intellectual, xenophobic, evangelical, fundamentalist, isolationist, white nationalist America. It is suspicious of elites and the educated. It is Sarah Palin’s America, the America that saw banks getting bailed out while workers were laid off and homeowners saw their properties repossessed, the America that shops at the Walmarts of The Unwinding, though I’m not so sure how different it is from the America Richard Hofstadter described in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”–in 1963, the same month JFK was assassinated in Dallas, where Birchers had taken out newspaper ads calling Kennedy a traitor. Trump “had a reptilian genius for intuiting the emotions of Real America—Terra incognita to elites on the right and left.” He gave an entire class an identity it craved. His insults were their language. If educated professionals considered some workers to be “ignorant, crass, and bigoted, then Trump was going to shove it in our smug faces. The lower his language and behavior sank, and the more the media vilified him, the more he was celebrated by his people. He was their leader, who could do no wrong.” Progressives placed themselves on higher ground, relieving themselves of the need to understand him or his followers. “So the question is not who Trump was, but who we are,” Packer writes, again in penance mode.
Just America may as well be the East Coast to Smart America’s West. It is the America of critical race theory and The 1619 Project (which Packer appears to have read only superficially, or at second hand), the America of despair, an America that sees itself as a “malignant force beyond any other evil on earth.” (Don’t remind Packer that it was Martin Luther King Jr. who in 1967 called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”) Most of the 2020 summer protesters were well off and white. Black on Black crime is far more prevalent than cop-on-Black violence. The abandonment of working class America, which includes Black Americans, is no less of a crisis than racism. No state has a worse affordable-housing and homeless crisis than liberal California, the same state where wealthy liberals defeat affordable-housing ordinances time after time. But those facts don’t fit the narrative of Just America. “Woke aesthetics is the new socialist realism,” Packer writes.
Is there a bearable America right now? Apparently not. “I don’t much want to live in the republic of any of them,” he tells us. Who would, when presented with those options, that starkly?
Even accepting Packer’s analysis–and there’s little he describes that bears contradicting–the conclusion can be drawn differently, paradoxically: these four narratives can be the continuation of American pluralism by other means, in a country that’s always been far more pluralistic than it’s ever admitted. Pluralism isn’t always good. White nationalism is an element of pluralism. The Nation of Islam’s old racist view of whites as blue-eyed devils is an element of pluralism, as are KKK marches. So is Real America really any different than Sinclaire Lewis’s Main Street or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio? Is Smart America really different from the early Republic of the Federalist Papers’ authors and their debaters? Is Just America really different from the Progressive and civil rights eras, the multiculturalism wars of the 1990s and the anti-war movement of the 2000s?
Packer here risks looking for redemption in an idealized American past that never existed. We are experiencing the emergence of movements as we always do, uncovering wrongs and resentments on all sides, and suffering the dialectic of it all—sometimes for the better, sometimes not. We are certainly in a darker phase, one of “several near-death experiences in American history: the Gilded Age, the Great Depression, the Sixties,” as Packer puts it, and nothing says we’ll emerge from it better off. But if we hope to get past this latest dark phase, distributing blame equally seems to me as nonsensical as “Just America”’s worst impulses.
I don’t think left-wing wokeness is equivalent to right-wing media’s absolution from truth or science. The first is silly and sanctimonious. The other slanders and costs lives. There is no Left-wing equivalent to the Right’s decade-long war on Obamacare, which has also cost lives and stands as an emblem of the Right’s war on all social services–and government, if government is to be in the service of the working class and the poor. There is no Left equivalent to 40 years of tax policies that have made the United States the most unequal free-market society on the planet. There is no left-wing equivalent to the voter-suppression and gerrymandering that has resulted in 40 million more Americans living in blue states yet still barely clinging to a bare majority in Congress, or needing 55 percent of the vote to win parity. There is no comparing George Soros-like money intended to foster democracy movements to Koch Brothers-like “dark money” (in Jane Mayer’s phrase) intended to suppress democracy. If the U.S. Supreme Court respected the 15th Amendment as much as it worships the Second, none of the parodies of democracy posing as “election integrity” laws would survive. These aren’t attitudes, cultural differences or different Americas. This has been a concerted, calculated, systematic, well-funded and executed effort, starting in 1980 with Reagan, accelerating since, to dismantle the New Deal, reduce government to a vassal of wealth and business, and disenfranchise the beneficiaries of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.
In that context, Packer’s implicit equivalencies across his four Americas is limp reasoning. It’s misplaced guilt, and it contradicts his own solutions, which appeal to sensibilities as woke as can be.
The final three chapters of Last Best Hope revert to standard liberal fare hazed in utopian fog (“We need an activism of cohesion.”) Journalism, government, and activism “need repairing” but remain the tools of better citizenship, though “government will have to be the prime mover.” Try selling that to some of your Americas. “Extending the New Deal to more Americans,” including universal health care, child care, paid family and sick leave, worker and unemployment security, a living minimum wage all sounds good, as does narrowing inequalities–the bane at the heart of the country’s democratic and economic decline–but this isn’t anything different than what Left Old and New have been screaming about for decades. Even he calls it “long shots in our present politics.”
His final chapter’s title–“Make America Again”–is as ironic as his “I am an American” line, but less dour. Of course it appears to be a knock-off of Trump’s line, itself plagiarized from Reagan’s campaign slogan in his Neshoba-nostalgia days. It’s actually the final line of Langston Hughe’s “Let America Be America Again.” It includes these lines:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Hughes, who died in 1967, wrote the poem in 1935. The words lost some of their power for a few decades between 1950 and 1980, and again in 2008. There was progress. And then there wasn’t. That the same words now sound so contemporary suggests how paralyzed America has been. That they can apply to all four of Packer’s Americas–that they can be recited by all four–suggests that, in some respects at least, we still all are looking for the same thing. We just have a hard time admitting that there’s different roads to getting there, that many of the roads are unjustly closed, and that, on those we’ve finally opened, we’re still too eager to block each other’s way rather than live and let drive.
We’d all like to sing, like Hughes in a different poem, “I, too, am America.” But too many of us think that’s a privilege, not a right, and too many of those who do are as recognizable as Ronald Reagan’s fans at the Neshoba County Fair. Packer’s guilt is misplaced. His depression isn’t.
Pierre Tristam is the editor of FlaglerLive. Reach him by email here.