Review: The Unwinding by George Packer

CS Lewis said we read to know that we are not alone. I’ve always read to find out how the world works primarily so that when I’m with others, I can clarify the world’s interactions. This is probably because I know that you have to understand a system to succeed inside and, as a parent of four children, I’m also committed to making the future as good as possible for them, in addition to loving my Creator and wanting to impact and preserve the world for Him. In short, I’m more motivated than lonely, though I am a little of both at different times. Whatever the reason, I’ve got a deep fascination with finding out how the world works and building an accurate philosophy of history. This book seemed to fit that bill and it does deliver the author’s opinion, cynical and misguided as it may be.

Clearly, George Packer is a well established member of the anti-establishment and that view determines the polarization of his pen as he sketches a series of lives and their experiences with what he terms the unwinding. He defines the unwinding as the change in American society present in the last 40 years as we have transitioned from a manufacturing-based and more localized economy to our present state. The author describes this world for us as a place where the institutions of government have failed us because they have been taken over by special interests and the only guardians of hope are the iconoclast organizers, journalists and activists determined to fight the system. However, any time these activists get to work, they better not get big because they risk becoming part of the establishment, which creates a strange tension for me: while you can’t trust any private institution to act responsibly, he seems to have a blind trust in the government to regulate and level the playing field. Through a set of engaging and short biographical vignettes, he builds the case for increased regulation to protect the public from our failed institutions. He puts a name and a history on what otherwise might be another name who loses their home. He portrays hapless families used by the big banks to take away their home, and to be content there, but to take away their dignity, their health and even their sanity in an insatiable act of greed. His message is clear — a disease has taken over our country and it is in general the establishment and in particular republican party (wholly owned by big business) and the democrats of the permanent political class. But isn’t he missing something here? Aren’t we all culpable when it comes to greed? I know it is obvious, but I can’t escape the fact that no one was forced to sign any of the mortgage papers that provided the legal justification to reclaim their homes after they repeatedly failed to make payments.

While he exalts the value of the individual against the institution, even his heroes come off a bit weak. Dean Price, Tammy and Peter Theil all get their platform while some are put before us for outright scorn or tabloid entertainment: Breitbart, Gingrich, and Oprah. Yes, all the biographies are interesting, but besides their entertainment value many failed to fall into the larger narrative in any meaningful way.

Despite my overall disagreement with his diagnosis, I greatly enjoyed this read and recommend it to my friends. He also exposes you to inside the system and does give some very interesting perspectives. The way he tells it in biographical sketches made the book very compelling and did teach me a lot about the world and the way he set up his framework forced me to ask some very interesting questions related to how I think the world fits together.

In the end, was left motivated by the book to do something. Not just motivated to be part of the solution, but I was committed to not be at the mercy of legal and banking systems. Most of all I want to be full in my humanity. I want to be an individual empowered by the ability to have freedom of action and freedom to be and I want to be part of the world that empowers individuals to do the same.

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