[Marxism] Nice take-down of George Packer

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 4 16:23:14 MST 2009

Nov 4 2009
Interesting Times: Writing from a Turbulent Decade by George Packer
Christopher Hayes

George Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker since 2003, is plainly 
a master of his craft. The eight years’ worth of reporting collected in 
his new anthology, Interesting Times—culled from the New Yorker as well 
as several other general-interest magazines—showcases his eye for the 
telling detail: “The children’s legs swelled for lack of salt,” he notes 
in recounting the plight of a family from Sierra Leone chased into the 
bush by marauding rebels. The anthology also nicely points up his ear 
for the cutting and memorable quote: “We’re like a frigging organ 
transplant that’s rejected,” an army officer says of the United States 
presence in Iraq.

Packer captures scenes that, particularly in his Iraq reporting, give a 
hearty sense of the absurd. During a hectic meeting between dueling 
Sunni and Shiite factions in Iraq, a compulsively optimistic mayor 
cheerfully informs the participants that assembling at all is a triumph, 
a point he repeats even as the meeting descends into increasingly bitter 
recriminations. And no matter the topic—the journey of a secondhand 
T-shirt through the global economy, the unrelenting growth of an African 
megalopolis, or the ambivalence and desperation of Ohio’s white working 
class—the pieces read effortlessly. As most publishing enterprises wage 
a Hobbesian battle for the evernarrowing attention spans of their 
readers, Packer lets his material steadily widen its scope and teases 
out implications well beneath a story’s surface conflicts.

And that’s where things in Interesting Times begin to go awry. Packer 
doesn’t present himself simply as a reporter; he views himself as a bit 
of a philosopher as well. “My ambition as a journalist,” he says in the 
introduction, “is always to combine narrative writing with political 
thought. Finding the balance is a continuous struggle, but each needs 
the other and is poorer without it.” But if his reporting is first-rate, 
his philosophizing leaves something to be desired. His main intellectual 
struggle is to explore what might be called a political epistemology: 
laying out how to shed ideological blinders so as to see the world in 
all its selfcontradictory complexity, while preserving some core, 
transcendent moral and political commitments. This means, most of all, 
that a writer must force himself to see the problems of the world as 
they really are and not simply as the reflection of his biases and 
beliefs. Yet neither should a journalist shrink from “taking sides” or 
conceal his own ideological commitments behind the accretion of details 
in his reporting. “One can only be honest about having a point of
view while remaining open to aspects of reality—the human faces and 
voices—that might demolish it.”

This outlook informs Packer’s quest—most notable in the profiles 
collected here—for a journalistic subject who approximates these virtues 
on the printed page. Throughout the pieces in Interesting Times, one 
encounters a philosophical protagonist who might be dubbed the 
idealistic, pragmatic iconoclast. Whether a Republican prosthetist, an 
Australian soldier-anthropologist, or a presidential candidate named 
Barack Obama, these characters reject the strictures of dogma and 
ideology and embrace a pragmatic ethos dictated by the cross pressures 
of a difficult, fallen world—while simultaneously in pursuit of some 
raw, irreducible moral commitment.

Packer, one gets the sense, views himself as playing this role as well, 
and when the subject is his own work and writing, as in the introduction 
and an essay he wrote for Mother Jones in 2003, he is excessively—almost 
compulsively—self-questioning. Like someone running his tongue over a 
canker sore, Packer can’t seem to stop himself from returning to hard 
questions and asking whether he has lived up to the elevated epistemic 
standards he’s set: “Lately I’ve tried to perform a diagnosis, taking 
myself as a starting point, to analyze our mental response to the inner 
disturbances of the times. What I’ve found are a variety of coping 
strategies that seem to allow us to handle the flow of information, but 
at the same time keep us from thinking clearly about it.”

Noble as this might be in small doses, an extended reading of his work 
(particularly his writing in the wake of the September 11 terrorist 
attacks and during the run-up to the Iraq war) creates the unfortunate 
impression that Packer’s self-awareness may also be a form of moral 
vanity. It is all too easy to picture Packer, in many of the far-flung 
encounters recorded here, softly shaking his head that he is surrounded 
by people not nearly as sensitive or self-questioning or nuanced as he. 
In a 2004 piece that spends a good deal of time praising Joe Biden’s 
thoughtful hawkishness, he passes along an anecdote in which “antiwar” 
Democrats balk at supporting a Biden-sponsored Iraq resolution because 
they “were opposed to any war resolution at all.” After Biden warns 
them, “Your principle is going to kill a lot of Americans,” Packer tells 
us that the meeting ended and “Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and 
Senator Barbara Boxer of California left the room arm in arm, 
chuckling.” Obviously, they didn’t take war and peace as seriously as 
Biden or Packer.

In addition, as Packer keeps alluding to his own finely filigreed 
conception of the issues at hand, he has a tendency to oversimplify the 
complicated (“Americans have never had an interest in empire building”) 
while overcomplicating the simple. At one point, he describes the Iraqi 
dissident Kanan Makiya, whom he greatly admires and who advocated 
strenuously for the United States to invade Iraq and depose Saddam 
Hussein, as a figure trying to “think his way out of Iraq’s 
blood-stained history.”

Packer attempted to do the same, as an early, if predictably anguished, 
supporter of the Iraq invasion and then a later, no less anguished, 
critic of the US occupation, a journey he recorded in his last 
nonfiction book, The Assassins’ Gate (2005). And the central, tragic 
fact—which haunts every page of Interesting Times—is that Packer failed. 
A 2008 essay for the policy journal World Affairs (the most recent 
Iraq-themed piece collected here) finds Packer reflecting on the war’s 
lessons. He concedes, in the introduction, that his early writing on 
both Iraq and the so-called war on terror suffered from a “tendency 
toward overreach,” which now makes him “a little uneasy” about more 
sweeping pronouncements on the subject. Nevertheless, the World Affairs 
essay shows Packer’s more-nuanced-than-thou pose stubbornly intact. 
“Once, after a trip to Iraq, I attended a dinner party in Los Angeles at 
which most of the other guests were movie types,” he writes. “They 
wanted to know what it was like ‘over there.’ I began to describe a 
Shiite doctor I’d gotten to know, who felt torn between gratitude and 
fear that occupation and chaos were making Iraq less Islamic. A burst of 
invective interrupted my sketch: none of it mattered—the only thing that 
mattered was this immoral, criminal war. The guests had no interest in 
hearing what it was like over there. They already knew.”

I can understand the frustration of a reporter feeling like he’s being 
humored only to the extent he agrees with his audience. But what Packer 
doesn’t say in this vignette is that those same knee-jerk LA 
liberals—and scores of other easily stereotyped righteous lefties—had 
opposed the war, while Packer supported it. Notwithstanding their 
supposed self-satisfied and moralistic ignorance, this is no small 
thing. It’s no doubt true that most of the people who took to the 
streets to prevent the Iraq war knew less about the Middle East than 
Packer did and that they hadn’t assembled a worldview as nuanced or 
complex as the one Packer worries over, again and again, in Interesting 

And yet. In the end, reporters aren’t especially well served by a 
penchant for open-mindedness or observational depth if they also lack 
fundamental judgment on an issue as crucial as waging a war of choice on 
grounds that, to put things charitably, were profoundly misleading. For 
all Packer’s prodigious gifts as a writer and thinker, his work from the 
early part of this decade remind us that even committed pragmatists are 
capable of grave miscalculations when they affect to rise above the fray.

This review will appear in the December-January issue of BookForum.

Christopher Hayes is the Washington DC editor for The Nation.

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