Dick Lipez (Ethiopia 1962–64; PC/HQ staff 1964–67) is a former editorial writer at The Berkshire Eagle. He also reviews books for The Washington Post and he writes the Don Strachey private eye series under the name Richard Stevenson. Death Vows was chosen by Maureen Corrigan on NPR as one of the top five crime novels of 2008. The 38 Million Dollar Smile, set in Thailand, was published in September.
When George Packer’s (Togo 1982-83) new book, Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade came out, I asked Dick to read it, as he has traveled to many of the countries that are the focus of Packer’s essays. Dick also was a Peace Corps evaluator (after being a PCV) and he has that edgy way about him that those early evaluators had who worked for Charlie Peters. These evaluators of the early Peace Corps projects never believed anything the staff told them, and they never bought the PCVs beer. With that sort of background, I knew Lipez was the man to comment on Packer’s prose. There wouldn’t be any bullshit! And besides that, Lipez is a dear friend, and I know I can always put the touch on him to do the hard job, to go the extra distance, and I’ve learned over the years to trust his judgment. Lipez always knows what he is talking about. So here is what he has to say about Packer’s book, just published.
Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade
by George Packer’s (Togo 1982–83)
Farrar Strauss Giroux
In this smart, valuable collection of New Yorker and other magazine pieces originally published during the Bush era, you can see The Eternal Peace Corps Volunteer in Packer’s every utterance. He’s the moralist who’s mugged by reality everywhere he turns and finds this engagement endlessly interesting. Nor does he disengage or quit, even though he is often fed up with individuals and governments around the world, especially his own. Packer reserves some of his severest scorn for Americans, liberals included, whose chief preoccupations are exercising their “choice of hedonisms.”
The people Packer connects with most easily on his reporting trips to the Middle East, Africa and Asia are the people PCVs naturally gravitate to and who themselves recognize Peace Corps people as kindred souls. These are the instinctive democratic liberals struggling tenaciously in places where democratic liberalism can get you killed. Among the people Packer writes about with the most feeling here are a Sudanese who is hanged for his liberalism, a Burmese dissident engaged in a “daily struggle not to abandon thought and passion” in a place where expressing an idea can be a criminal offense, and those anti-Saddam Iraqis who did welcome the American invaders with open arms — and who later, when the insurgency took off and things fell apart, were often abandoned by the bloodless and inept U.S. establishment.
Unlike many liberals, the determinedly non-ideological Packer was himself ambivalent about the Iraq war in the beginning. He liked the idea of overthrowing tyrants and had seen the U.S. trounce a few in the Balkans in the 1990s. Also, he was inclined to support the U.S. doing something good with its vast power. On 9/11, Packer joined thousands of other New Yorkers who tried to donate blood, only to be told that none was needed because nearly all the thousands of victims were dead. But witnessing this outpouring of good will, Packer considered the attacks and thought, “Maybe this will make us better.” That is, less self-involved, more understanding, more worldly. He blames bad leaders for instead moving the nation through an “era of terror and waste.” And he himself witnessed the post-invasion folly and horror of Iraq, which he portrayed unflinchingly in his terrific 2005 book, The Assassins’ Gate.
Packer’s 2008 New Yorkerpiece on Burma, included here, is one of the best things I’ve read about that sad, beautiful, tragic country. I have visited Burma a number of times in recent years and can vouch that Packer’s reporting is dead-on. He goes over the torture and countless other horrors the wacky military regime inflicts on its gentle, probably-too-passive Buddhist people. And while his report is grim, it is not hopeless. Although civil society has been crushed in Burma, Packer describes how after Cyclone Nargis killed 130,000 Burmese and the government failed utterly in its indifferent relief efforts, small groups of people defied government prohibitions against organizing. Informal hiking clubs, student groups, small businesses and networks of friends suddenly began hauling rice and water and medical supplies to survivors of the storm who had been abandoned by the generals. Many of these rescuers were arrested for their illegal good efforts, yet others persevered.
Some of the Burmese who risked their freedom by helping out post-Nargis were young people who had defied the regime’s spy networks and studied and hung out at The American Center in Yangon (Rangoon), where some American trouble-makers were teaching “critical thinking.” Sound familiar? Packer doesn’t like moral ambiguity—he states a number of times that U.S. foreign policy should compete with the violent Islamists in terms of moral clarity—although he seems to approve of Americans in Burma inculcating dangerous thoughts. I’d call that morally ambiguous, just as I vaguely recognized it as such in Addis Ababa in the early 1960s when I was doing it myself without giving it enough thought.
Packer includes several pieces on “writers at war,” sometimes with one another. He dishes a detached and snooty Paul Theroux for his lengthy, pointless feud with V.S. Naipaul, refreshingly dismisses Hemingway in Spain as a Stalinist stooge, and calls Graham Greene’s The Quiet American a self-righteous bad novel but a keen and prescient piece of journalism.
Optimistically, Packer sees the election of Barack Obama as a reassertion of the best kind of American liberalism: clear-headed, pragmatic, energetic, humane. He wrote that forecast last March, which increasingly feels like a long time ago.