Review — LAST BEST HOPE: America in Crisis and Renewal by George Packer (Togo)

 

Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal
by George Packer (Togo 1982-83)
240 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
June 2021
$27.00 (Hardback); $13.99 (Kindle); $7.95 (Audiobook)

 

Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)

I immediately said yes when I was asked to review George Packer’s new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, a self-described political pamphlet in a long-form essay, not unlike Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and other such books, written in a period of change, about that very change. Written for the moment, the authors’ hopes are that they will lead us out of our urgent predicament and tell us something we can use in the future.

I remembered that Packer had been a signee of the famous or some would say infamous “Harper’s Magazine Letter,” in which established writers and artists wrote A Letter on Justice and Open Debate, decrying the fact that in our fight “for greater equality and inclusion across our society,” we seem to be going a step too far in the process and have “intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity,” or as another signee described it, “the unforgiving nature of our current moment.” The complaints and objections to the letter and its signers were that they were the elite who had made it in the big time and to complain about the tactics of those who were banging on the doors of the gatekeepers, simply fed and shored up the racism, sexism, and gender institutional bias, keeping them out.

In interviews about his current book, Packer’s stated goal is to somehow find a way we as Americans can talk with each other again. A modest goal, but in this current post-Trump era, a seemingly insurmountable task. Before cracking the spine of the book, I wanted to know more about Packer and why, as I’d heard rumblings, he had taken both the right and left to task. I turned to his earlier memoir, The Blood of the Liberals, a history of political liberalism, told through his own family’s personal, psychological, ethnic, religious, class, and intellectual life.

What I found was a person whose background was in many ways uncannily similar to my own, though almost a generation apart. He was half Jewish and half Christian, a “mutt”, as my mother would say when I asked her what I was. On his mother’s side, Alabama Christian, Southern Populist liberal, with a grandfather who as a legislator was brave in his liberalism, but who would swing more conservative as time went on when confronted with racial issues, and segregationist pressures during the Civil Rights era. On his paternal side, a Jewish immigrant background, his father rose from working class to middle class through intellectual and meritorious achievements. Both our fathers were associated with Stanford and both had run into trouble with the increasingly conservative culture of that institution of “higher learning,” as they attempted to rise in America through its proffered merit and prestige.

I had found an author, who seemed to straddle and be deeply informed by the various strands of completing entities in our country.

In a way, like Obama, and others of us of mixed marriages and heritages, in a politically committed family, Packer’s view of political America, was influenced and informed by the need, or the gift of knowing two sides to the nth degree of the complicated and often competing nature of our democracy’s equation and wanting to find some sort of synthesis and détente. Thus, we have his attempt to bring Americans together, even excavating in the process what we hold in common that makes us American.

In Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, Packer brilliantly sets out to address what James Baldwin described as our tangled American problem: “In the same way that to become a social human being one modifies and suppresses and, ultimately, without great courage, lies to oneself about all one’s interior, uncharted chaos, so have we, as a nation, modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history.”

Packer divides us into four Americas as he proceeds to unravel the conundrum.  As I read, I thought, why do I have to endure revisiting this troubling time we’d just been through. But soon I saw the method to his proposition. He needed to begin at the confusing, maddening moment when the government, as headed by Trump and his associates, utterly failed to protect Americans, or as Packer writes, “There was no national plan for dealing with the greatest threat of our lives.” It was not a time when we were encouraged to come together to fight the invisible enemy, but rather we were manipulated, by a leader who loved to pit people one against another, which culminated in a “strange defeat,” or as some have said, a Cold Civil War.

Packer’s breaks his thesis down to Four Americas:

FREE AMERICA is Reagan’s America of low taxes, limited government, and low regulation.

SMART AMERICA is open to some of the terms of Free America: to free trade, immigration, globalization, the value of education, belief in meritocracy, and in a dominant educated class of people.

REAL AMERICA is a form of rebellion in that it is anti-elite, in particular anti-costal-elites, as in Sarah Palin’s positioning of supporting the “real people,” encompassing manual workers, farmers, miners, etc.  In Trump’s version, it is a Populist vision encompassing ethnonationalism, and pushing for the tax bill for the rich.  In earlier forms it was George Wallace’s white supremacy as well as the countervailing progressive populist position of William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold Speech at the Democratic National Convention of 1896.

JUST AMERICA is another rebellion in that it takes stands against the meritocracy of Smart America, seeing it as a failed promise, describing America as ultimately a caste system, with the underpinning of structural racism, which keeps underserved citizens of color and ethnicity out of the meritocracy running.

Packer doesn’t want to live in any of these narratives, especially in their purest forms, because each in its own way abuses democracy in that it divides us into seemingly irreconcilable tribes, with increasingly rigid, uncompromising stands. In his analysis, our common ground as a people and a nation has disappeared. This brings us back to why he, a man schooled in Liberalism from an early age, who remains a progressive, signed onto the Harper Magazine letter, casting blame on those of Just America who have gone too far in their censoring of voices in art, literature, and journalism.

He posits that we have to find a common ground if we’re to survive, starting with who we are as Americans, what differentiates us from other nation states. It’s rather touching how he tries to bring to light what our national characteristics are. He looks to Tocqueville’s description of our passion for equality, which Parker thinks we’ve failed at, but that at least we still have our passion, our openness, inclusiveness, our loud voices, and casualness with waiters, so different from Europeans or Latin Americans. Reading this feels like grasping at straws, but one wants to go along with him as he leads us to his proscriptive needs for creating a Fifth category, an EQUAL AMERICA, one where we work toward equality of opportunity, not just hard and fast equal results and as a people where we re-learn the arc of self-government.

This is where it gets a little wooly for the reader as one lives in the total mess and daily hardening divisions of our current political and moral life.  His prescriptive ideas feel utopian in their progressive wish list of a national safety net, empowerment of workers, of using the government to fight against monopolies that take away ordinary citizens economic freedom, of not supporting public schools through a local tax-base where rich, primarily white neighborhoods, always get the better-funded schools.  He calls for a civics education that teaches children how to think critically and supports national service for all (he’s a former Peace Corps Volunteer) because it’s an experience a young American will never have again. He even supports the goal of patriotism as a basic attachment to where you live, “the glue that holds us together,” as opposed to nationalism that leads to the sins of exceptionalism, hegemony, protectionism, and discrimination against the “other.”

In the end the most interesting aspect of his analysis of where we’ve gone wrong, and in this I mean to say where we, the promulgators of a JUST AMERICA, have gone wrong in our means to that end, is in the belief that with the net of meritocracy we will all rise to be equal; but as he posits, the reality is that we’ve created an overabundance of elites and, in the process, left behind too many people merely riding the purported wave of rising expectations with no real possibility of grabbing the brass ring. This leads us back to the metaphoric and real tensions evinced from the signing of the Harper Magazine letter, between those who’ve made it and those who can’t seem to get through the gates into a Just America whether it be as manual laborers, as miners and farmers, as intellectuals, as artists, as mothers and fathers, and as politicians.

George Parker really does want to find a way for Americans, for us, to talk without killing each other. It’s a noble wish, and he does go a long way with his stunning, synthesizing prose to parse a clarifying path through the complicated forest of where we’ve gone wrong. Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal is a sincere and worthy contribution to the canon of political pamphleteering and analysis. One does find some hope in his attempt to save America from itself. As such, I highly recommend the current book as well as his memoir The Blood of the Liberals, which informs his personal passion for putting America back together again.

 •

Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65), is the daughter of political progressives who went to work in the FDR era Farm Security Camp for dislocated Dust Bowl farmers, featured at the end of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and who later worked in the Tule Lake Japanese American High Security camp during WWII. Mueller is the author of three novels: Green FiresThe Climate of the Country, and My Mother’s Island, published by Curbstone Press, and currently in-print with Northwestern University Press. She is a winner of the Maria Thomas Prize for Fiction, an American Book Award, The New York Times New and Noteworthy in Paperback, and Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers, and the Marian Haley Beil Award for Best Book Review in 2020.

 

9 Comments

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  • Such a thoughtful review of such a thoughtful, difficult, useful book.

    Marnie, I didn’t know about your parents’ background. I want to recommend CLARK AND DIVISION, a novel by Naomi Hirahara, out in August. I just read it for a review. It’s about one Japanese-American family caught up in the post-Pearl Harbor racist hysteria, stripped of their good lives in Los Angeles, placed in a grim internment camp, and later relocated to Chicago, which had a wartime labor shortage. It’s superior fiction about a great crime.
    Dick

    • Dear Dick, Yes, my parents went to work in the Tule Lake Camp. My mother was six months pregnant with me, thus I was born there! Thanks for the heads-up about CLARK AND DIVISION. I look forward to reading it. All best, Marnie

  • Marnie, I second Dick’s compliment. A great review. While I agree with most everything in Packer’s brilliant piece, especially the need to restore social consensus through national service, we have not focused enough on the obvious fix.

    The United States, indeed every country and community on earth has a bottom: the poor, ignorant, gullible, bigoted, racist, xenophobic, selfish, those prone to conspiracies and fundamentalism of every stripe. So, what has changed? For the first time in human history, we have an explosion of communications inter connectivity through the internet, social media, cell phones and computers, Zoom and hundreds of cable channels. Responsible journalism aside, we have seen how this communications phenomenon has empowered those who would have been naturally sieved into tamer places through society’s formal and informal institutions.

    But the communications explosion has empowered these forces to a degree never seen before in our country or the world. During times of crisis in the U.S. (think WWll) our government didn’t think twice about censoring dangerous information. We have a Federal Communications Commission that is empowered to regulate public airways. Yet now we now have unbridled communications spewing lies and distortions at an unprecedented rate. It is far too great a risk to believe that society can socialize out of the power of these lies in a time frame that ensures our democracy will hold fast. We must reign in these forces by responsibly censoring “free speech” and holding the mass purveyors of lies accountable. We can’t defend first amendment rights the way the gun lobby defends the second.

  • Marnie, great thanks for doing this book review and informing many readers of George Packer’s excellent research into the American experience. His fine analysis of our country’s ‘Last Best Hope’ would have been more complete had there been some coverage of the fact that from 1620 – 1776, we were a colony of Great Britain. In that time period, Portuguese, English, French and Danish slave traders inculcated into our nation’s cultural fabric a stain which slowed our progress towards a more perfect union, resulting today in tribal responses rather than unity. Yet, these enabling nations bear no responsibility today. With some of the original signors of the Declaration of Independence still alive in 1808, our Congress did mange to pass an Act to Prohibit the Importation of slaves to the U.S., though they could be traded between States.

    Is there any other nation in recorded history that has been as magnanimous when defeating Nazism, Fascism, a Militaristic Japan in less than four years, yet rather than being a conquering nation, we brought each of them back into the community of democratic nations? Then, when the entire continent of Europe was in rags after WW II, we initiated the Marshall Plan, bringing them back into competitive national environments.

    The strides we take toward a more perfect union are festooned with speed bumps and George Packard has expressed them quite well.

  • An insightful review, Marnie, of a book that offers much to digest. The question that repeatedly pushes to the forefront in my mind regards the tsunami of selfish, tribal, hateful and even violent behavior in a multitude of Americans as a result of Trump’s bulldozing of the truth. It’s easy and justifiable to implicate social media and the lack of critical thinking among Trump’s followers, but there’s something else we’re having trouble naming. Perhaps Trump unleashed in the unguarded the urge to metaphorically burn a witch, stone a woman, shatter the window of a Jewish shop owner, or hang a black man. What was his black magic? Such an ostensibly stupid man. Maybe I’ve answered my own question with the eternal one: Why is there evil?
    Patricia Edmisten, Peru, 1962-64

  • I apologize, in advance, for the length of this comment, but I did not know how else to reply to Packer and his important essay.

    I appreciate the comments and certainly Marnie Mueller’s fine review, but I cannot relate to George Packer’s analysis. My country spoiled me. I was grew up in its Golden Age from 1941 to November 22, 1963. These were the special elements which made for a Golden Age, in my opinion: The Draft, the Legal System and the men who had seen war and tried to stop it.

    I was four when my Dad came home from WWII. I told him I did not want him to go to THE war, any more. He told me that if I wanted to stop wars, I had to treat everyone the same and
    always stand up for what I believe. It was the same message all my cohorts, the horribly misnamed “silent generation”got.

    My country gave me another gift. I am an army brat and I grew up in an intergrated multiracial community. In 1948, President Truman in an incredibly courageous political act, integrated the military with an Executive Order. He did that when his Democratic Party was split in two over the issue of segregation. He then trusted the American people and ran and won on that platform. Truman had served in WWI.

    The Draft had been activated in 1940, but it was not until after the summer of 1948, that all men, of whatever racial, ethnic, and/or religious bacgrounds, were treated equally. Most men were drafted or volunteered for the military. It was a shared experience among men. My father, career military, said, “The reason GIs were all buddies is they had a commonn enemy: The US Army”.

    The huge Army posts were in the South. When soldiers went into southern towns, white soldiers saw their Black buddies, in the same uniform, serving the same country, denied the right to sit in a restaurant or anyplace on a bus or use the nearest restroom or water fountain. I believe those white soldiers thought instinctively “That’s not fair.” I think that cry is the real heart of America. I believe most of these white soldiers helped get civil rights legislation passed in 1964 and 1965. It was basically from 1953 to 1965 a peace time military.

    The Draft had another important component: The GI Bill gave Veterans the building blocks for entry into the middle class: A fully funded education and means to buy a house w/o a down payment. Non white veterans received those benefits, but faced barriers. Areas were “red lined” and only whites could buy houses in the better neighborhoods. Those white Members of Packer’s Real America and Just America had a path to economic advancement.

    Many of our “finest” educational institutions remained segregated. But little by little those barriers were eliminated, but not in time for so many.

    Then came Vietnam. The reason for that war was not clear. Suddenly, men were being drafted at 18, sent to Vietnam at 19, were dead at 20, and never lived to be allowed to vote at 21. “That’s not fair.” Men with means could get deferments. Poor men could not. That also was not fair. There were mass protests against the war, and I believe, against the Draft.

    Politicans looked at the hugh Baby Boomer generation and in record time, the 26th amendment setting the voting age at 18 was passed by 1971 and the Draft was virtually gone by 1973.
    Now the miitary was voluntary, but the horrible memories of Vietnam kept many away.
    And the GI Bill for so many Americans and its universal education and housing benefits was no longer the path to economic success for members of Packer’s Real and Just America.

    The US legal syetem gave people who felt they were being treated unfairly, a non-violent way to seek redress. The courts and the vote gave all citizens a chance. It may be slow, but as
    MLK said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

    Finally, the men who saw war and tried to stop it were in charge of our country during that
    Golden time. As Jerry Norris reminds us with the Marshall Plan “Is there any other nation in recorded history that has been as magnanimous when defeating Nazism, Fascism, a Militaristic Japan in less than four years, yet rather than being a conquering nation, we brought each of them back into the community of democratic nations?” Peace Corps I believe was also the creation of such men and it persists.

    Packer describes our divided country brilliantly. I tried to show my opinion of how we got here. Packer wants us to “talk to each other”. But there is no longer a common experience that many share to even begin a common conversation. There is absolutely no common platform which encourages public debate.

    Broadcast TV and Radio are dependent on the public airwaves which are supposed to belong to all of us. The Fairness Doctrine dictated that media on the the public airwaves had to air both sides of an issue, fairly. The Fairness Doctrine was eliminated by the Reagan Administration. And the courts held, as Matt Losak described “we have an explosion of communications inter connectivity through the internet, social media, cell phones and computers, Zoom and hundreds of cable channels.”

    AM radio is the captive of the “conservatives” and has between 20 and 30 million listeners, daily. There is virtually no “counterpoint”. I wanted the Democrats in Colorado to demand a voice on those radio stations only to present the “other side.” There was only one Democratic
    official who agreed with me. She also was a Joanne, born in 1941. But her early years were
    spent in Camp Granada War Relocation Center in Colorado. She and her parents are American citizens, of Japanese background, interred during WWII.

    I lived safely my whole life and was never subjected to the injustices that Joanne and her family endured. But, my high school was Nurnberg American High School. Our teachers never stopped admonishing us, “never again, never again.” I think Joanne and I shared the same alarming concerns. But no one else did. I was advised to just “turn off the radio.”

  • I enjoyed the summary of Packer’s book. I’ve read and liked him in the past–and should read this book. But maybe I won’t. I think what he and most Americans miss is a different America, one different not only in degree, but in kind. An America where the common good is important, an America where old Indian ways of relating to the land–being of the land rather than owners of the land–are being revived. It skirts and has bits of his four Americas, but is its own America.

    I just finished Simon Winchester’s book, Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World. In America we are still at the far spectrum of individual ownership (I can shoot you if you come on my property, even if you are a paperboy and did so not out of malice, but by mistake or confusion). Scandinavia has always had more room for “the common,” meaning ownership of land does not mean that others cannot walk on it, “trespass” on it.

    In America we are still at land is a “commodity” in the production process; even our homes are our individual wealth generators–white more than black or brown, sparking cries for a more just economic system.

    Meanwhile, Native Deb Haaland is at Interior and the graves at boarding schools are being turned over. There are scores of new historians and journalists exploring the slavery-wedded past of Indian Removal, Texas and the Alamo; attempts to “extirpate” Native Americans from our earliest days are documented; and a new book about Marcus Whitman explores the disasters of Indian conversion and false claims and lies about “saving” the Oregon Country from the British. We are learning about slavery as bedrock in our elite colleges, but hear less about the appropriation of Indian lands for our Land Grant colleges.

    Ojibwe writer David Treuer calls for the return of ALL national parks to an Indian consortium. And while private fire departments are protecting private property in California, serious people in the fire business are looking to Indians for guidance on managing all lands with fire; others are looking to Indian ways for managing water and securing fisheries into the future.

    The late historian of American Indians, Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., said that Indians are the only ones in America still capable of “group think,” of putting the tribe ahead of the pursuit of individual health and wealth. The ongoing pandemic experience says something about our national inability to muster thinking beyond our immediate personal desires.

    Packer and many other historians and analysts look hard at founding documents and notions of freedom, equality, and justice. But, typically among our educated elites, the Indian stories, their resilience and survival and means of doing so, are minimized or forgotten completely.

  • I think this is an important and powerful observation. Thank you. Do you have an opinion on SCOTUS’s recent decision returning Indian
    lands in Oklahoma to the jurisdiction of Indian Tribes?

    • Thanks for the kind words. And interesting that one of our new Justices is a Westerner who has some grasp of Indians and Indian lands. I know little of Oklahoma, the place to which we shoved thousands of Indians from east of the Mississippi during Indian Removal (See Unworthy Republic by Claudio Saunt; it will make your head spin). But the layers of tribal governments, city, county, and state government will make jurisdiction very very complicated. The good thing is that Indians are now part of the conversation, and I believe will get a much fairer hearing as the real world practices of governance are carried out. The days when tribes are not parties to importtant discussions, especially on natural resource issues, are over. And it is not just old legal claims. Majority management of natural resources–water, fire, earth and air–has put us in the fix we’re in. Again, I do not know Oklahoma, but check the Yuroks in California for an uplifting story. And thanks again!

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