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"Unwinding": The Power and Limitations of Story

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In his remarkable new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), George Packer sets out to describe "the vertigo of that unwinding" which has affected virtually every aspect of American life since the 1960s.

"You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape - the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition - ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere." Packer, looking back over the past couple of generations, writes in the book's prologue, "The norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts." (3)

I rushed to our local bookstore to get a copy of the book, hoping it might illuminate the erosion of trust and confidence in the institutions of our age, a phenomenon which, incidentally, is not limited to the United States. The immediate reason I wanted to read the book was in preparation for a trans-Atlantic consultation in which my wife, Debbie, and I were invited to participate this summer at Windsor Castle outside of London. A group of about twenty scholars, institutional leaders and politicians, mostly, but not exclusively, from Britain discussed and debated the future and well-being of institutions. The consultation was jointly sponsored by St. George's House, Windsor, and The Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton. It was my hope that Packer's book might provide fresh insights and analyses which would benefit our discussion.

Packer's method for getting at the truth is to tell stories of Americans living through this age along with us. He tells these stories patiently, allowing the details to accumulate in layers. The story of Jeff Connaughton, a Democratic operative, is told alongside the story of Republican leader Newt Gingrich. The story of Tammy Thomas, an African-American woman working hard and often against seemingly insurmountable forces, in Youngstown, Ohio, trying just to keep body and soul and family together, is told next door to the triumphant story of Oprah, a black woman of such world-renown and stature that she needs only a single name to identify her. Writer Raymond Carver, General Colin Powell and financial giant Robert Rubin are profiled beside failed entrepreneurs and working-class heroes, idealists and pragmatists.

Packer's narratives are thick and rich; and insights and reflections do surface in the midst of the stories.

For example, Dean Price, the struggling owner of service stations and fast food restaurants, reflects on the impact of "big box" stores that wipe out small local businesses: "And if you think about it," Price says, "the people that ran the hardware store, the shoe store, the little restaurant that was here, they were the fabric of the community, They were the leaders. They were the Little League baseball coaches, they were the town council members, they were the people everybody looked up to. We lost that." (145)

Or, in one aside, Packer himself considers the power of diversity in a flesh and blood community: "Life is richest and most creative," he writes, "where people of different backgrounds could meet face-to-face and exchange ideas." (197)

Startling facts emerge from the densely packed stories.

For instance, I learned that six surviving members of Sam Walton's family (Mr. Sam was the founder of the Walmart empire) "have as much money as the bottom thirty percent of Americans." (104) And the profiles of places like Silicon Valley and Tampa and Wall Street are fascinating.

But, in the final analysis, in the wake of reading this delightful book, the feeling was unavoidable that Packer illustrates a situation without really illuminating it. In some ways, he demonstrates the power of stories to move us emotionally, but there are limitations when it comes to making sense of vast social forces.

What Packer does, however, is very important in itself. Recently, as we have read the latest data on the rise of religiously non-affiliated people, and even more recently reading the latest statistics related to the continuing decline among Presbyterians, it is tempting to focus on "what's wrong with Protestantism?" or "What's wrong with MY brand of Protestantism?"

Someone recently in a Q&A session in the Midwest, after I had made a presentation on the importance of a thinking faith, asked me: "But isn't this why Presbyterians are declining? Because we value thinking so much?" "No," I responded, "Even unthinking Protestantism is declining."

But, here's the point that Packer makes eloquently: institutions and social forms and professions and ways of life of all sorts are suffering profound and apparently irremediable losses. A poet might say that we live in a time when the centers no longer hold. The illustration of this fact is powerful.

What I wish Packer helped with more is analysis, the careful, critical, systematic reflection that might help us understand "why?" and "how can we address the situation?" Ironically, we need more of the theoretical, i.e., the construction of viable models to help us comprehend what it is happening.

Some things are clear. Many people seem to have lost confidence in the structures that previously gave meaning to and provided the organizing principles for social life, whether civic, educational or religious, political, legal or moral, and which communicated core values from one generation to another. And, correspondingly, many people seem to have lost trust in the leaders who populated those structures. As recent studies (such as those conducted by Pew) have shown, even the most intimate "institutions" such as the formal, socially sanctioned union of persons in marriage, have steadily suffered erosion. Distrust of larger institutions and of the people who lead them is rife.

This is not to say, however, that people are necessarily less caring or responsive today. In fact, we are also witnessing the burgeoning of a variety of forms of loose affiliations of people -- both web-based and face-to-face -- banding together to make all sorts of differences. These affiliations blossom and wither, appear and disappear quickly, many of the persons who respond overlapping, meeting one and another's needs or responding to this or that social issue, then dispersing. I suspect we are witnessing even now the writing of the next chapter of human institutional history. It is not all bad news, but there are real losses as Packer chronicles.

Tellingly, at the very opening of Packer's book, he says that, "The unwinding" which we are witnessing today "is nothing new. There have been unwindings every generation or two." I think it is crucial to keep this perspective. I also think it is important to look afresh at some of the better sociological and political analyses that have emerged in recent years (I'm thinking for example of Hugh Heclo's brilliant study, "On Thinking Institutionally" (Paradigm, 2008), to understand more deeply the social experiences Packer illustrates.

Illustration is valuable, but illumination leads to action.