Author: America Is Experiencing Identity Crisis

CHAUTAUQUA — Is America experiencing an identity crisis in which it can’t sustain its democracy?

Author George Packer may have a solution as he shared his thoughts on equality Friday at the Amphitheater as part of Chautauqua Institution’s Lecture Series Week One theme: “What Should be America’s Role in the World?”

Packer said the events at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, also may have caused the identity crisis.

“As long as there are no political or legal consequences for what happened that day, American democracy will always have a gun to its head,” he said.

Packer noted that there are new toxins in politics and the social media channel Twitter is one of them.

“Twitter is a new toxin,” he said. “Members of Congress who spend more time working on their brand than on legislating is a new toxin. But this catastrophe took half a century and I would say a catastrophe as big as January 6, took the whole country.”

Packer has been looking for things that make the country American, the culture that foreigners absorb when they emigrate to the United States.

“All of this, to me, comes down to the word equality. It’s about the idea that we’re all basically the same. Equality as an ideal has been betrayed throughout American history,” Packer noted.

Drawing from his most recent book, “Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal,” Packer said there are four narratives that may rule life in the United States: free America; smart America; real America; and just America.

¯ Free America — The individual is separate from society; taxes are cut; deregulation of the economy; attracted people of talent and energy from around the world.

Free America became the narrative of the Republican Party, he said.

Free America failed.

“Something didn’t work with free America. And that is we are a society. We are not simply a collection of individuals. We are citizens and free America created the beginning of the inequality that I’m talking about,” the author noted.

¯ Smart America — The professionals; educated classes; college educated Americans.

Smart America became the base of the Democratic Party, he said.

“And that narrative says we need to soften the blows of our capitalist society. But the best path for anyone is to accept the future to accept the information age and the age of globalization and to thrive through education in a knowledge based economy,” he said.

Smart America failed too.

“But Smart America also, in some ways failed. It created a new aristocracy — the aristocracy of the educated. … It has become a class into which you’re born. It’s harder and harder to fight your way into that class,” he added.

¯ Real America — rebellious; white Christian heartland America; non-college educated America.

“It is the America that led to the election of Donald Trump,” he said.

Real America also failed.

¯ Just America — rebellious; skeptical of the traditional claims; skeptical of our leaders and the institutions they lead.

“Just America, which is essentially a younger millennial and even younger movement that began or really began to come into its own around 2014, when many things changed. … It is a country born in sin that has never routed out that sin that has a permanent character of oppression in its soul. And this generation, as many young people do felt we’re the first ones to actually force the country to confront this history,” he noted.

Just America also failed.

“Just America has also failed because it believes in what I call a metaphysics of group identity,” he said. “You are the group you are born into. You are not the individual you are others may think you are. You don’t have the freedom to change to think differently — to think outside the group. You are the group that you’re born into. And your status in a sense depends on the moral position of that group, and in the hierarchy of oppression.”

Packer said each of the four narratives responds to genuine problems, and each offers values. He said, citing author James Baldwin, that each narrative has failed to achieve the United States. And citing French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, Packer said the United States has lost the art of self government.

A fifth narrative, equal America, should address the ability of self government and create conditions of greater equality, he said.

“But I think equal America that’s the right agenda. And then there’s how to restore the art of self government. This is even harder because it’s about our culture — how we think and speak. It’s about education, and the media and language and civil society as well as politics how we see one another as fellow citizens,” he said.

He said our society is marked by contempt, which gives a person instant moral superiority. Also contempt is the currency of social media.

“And it corrodes the spirit of any democracy between equals because contempt is inherently unequal.

For America to regain its identity, Packer suggested that citizens follow three simple rules: no allowance for bigotry or group hatred; truth not lies; and respect the democratic rules.

“And so we cannot stop searching for the common identity however fragile that lies beneath the four Americas I’ve described. It’s an essential civic task,” he said.

From his recent travels to Ukraine, he learned that that democracy is indistinguishable from national survival.

“And so they (Ukrainians) will sacrifice everything for it. We should do the same,” he added.

Packer has been a staff writer at The Atlantic since 2018, according to assembly.chq.org. Prior to that, he served as a staff writer at The New Yorker from 2003 to 2018, where he covered the Iraq War, atrocities committed in Sierra Leone, civil unrest in the Ivory Coast, the megacity of Lagos, and the global counterinsurgency. In 2003, two of his articles won Overseas Press Club awards. In addition to Last Best Hope and The Unwinding, he is the author of Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, which won the Hitchens Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for biography, and The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, which was named one of the 10 best books of 2005 by The New York Times and won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award and an Overseas Press Club book award. He is also the author of two novels and a play, and the editor of a two-volume edition of the essays of George Orwell.

Packer has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. A member of the international board of directors of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, he is a graduate of Yale College.


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