Pragmatist Lost

Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade BY George Packer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 432 pages. $28.

The cover of Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade

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 ever-narrowing 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 self-contradictory 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 Times.

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 reminds us that even committed pragmatists are capable of grave miscalculations when they affect to rise above the fray.

Christopher Hayes is the Washington, DC, editor for The Nation.