Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021-06-15) is an essay on the meaning of the year 2020. If the gift of the virus was to interrupt us, author George Packer uses the interruption to take a close look at America, a “long middle-aged stare in the mirror.” Packer’s examination puts our particular year in Portland into a larger context. His general analysis doesn’t perfectly fit our specifics, but it is a sharp lens through which to look at ourselves, and it helped me better understand our local issues.
The book is a cross between tough-love and a bad diagnosis from the doctor. This month’s Atlantic magazine excerpts a section in which Packer describes the fracturing of America into four parts, each with its own narrative and idea of what our country should be. He calls the parts Free, Real, Smart and Just America. Treat yourself and read this piece, it looks like it is available online free of charge.
Locally, our civic discourse is dominated by Just and Smart jockeying over narrative and resources.
Packer makes pointed criticisms of each group, but he also delves into the sources of their narratives, and acknowledges that each “offers a value the others need.” Just America “forces us to see the straight line that runs from slavery and segregation to the second-class life so many Black Americans live today—the betrayal of equality that has always been the country’s moral shame…” Smart America is cosmopolitan, “respects intelligence and welcomes change.”
Locally, our civic discourse is dominated by Just and Smart jockeying over narrative and resources. Consider the failed effort to change city code regulating neighborhood associations. It included inserting this piece of text: “the origins of our democracy include colonialism, white supremacy, and economic exploitation.” Or the debate over protected bike lanes versus transit on Hawthorne Blvd.
“Self-government puts all the responsibility in our hands. No strongman or expert or privileged class or algorithm can do it for us.”— George Packer
Packer defines Smart American as the winners of our cruel system of meritocracy and associates this group with the New Democrats of the 1990s. That is when the party embraced Smart America as the way of the future, but in doing so lost the white working class. He caught my eye with this insight: “Smart Americans are uneasy with patriotism. It’s an unpleasant relic of a more primitive time, like cigarette smoke or dog racing. It wakes up emotions that can have ugly consequences, from sports fans chanting “USA! USA!” all the way to the hypernationalism of the post-9/11 years.”
Of Just America he writes,
But confessing racial privilege is a way to hang on to class privilege. Most Just Americans still belong to the meritocracy and have no desire to give up its advantages. They can’t escape the status anxieties of Smart America—only they’ve transferred them to a new narrative. They want to be the first to adopt its expert terminology. In the summer of 2020 people suddenly began saying “BIPOC” as if they’d been doing it all their lives. (“Black Indigenous People of Color” was a way to uncouple groups that had been aggregated under “people of color” and give them their rightful place in the moral order, with everyone from Bogotá to Karachi to Seoul bringing up the rear.)
Packer concludes that these narratives have emerged because inequality has undermined the common faith we need to become a successful democracy. His book goes on to discuss how we can climb out of our mess. We are going to need a period of “detoxification” he says, tongue in cheek, stay hydrated! A bit of dry humor, but it reminded me of my first day volunteering at the airport vaccination site.
The Oregon Health & Science University and the Port of Portland had pulled off a logistical feat. Government and industry managed to produce and deliver enough vaccine, volunteers donned their orange vests, restaurants donated food, grateful patients handed out treats. I was proud, and as I surveyed this scene of Americans doing what we do best–coming together, volunteering, organizing–I felt cleansed. Five hours at the airport completely washed “The Previous Guy” out of my mind, for good. PDX was my detox.
It took reading Packer’s provocations, however, to make me realize that my pride had a name—patriotism. What this country is achieving with our vaccination roll-outs is remarkable and I’m glad to have been able to participate in a small way. As Packer puts it, “Self-government puts all the responsibility in our hands. No strongman or expert or privileged class or algorithm can do it for us.”
Keep that in mind the next time you fill out a PBOT questionaire, testify at City Council, or plow through a 100-page Voter’s Pamphlet.
— Lisa Caballero, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Lisa Caballero has lived in SW Portland for 20 years. She is on the Transportation Committee of her neighborhood association, the Southwest Hills Residential League (SWHRL) and can be reached at email@example.com.