These are cites from George Packer’s rather important article in the Atlantic titled “How America Fractured into Four Parts: People in the United States No longer Agree on the Nation’s Purpose.” For those in education, I would hope that you would give it a read and agree to find a way to discuss what this article should mean to we who try to educate the American citizenry.
But a freedom that gets rid of all obstructions is impoverished, and it degrades people.
Real freedom is closer to the opposite of breaking loose. It means growing up, and acquiring the ability to participate fully in political and economic life. The obstructions that block this ability are the ones that need to be removed. Some are external: institutions and social conditions. Others are embedded in your character and get in the way of governing yourself, thinking for yourself, and even knowing what is true. These obstructions crush the individuality that freedom lovers cherish, making them conformist, submissive, a group of people all shouting the same thing—easy marks for a demagogue.
Government, which did so little for ordinary Americans, was still the enemy, along with “governing elites.” But for the sinking working class, freedom lost whatever economic meaning it had once had. It was a matter of personal dignity, identity. Members of this class began to see trespassers everywhere and embraced the slogan of a defiant and armed loneliness: Get the fuck off my property. Take this mask and shove it. It was the threatening image of a coiled rattlesnake: “Don’t tread on me.” It achieved its ultimate expression on January 6, in all those yellow Gadsden flags waving around the Capitol—a mob of freedom-loving Americans taking back their constitutional rights by shitting on the floors of Congress and hunting down elected representatives to kidnap and kill. That was their freedom in its pure and reduced form.
A character in Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel, Freedom, puts it this way: “If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life.”
Politically, Smart America came to be associated with the Democratic Party. This was not inevitable. If the party had refused to accept the closing of factories in the 1970s and ’80s as a natural disaster, if it had become the voice of the millions of workers displaced by deindustrialization and struggling in the growing service economy, it might have remained the multiethnic working-class party that it had been since the 1930s.
The winners in Smart America have withdrawn from national life. They spend inordinate amounts of time working (even in bed), researching their children’s schools and planning their activities, shopping for the right kind of food, learning to make sushi or play the mandolin, staying in shape, and following the news. None of this brings them in contact with fellow citizens outside their way of life. School, once the most universal and influential of our democratic institutions, now walls them off. The working class is terra incognita.