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George Packer’s Existential Crisis

Poor George Packer. The New Yorker’s staff writer is caught in a state of despair and crushing intellectual anguish. According to Packer,

Nine years later, the main fact of our lives is the overwhelming force of unreason. Evidence, knowledge, argument, proportionality, nuance, complexity, and the other indispensable tools of the liberal mind don’t stand a chance these days against the actual image of a mob burning an effigy, or the imagined image of a man burning a mound of books. Reason tries in its patient, level-headed way to explain, to question, to weigh competing claims, but it can hardly make itself heard and soon gives up.

What has caused Packer’s spirits to sink so low? The debate surrounding the plan to build a mosque and community center near Ground Zero, Florida pastor Terry Jones’s threat to burn the Koran (a threat he decided not to carry out), and the reaction it provoked. Granted, these were not great moments, but in the long sweep of history, I’m not sure they qualify as particularly troubling. And I’m quite sure that it’s not yet time to declare that Reason is Dead.

But wait; there are yet more lamentations from Packer:

In Wilsonian terms, we are around the year 1919 or 1920. The noble mission to make the world safe for democracy ended inconclusively, and its aftermath has curdled into an atmosphere more like that of the Palmer raids and the second coming of the Klan. This is why Obama seems less and less able to speak to and for our times. He’s the voice of reason incarnate, and maybe he’s too sane to be heard in either Jalalabad or Georgia. An epigraph for our times appears in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel “Freedom”: “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”

Who knew that an existential crisis could elicit such awful writing?

And, oh, by the way, what a convenient explanation Packer has manufactured for the failing presidency of his secular savior, Barack Obama (aka the Voice of Reason Incarnate). It turns out the president is simply too reasonable to be effective in this ugly, rambunctious, and deeply unreasonable world. Obama’s own failures and vanity, his own ineptness and philosophical deficiencies, have nothing at all to do with it. Obama is being brought low, you see, because he is simply too virtuous.

An epigraph for Packer’s times appear in Albert Camus’s The Fall: “In solitude and when fatigued, one is after all inclined to take oneself for a prophet. When all is said and done, that’s really what I am, having taken refuge in a desert of stones, fogs, and stagnant waters — an empty prophet for shabby times, Elijah without a messiah.”



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