I was impressed. He was there to promote his latest book, Our Man, which is about the controversial diplomate Richard Holbrook and the old America that he symbolizes. The new America is something different. Packer understands the changes in our culture better than most and I fully intend to seek out his writing in the future. I have probably read him in the past but the name did not stick in my head.
Our Man is written in an unusual style for a biography. Rather than being overfull of dates and details, it is told in narrative style by a fictional narrator who is older than the author. The narrator was "there" for the whole story, and tells it in a style that the author repeated calls "a yarn". I'm sure it will be a good read, and I will read it as soon as the demand for it at the library goes down a bit.
The book that he wrote in 2013 is called The Unwinding and it is about the cultural shifts that led to the election of Trump--except that at the time nobody knew it would lead there. It is on my reading list. The NY Times says it explains why Trump was elected. For many of us that bears some thought.
When Packer first took the stage he looked up at the audience in the Schnitzer auditorium and he said that Portland is not the biggest city, but it was the biggest crowd. The auditorium is huge and a beauty. It holds 2,500 people, and it was full. After his talk he took out his phone and photographed the crowd from his view on the stage.
Portland, Oregon is an interesting place, full of many highly educated individuals who dearly want to save the world. They share Packer's sadness and fear about the changes that have come to our country and our politics in the last 20 years. The patterns of applause during the Q&A period at the end reveal the overall agreement of this crowd with Packer's assessment of what is happening because of Trump. His answer to the question about Syria (after the Trump-licensed Turkish bombing of the Kurds) made the situation more clear to me than months of reading in the Times.
Packer recommended three books to read (not his own) at the end of the talk. I put them all on my library list but the one that really excites me is more current. It is called Intellectuals and Race, by Thomas Sowell. Amazon says it is an inclusive critique of the intellectual's destructive role in shaping ideas about race in America. Other sources talk about how much ruckus this book has raised. Intellectuals don't like to be criticised but in this day and age, they need to respond to criticism rather than dismissing it.
I would say that the ivory tower has made some missteps in shaping ideas about sexuality and gender, too. I have been subject to some pretty strong progressive brainwashing in this town and witnessed it being misused to shame and alienate. We would do well to pay attention to George Packer and other thoughtful people in the future as we try to find a way out of the stalemate we are in culturally and politically. Our democracy is on its way toward failure and if we care about this experiment enough to continue it, we need to find a way that we can talk across the rather deep divisions.