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Living in “Interesting Times”

CAP Talks with Writer George Packer

The Center for American Progress talks with writer George Packer about his new book and living in a post-9/11 world.

For more on this event see its event page.

New Yorker writer George Packer told attendees at a CAP event yesterday that the phrase “interesting times” is, “an apocryphal, Chinese curse … May you live in interesting times is an appropriate curse and we have been living in an extraordinarily turbulent, not-quite decade.” It’s also the title of his new book, a collection of essays, articles, and reviews.

The “interesting times” Packer focuses on is the roughly seven-year stretch between September 11, 2001 and November 4, 2008—from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to the election of President Barack Obama. According to Packer, the events during this time shattered American notions of our relationship with the rest of the world and constituted a distinct era in American history.

Packer asserted that one of the most important lessons learned from the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the following seven years is the continued power and importance of nationalism. Events in the 1990s underscored the effects of globalization and the weakening of national borders, and in contrast, Packer noted, “the immediate response to September 11 in this country was nationalistic without our really fessing up to that. It was an American response and an American agenda that we wanted the world to embrace but it was presented in universalistic terms—it was about value, freedom, democracy.”

The subsequent disastrous results of the Iraq invasion illustrated, for Packer, the uselessness of such universalistic aims and the “fragility of human rights and democracy as an exportable commodity.”

Packer said he supports the Obama administration’s movement away from some of the Bush’s administration’s shortcomings, most notably by choosing to downplay the almost religious rhetoric about human rights and democracy. But he alluded to the significant challenges to come. He noted, in particular, the “outsized expectations” for Obama, and said that the global media’s incredible influence on shaping opinions and domestic economic concerns could be fomenting a “potential political storm.”

Whether this storm comes to fruition from a foreign policy standpoint hinges on the answer to one of Packer’s most troubling questions: “Obama is saying we want to have a relationship of ‘mutual interest and respect.’ But what if the world doesn’t want to have that relationship with us? What is plan B?”

For more on this event see its event page.

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