Two things need to be said about this tsunami of sad. First, that the vast size of it, when compared to the effect that it has had—close to nothing—should perhaps call into question the utility of journalism and argument and maybe even prose itself. The gradual Appalachification of much of the United States has been a well-known phenomenon for 20 years now; it is not difficult to understand why and how it happened; and yet the ship of state sails serenely on in the same political direction as though nothing had changed. We like to remember the muckraking era because of the amazing real-world transformations journalism was able to bring; our grandchildren will remember our era because of the big futile naught accomplished by our prose.
…Why has Packer written such a heavy-handed homage? Maybe because our period is similar to the ’30s. Maybe because elegy and lyric, written without hope for a political rescue, are the appropriate means to describe the disintegration of middle-class America. After all, how many more books screaming about some Great Disaster being worked on the American Dream do we need? What kind of chart can an author or a blogger or a columnist present that would make the slightest bit of difference anymore? The truth is that journalism is almost completely irrelevant. And so maybe only art matters.