A Tale Of Two Families

George Packer praises “Two American Families” (trailer above) and calls the documentary a rebuke to conservatives who blame our economic malaise on a culture of complacency:

If you screened “Two American Families” for Charles Murray and other social critics who believe that the decline of America’s working class comes from a collapse of moral values, social capital, personal responsibility, and traditional authority, they would probably be able to find the evidence they’d need to insulate themselves against the sorrow at the heart of the film.

None of the four parents finished college. The Neumanns’ divorce leaves Terry and the children in worse straits than ever. The Stanleys don’t move to rural Mississippi, where life is cheaper. The kids make plenty of their own mistakes. None of them thinks of inventing Napster. The Stanleys and Neumanns are punished to the fullest extent of the economic law for every mistake made, and for all the mistakes they didn’t make.

But the intellectually honest response to this film is much less comforting, for the overwhelming impression in “Two American Families” is not of mistakes but of fierce persistence: how hard the Stanleys and Neumanns work, how much they believe in playing by the rules, how remarkable the cohesion of the Stanley family is, how tough Terry Neumann has to become. Both families devoutly attend church. Government assistance is alien and hateful to them. Keith Stanley says, “I don’t know what drugs or even alcohol looks like.” In the words of Tammy Thomas, whose similar story is told in my new book, “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” these people do what they’re supposed to do. They have to navigate this heartless economy by themselves. And they keep sinking and sinking.