Being America

Read Time:
2m 59sec

Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World.
By Jedediah Purdy. Knopf.
337 pp. $24

Chinese university students protest against the United States by day and apply to American graduate schools by night. Violent Mexican guerrillas mail teddy bears to journalists, hoping to spark international coverage of their cause. And multinational companies attract environmentally savvy customers with anticonsumerist, antimaterialist marketing campaigns.

Welcome to the surreal world of globalization politics, the subject of this ambitious but uneven second book by Jedediah Purdy. In For Common Things (1999), he examined the state of U.S. politics and found it sterilized by irony and disaffection. Now, this 28-year-old social critic casts his earnest gaze toward the rest of the globe and finds it grappling with tradeoffs between violence and liberty and caught in a love-hate relationship with the United States.

In the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas, Purdy spoke with everyone from pro-bin Laden law students in Cairo to gay rights activists in Bombay, and those conversations are some of the most interesting and original segments of the book. Indian software mogul N. R. Narayana Murthy, for example, reveals how, in order to succeed globally, Indian business leaders feel they must adopt the prefab façade of corporate America. The headquarters of Murthy’s NASDAQ-listed company, Infosys, are modeled after Micro­soft’s campus in Redmond, Washington, with open fields and clean roads. Murthy explains, “You will think that you have left India. . . . This is to show our foreign clients that we are serious, that we are world-class.”

Unfortunately, Purdy interrupts this  reportage with meandering discourses on the nature of humanity, the meaning of desire, and what “we Americans” believe. These tangents inform us that slavery is “wicked,” that nationalism can lead to violence, and that the United States should refrain from invading Russia and China—truths hardly requiring Jedediah Purdy’s validation. He also insists on paying incessant (and distracting) homage to his favorite writers and thinkers. Hannah Arendt, Edmund Burke, William Shakespeare, and William Butler Yeats all take curtain calls—and that’s in the first five pages. Yet he disregards contemporary thinkers who have tackled similar issues. His look at corporate branding and the “oratory of commerce,” for example, clearly relates to the work of Canadian writer-activist Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo (2001).

 But though Purdy sometimes seems to fancy himself the first person to ponder globalization, that attitude is a strength as well as a weakness, and it leads to some fresh insights and trenchant observations. For example, he deftly explains how anti-Americanism abroad is not incompatible with the global embrace of U.S. pop culture: “Emulation and resentment are the paired fruits of imperial power, and the stronger the compulsion to emulate, the more intense the resentment is likely to be.”

The irony of this thoughtful, evenhanded work is that it ultimately succumbs to the sort of U.S.-centered self-involvement that so much of the world decries. In his conclusion, Purdy holds up Federalist 10 as a template  for understanding civilization. James Madison argued that, in the face of competing economic interests, opinions, and passions, humankind would always be divided. “I believe that this view is right,” writes Purdy, “and that because liberalism is the best spirit of civilization yet tried in modernity, recognizing the mixed, unstable nature of human beings is a requirement for civilization.” True, perhaps. But in such cultural arrogance, however subtle or well intentioned, any American who has ever asked “Why do they hate us?” might well find the beginnings of an answer.

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