- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2003

By Jedediah Purdy
Knopf, $24,337 pages

When you read a first book by a brilliant kid, you think, "This is a first book by a brilliant kid."
When you read his second book, a different set of standards, and of expectations, applies.
Jedediah Purdy is a phenom. Home-schooled in rural West Virginia by (60s-influenced?) parents who chose to live, as he puts it, as simply and as sanely as possible, he did his undergraduate work at Harvard, then went to Yale Law School. In 1999, his first book, "For Common Things," drew reviews of stunned admiration. There Is a New Writer among Us that kind of awe. Mr. Purdy was 25. He did his new book, "Being America," while at the New America Foundation, and is now clerking for a federal judge in New York City.
Jedediah Purdy defies conventional ideological, generational, philosophical, or literary classification. His work combines academic treatise, journalism, and travelogue. The chapters seem thrown together at random: whatever happens to strike him. His calls for political and other sorts of action can be infuriatingly vague.
But Mr. Purdy is also exemplar of a sensibility that, if we're lucky, just might help jump-start an American renaissance. And that's the standard by which this book must be judged. What might it contribute to that hypothetical renaissance?
Which is to say: No judgment of this book, beyond that it's a splendid read, is possible now.
When "Being America" arrived for review, I'd never heard of Mr. Purdy. I read it through, quickly and with a growing perplexity. None of the material was new or startling. Much was predictable; some was trite. Yet the book had a quality I couldn't pin down. A certain serenity amid the madness he described, an almost ethereal calm. Curious, I decided to check out his first volume before proceeding. The choice was apt, for Mr. Purdy's approach to the world centers, not on events or policy, but on style. Style of life (not "lifestyle") in particular, and the implications and exegesis of how we live.
In "For Common Things," Mr. Purdy critiques the ironic style of his generation and his country, and finds it unavailing. We hide behind ironic detachment because we know that so little of what we encounter is real, and because we're also terrified of encountering something that might be. We assemble our individual uniquenesses out of endless prefabricated parts provided by the market and the media, knowing that their variety does not make up for the fact that they're prefabricated.
We hide behind careers and consumption patterns, never quite making contact beyond ourselves for fear of revealing that there's less to us than meets the eye. And by our ironic detachment, we become complicit in the enormity of the smallness of it all.
It might be easy to dismiss this as just one more study in self-indulgent Ivy League Weltschmerz. I started to, I wanted to. Then I recalled the Weltschmerz of my own day. Alienation. Much of what Mr. Purdy describes also kicked about in the '60s, albeit with a far nastier streak of angry self-righteousness. I kept waiting for Mr. Purdy to call for a renaissance of anger, as he worked through his chapters on the various inauthenticities and degradations of the '90s. But it didn't happen. Instead, Mr. Purdy detached himself from the detachment and called, not for a new epidemic of hissy-fitting, but a new moral ecology in which our works and our lives can be real, and our impacts beneficial.
Vague. Very vague. But also compelling. And it became clear why the author found so much to admire in the "soft revolutionaries" of Czechoslovakia and Poland. They're soul mates.
But that was back before the stock market started falling and the dot.coms started failing and the bullets started flying. "Being America" is for a nation at war. Languor no longer avails. But if we're not about to turn into a tribe of 300 million berserkers … what then?
Mr. Purdy begins his answer by locating his concern. He finds it at the intersection of how we live and how they live. His summary of how the world sees us, based on his travels and readings, is far from unique, or even original. But once again, he presents it so gently and so fluidly that the effect seems, and often is, an encounter with wisdom.
America is indeed an empire, but "a new sort, and invisible to Americans." It is invisible because we insist upon archaic definitions that emphasize territory and coercion over trade and influence. We accept the immigrants of 200 countries, yet are not fundamentally disrupted by them. But we saturate and dominate other nations, as much by our language and our goodies as our bombs and banks.
People throughout the world want something better. We put before them ourselves as what that "better" might be. Our glitz and ideals are irresistible. But when what's irresistible is also unobtainable, and when the effect around the globe is disruption and frustration we become oppressors, whether we see ourselves that way or not. Once, the poor could starve and the victims perish without ever knowing that elsewhere it's otherwise. Now they know, and the frustration torments them.
Their envy of us, Mr. Purdy concludes, is not always a compliment.
But the torment that drives some to jihad drives others to graduate school. Every nation holds the potential for liberty and prosperity, and for oppression and violence. Modern western history certainly demonstrated this. Liberalism, socialism, and fascism arose out of the same discontents. Which will it be for the rest of the world now?
Obviously, the United States has a great interest in the outcome, and desires to influence it toward liberty and prosperity. A good first step, Mr. Purdy implies, would be to understand the totality of our impact. For every Chinese dissident who thrills to our Declaration of Independence, millions more thrill to our basketball and our porn. And millions more find in our very existence an intolerable affront to their dignity, their morality, their sense of history.
All very fine. So are the chapters wherein Mr. Purdy examines people who hate America but love Americans; who love Christ but hate Christians; who fight corporate abuses by shaming corporations; and who do their best to save what they can of forests, AIDS victims, civilizations, themselves.
The chapters flow by. The nuggets of perception intrigue. But once again, I was left wondering what I'd read. Yes, we all need a bit more skepticism, especially about ourselves, a bit more sense of history, a lot more sense of ecologies both human and natural. What else is new?
Then it dawned that this book is really about Jedediah Purdy. Not in any self-obsessed way, but as a sensibility struggling to be more than personal. Yes, he can look at the world with the bemused appreciation given him by a superb childhood, then combine it with a Harvard education. He can view his ironic American peers and his fervent Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian acquaintances with the same insight. He can issue vague manifestos. But what does it all add up to?
In a word, grace. What Mr. Purdy offers is, in the end, a personal template for the making of American "soft revolutionaries," taking on the nation's and the world's dilemmas without fanaticism, anger, or hate. It's a goodly message, and perhaps someday historians will record that the message got out, and did some good.

Philip Gold is a Seattle-based writer.

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