Classic review: Being America
How does the rest of the world see America?
[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Feb. 20, 2003.] Asked what he thought of Western Civilization, India's great leader Mohandas Gandhi reportedly replied that he thought it would be a good idea. In Being America, Jedediah Purdy seems to be making a similar point: Democracy, freedom, tolerance are indeed good ideas, but it should concern us that sometimes they seem more honored in the breach than in the observance.Skip to next paragraph
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A West Virginian who was schooled at home before going on to Harvard University and Yale Law School, Purdy made his debut as a social commentator four years ago with "For Common Things," a thoughtful critique of the chronic irony and disaffection that seem to pervade so much of American life, undermining our ability to engage in meaningful political discourse.
"Being America" reflects similar concerns. It invites us to examine our assumptions about terms like "capitalism," "globalism," "liberalism," "nationalism," and "fundamentalism." It offers a penetrating look at Adam Smith, James Madison, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville. And it describes Purdy's travels all over the globe trying to get a fix on attitudes from Egypt to India to Indonesia. But with so much territory to cover, Purdy's argument becomes less focused - and less original - than in his earlier book.
"Being America" is, among other things, an attempt to understand how America is perceived in the rest of the world, particularly in Asia and Africa. How is it that we are simultaneously loved and hated, seen as a model to be emulated ready and a dominating power to be attacked? Much of what Purdy says is not new, but bears reiteration: People who feel oppressed by their own corrupt governments may turn their anger against America, especially if we have supported those regimes. Resentment may also be fueled by policies that cause economic hardship, as when the International Monetary Fund pressures debt-ridden countries to slash social services while protecting the investments of foreign speculators.