Classic review: Being America

How does the rest of the world see America?

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    Being America:
    Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World
    By Jedediah Purdy
    Knopf Doubleday Publishing
    368 pp.
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[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.

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.

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"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.

Yet even those who resent America, Purdy believes, still have a desire for the democratic values America symbolizes. In essence, he argues that we should do a better job of acting in accordance with our own ideals. But he tends to overlook the fact that people have different opinions as to which actions best serve those ideals. As a democracy, ought we to support the rights, say, of a fundamentalist majority to impose religious law on all its citizens, when this conflicts with other American principles, such as minority rights and the separation of church and state?

Then, there's the problem that some people (Americans included) admire the wrong American values. Sadly, Purdy finds, many an ambitious young Egyptian, Chinese, or Indonesian wants to emulate American-style material success without embracing racial and religious tolerance, separation of church and state, or other principles of liberal democracy.

While many of Purdy's general conclusions seem reasonable, when he comes down to specifics, his judgments are more questionable. Looking around for an example of "illiberal" actions by the current administration, he makes no mention of its regressive economic policies, pointing instead to Condoleezza Rice's appeal to the networks in the wake of 9/11 to refrain from broadcasting material that might endanger national security.

Curiously, while Purdy's previous book took issue with the assumption that politics should stand aside and let the marketplace work its magic, in this book he seems more impressed by the power of commerce to instill tolerance, openness, and other humane values. In his penultimate chapter, Purdy muses: "In a 100 years, if economic progress continues and population growth stabilizes" (he doesn't cite any evidence for these assumptions) "it is imaginable that there will be ... no more countries where people are willing to work on nearly any terms the owners and bosses offer. There would still be great inequality, but the balance of power would have shifted in favor of the workers." Comparing the squalid condition of the 19th-century London poor with the prosperous London of today, he implies that if it happened in London, it can happen in Calcutta.

But he doesn't trouble to note how this change was accomplished. To imply that economic, social, and political progress is an automatic byproduct of an "evolving" marketplace is to slight the tireless efforts of politicians, reformers, preachers, journalists, teachers, labor unions, sanitary commissions, social workers, enlightened employers, philanthropic institutions, workman's education programs, labor and healthcare legislation.

A laudable attempt to provide Americans with a sense of direction in a bewildering era, "Being America" is nonetheless a book that's all over the place in more ways than one.

Merle Rubin was a frequent Monitor book reviewer.

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