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Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World
Jedediah Purdy
New York: Alfred Knopf, 2003.
$24.00, 318 pages, ISBN 0-375-41307-3.

Daniel Opler
New York University


The first striking thing about Jedediah Purdy’s Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World is the incredible breadth of the book’s title. Unlike other writers on current events, Purdy has taken on a subject so vast it rather confounds a reader, not to mention a reviewer. Purdy attempts to live up to his ambitious title, addressing (among many other things) some of the finer points of Adam Smith’s philosophy, Benetton advertisements, the struggles around Falun Gong in China, the Rainforest Action Network, the Bush doctrine of preemptive strikes, and the writing of the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica. Of course, there are ways in which a broad scope can be a good thing. Indeed, bringing all these subjects together in one study is itself a remarkable achievement, and Purdy’s talent as a writer keeps the reader feeling engaged, no matter what the topic. I happily moved with Purdy from subject to subject, although the transitions were often somewhat confusing and his arguments occasionally got lost amidst the whirlwind tour of these very different subjects.

But the best thing about Purdy’s book is not the scope, or the arguments that he tries to make, but rather the irresistible charm of the smaller and more focused scenes, especially his meetings with particular individuals. Nowhere is Purdy’s work more delightful than when he recounts his meetings with Hindu nationalist Sunbash Desai, or when he takes us through Spencer Plaza in Madras, stopping to talk with a few window-shopping university students, when he introduces us to a labor organizer in Cambodia, or where he sits in a TGI Friday’s in Cairo with Ingy, a female lawyer, and the two of them exchange views on Osama bin Laden and the events of September 11, 2001. Each of these little scenes (and several others like them) provides readers with an informative and often moving view of the ways in which international events affect individual lives, leaving readers to grapple with tremendously complex viewpoints and characters whom we rarely encounter in other forms of the American media.

Purdy’s work offers more than these beautifully written scenes. His historical and philosophical comments include at least a few important insights. First, he reminds us of Hobsbawm’s work on the invention of tradition, again making the important point that any discussion of the struggle between the modern world and the traditional one is misleading. (Purdy unfortunately does not explicitly refer to the earlier work by Hobsbawm and others on this subject.) As Purdy argues, fundamentalists in the Third World are no more defenders of tradition than Timothy McVeigh, the downsized worker who blew up a U.S. federal building on Oklahoma City several years ago, was a defender of the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Both McVeigh and Third World traditionalists are defending traditions that they invent as justifications for their actions. Although this may not be new to many of his more educated readers, Purdy presents this argument in an eloquent and convincing way.

To me personally Purdy’s most convincing theoretical intervention was his concept of network power. Network power, Purdy argues, is the power a shared system has because it is shared by many people. He points to the English language, e-mail, American culture, and Microsoft Windows as examples (and argues that all cause a degree of resentment as a result of their prominence). Purdy’s claim that the resentment of network power is one reason why so many people resent American culture and the English language is probably oversimplified. At the same time, this concept may have important implications for many different areas of study, not the least of which is the history of political movements, which frequently band together a wide array of people into one rather nebulous coalition, leaving historians struggling to figure out what they gain from such alliances. Purdy may have somewhat inadvertently provided us with an answer to this question.

Other points are also quite insightful, some of them relatively minor parts of Purdy’s analysis. Purdy presents a fascinating theory about why conspiracy theories are so popular, arguing that “conspiracy appeals to people who feel powerless […] It portrays a world that is opaque to most individuals, but intelligible to the elect who know its secrets,” and therefore that conspiracies give “a form of power on those who know [of] them, even when explaining their powerlessness” (201). This is the reason, Purdy suggests, for the conspiracy theories surrounding the events of September 11, 2001; or for the theories of the anti-Semites who postulate a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.

Being America often seems to be a collection of Purdy’s disparate thoughts. Purdy wanders from subject to subject with neither explanation nor apology nor (often) any apparent logic. But Purdy does provide us with an overarching question that he uses to help organize the book: why do “today’s lives produce both liberty and violence” (x). Inherent in this larger question is the question of what American policy-makers should do about these conflicting trends, how Americans should increase liberty and combat violence.

It is not until a hundred pages of this 318-page study pass that we get what looks like an answer to this question: nationalism, Purdy seems to suggest, has created both liberty and violence. Nationalism is necessary, Purdy argues, because “hybrid and migrant people must determine who they are, and there must be some common terms for arguing about education, the building of dams and roads, and what the wealthy owe to the poor” (101). But nationalism, especially in a world created out of a series of diasporas, where people migrate from place to place “is as volatile as it is necessary […] Nationalism is potently violent because it suppresses the variety of the human world, turning people with complex histories and identities into Indian Hindus on the one hand and, on the other, Muslims identified with the history of the Arabs” (101-102).

This might seem the beginning at least of a convincing answer to Purdy’s question: nationalism produces both forms of liberty (allowing people to discuss issues in common terms) and forms of violence. But this comment appears towards the middle of the second of the book’s five chapters, and Purdy drops the discussion of nationalism shortly after this passage, moving on to his consideration of global capitalism. The transition is abrupt and without any explanation, and we are left, at least for a moment, entirely unsure where Purdy is taking us next. He is, although it may take his readers a little time to figure this out, heading towards a second answer to his question: capitalism, like nationalism, produces both liberty and violence. He explains this by referring to Adam Smith, one of Purdy’s intellectual heroes. Smith, Purdy tells us, held that “the rising commercial society brings changes, benefits, a heady new concept of liberty: it also presents a choice […] whether freedom or domination, dignity or humiliation, will become the ruling temper of the economy” (153). This is, although Purdy does not mention it, a highly simplified view of capitalism. It suggests that capitalism allows individuals far more agency than it actually may, for one thing; such a view also pretends that all people are equal within the market. In the lengthy discussion of global capitalism that follows this declaration, where Purdy apparently leaves behind his argument about violence and liberty, Purdy himself presents capitalism as somewhat more complicated. His discussion of the Rainforest Action Network in particular, a group that favors boycotting brand names like Citibank in order to protect the environment, suggests that capitalism has a hegemonic power to it, that, as William Leach has argued, consumer culture heavily affects and weakens attempts to challenge corporate domination. Activists would be better to focus on regulation, Purdy suggests, but the dull sound and nature of that concept makes it far less appealing and dramatic than attacks on brand names.

Purdy again moves on, and again we are left with no explanation of why he is moving on. He drops the discussion of global capitalism with a declaration that activists “are not going away” (267) and then transports us immediately into the slums of nineteenth-century London, from where he moves rapidly through discussions of the definition of modernity, the arrogance of the writers of the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica in their belief that civilization had extinguished barbarism, and James Madison’s brilliant (in Purdy’s view) concept that politics should be about eliminating passions and noble aspirations from government, that politicians should instead concern themselves with mundane things like the well-being of its citizens. In this disparate and rather disorganized passage, Purdy is attempting to move us towards a conclusion: that “the dominant forces in today’s world—capitalism, democracy, nationalism, and America’s prominence—produce both liberty and violence” (295). Unfortunately, along the way, he becomes increasingly incoherent—it is as though he realized that he had only forty pages left and attempted to fill them with everything else he wished to say. His overall point in this passage seems to be that an awareness of human history will help us understand that liberty and violence are always present, and that history will help us decide which aspects of human society give rise to violence and which to liberty. It is a vague, unhelpful, and unsatisfying conclusion, especially after three-hundred pages.

Purdy’s book switches quite rapidly between brilliant insight, oversimplifications of both economics and politics, an argument that disappears every so often, and very intimate and delightful anecdotes. Purdy’s overall analysis is generally too simple and too conservative—it is difficult to deny, even for a casual observer, that multinational corporations dominate not only the economy but also the American political system that Purdy believes capable of regulating corporations; it is equally dubious and overly optimistic to declare that nothing more challenging than an understanding of history will solve the myriad problems that today’s world presents. At the same time, and despite some of the book’s shortcomings, Purdy’s charming little scenes of individuals and moments of impressive analysis make this book well worth the reading, so long as it is read with a careful and critical eye.

 


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