Because no review of Being America can avoid recounting the biography of the book’s author, this one will dispense with the task right at the beginning. Jedediah Purdy is the child of hippie parents who dropped out and moved to West Virginia. He was home-schooled, although he managed to make his way to Exeter and Harvard. He published his first book, For Common Things, a partly philosophical, partly autobiographical attack on the culture of irony, at age 24. Both jeers and acclaim followed. Purdy was alternately praised for his sincerity and mocked for his pretension, inspiring quite a bit of condescension along the way. “If Jedediah Purdy had been my student, I hope I would have cared enough about him to say, ‘Don’t publish this,’ ” was how one reviewer put it.
Being America belongs on the same trajectory, since it is a book that only someone with Purdy’s exceptional background would be allowed to publish. No longer autobiographical, Purdy here mixes philosophy with travel writing. In the course of his research, he visits Egypt, Indonesia, China and India, among other places, in an attempt to learn more about what the world thinks of America, and about the ways in which American culture and American capitalism shape the world. This sounds straightforward enough — and important enough, in the post-Sept. 11 world — but Purdy drifts quite a long way from what seems to have been his original project as he waxes eloquent about globalization, liberalism and the nature of modernity, quoting liberally from Adam Smith, Henry David Thoreau and Alexis de Tocqueville.
Clearly, the same people who hated For Common Things are going to hate this book, too. Purdy often makes intellectual leaps that are hard to follow, inexplicably throwing Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman and the authors of The Federalist Papers into two paragraphs about historical memory. At one point, he calls upon all Americans to “invite the spirit of these past figures — assembled, no doubt, by the needs of our present exigency — to instruct and judge us, so that we can instruct and judge ourselves.” Then — after adding the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz for balance — he draws a conclusion that is hard to fathom: “There is no Age of Reason, and history can have no end that is happy; but in every time, in the space between memory and oblivion, still lives the hope of the earth.”
Like many who will read this book, I underlined dozens of similarly opaque passages. And yet — without meaning to be the least condescending — if Purdy were my student I wouldn’t have told him not to publish it. Instead, I would have advised him to make it shorter, and to quote people, not philosophers. For there are moments of real insight in Being America, and almost all of them occur when Purdy writes not as a junior philosopher but as a journalist.
In his opening chapter, for example, he meets a handful of young Egyptians, and deftly points out the ways in which their admiration for America and their hatred of America nonsensically intermingle. They beep one another Osama bin Laden jokes on their cellphones, dress in black jeans, eat at TGI Friday’s, work in Western law firms and pray five times a day. “He should have attacked the White House,” one of them says, speaking of bin Laden again. “Then, no one could have said it was murder.” Purdy doesn’t need to tell us what John Stuart Mill would have said about these young Egyptians: Sketching them, and quoting them, is enough.
Equally nonsensical, in their way, are the complex relationships between Western AIDS activists and the victims of AIDS in the developing world, and Purdy unravels these with great skill, too. Western AIDS activists, he explains, made much of the internationalism of their mission, expanding their own drive for cures to South Africa. We are all human, they told the world: We all have the same bodies, we all suffer illness. Why shouldn’t we have access to the same medicines? The trouble was — as Purdy tells it — that some South Africans perceived this argument as a new form of American imperialism. Certainly Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s president, believes that AIDS is caused by poverty and malnutrition, not by a virus. Mbeki has even denounced AIDS activists for their racism: “And thus does it happen that others who consider themselves to be our leaders take to the streets carrying their placards, to demand that because we are germ carriers, and human beings of a lower order that cannot subject its passions to reason, we must perforce adopt strange opinions, to save a depraved and diseased people from perishing from self-inflicted disease” — all of which makes the international AIDS debate rather more complicated than it initially appears.
Later, Purdy explores the odd relationship between the anti-globalization movement in the West and those on the receiving end of globalization in a Cambodian village. He spends a day with an American union organizer there, who complains that “there isn’t a good word for anger in Khmer. There’s no idea of anger as something that lasts a long time, and keeps you going.” While the organizer spends his days trying to make the employees of Western sweatshops angry, Purdy notices that the employees themselves spend their evenings trying to learn English, the better to compete in the new world of global capitalism. It is only the American organizer who still seems to believe, deep down, that “with the right combination of anger and organizing we might break through to a purer kind of solidarity, perhaps even socialism.” All the others are trying to improve their lives and get rich themselves.
The advent of capitalism offers the Cambodians opportunities as well as oppression, in other words — an observation that goes a long way toward explaining why so much of the world feels so ambivalent about the United States. If Purdy had just stopped there, meditated on that idea for a while, and not gone on to tell us what he also thought of Lincoln and Milosz and Adam Smith, he would have written a far better book.