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Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World

Written by Jedediah PurdyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jedediah Purdy


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42494-5
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Having risen to national attention with his first book, For Common Things, Jedediah Purdy now cements his claim to being one of the most arresting public intellectuals of his generation. In Being America, Purdy turns his erudition and unique perspective to America’s relationship with a world that both admires and hates it.

Purdy has absorbed insights from people around the world: Westernized Egyptians who consider Osama bin Laden a hero, an urbane Indian who espouses gay rights and the most thuggish kind of Hindu nationalism, Cambodian sweat-shop workers, and others. Out of these conversations—and his inspired readings of political thinkers from Edmund Burke to James Madison—Purdy breathes new meaning into the American values of democracy, liberty, and free trade. Clear-thinking and far-sighted, Being America encourages America to strive to realize the potential it doesn’t always know it has.


Where All the Ladders Start

Those masterful images, because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

--William Butler Yeats, "The Circus Animals' Desertion"

I am reading another verse than Yeats's, this one a text message on an Egyptian medical student's mobile phone in a TGI Friday's by the Nile in Cairo:


Sitting with us are a young corporate lawyer and a first-year law student. The three are sisters, from an established but not eminent Egyptian family, and are fashionably turned out in tight black slacks and T-shirts several sizes too small. The medical student's pink shirt, from Naf Naf, reads "Girls Only." They are all giggling, waiting for me to appreciate the satirical phone text. When I am slow to respond, the lawyer, Ingy, takes it on herself to explain: "So, all people in Egypt admire bin Laden, because he is the one who hit the U.S. So, he is like a hero for us, rather than a terrorist."

I have come here trying to understand the attraction and resentment, the imitation and rejection that America inspires everywhere. I am hoping to glimpse the place where ideas and feelings begin.

Ingy is my special friend in Cairo, having adopted me after her employer--a friend of a friend--offered to help me navigate this challenging city. She talks at precipitous speed, with nearly perfect lawyer's English, precise but seldom evocative. Both her thoughts and her tongue run a half-step ahead of her mental translation from Arabic, and she bridges the gaps with "so" if she is expanding a point, "but" if she is refining it. Now she is concerned about my reticence, and picks at her chicken fingers and French fries while she waits for the conversation to repair itself.

We chose TGI Friday's because it is a modish destination for students and young professionals. The Oreo Sandwich and Mocha Madness Cake cost ten times more than a pita stuffed with chicken and sausage at one of the tiny shops that line Cairo's roads and alleys. Because only professionals and aristocrats can afford to hold a table, the sex roles that govern Egyptian street life are suspended here. In Friday's women can smoke the sheesha, the elaborate, thigh-high, brass water pipe whose curvaceous design and long breathing tube were the accessory of the mushroom-seated caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. Sidewalk sheesha cafes are everywhere in Egypt, but they are the preserve of men. Here, though, stylish Cairenes can alternate between spoonfuls of heaping American desserts and drags of apple-flavored tobacco.

The grimy, oily lanes where blacksmiths and mechanics work alongside food vendors are the ominous "Arab street," which many commentators suppose to be the seat of sympathy for Osama bin Laden and Islamic radicalism. These daughters of a senior civil servant in the regime that has been America's most reliable Arab ally are not part of that street. They are, as we like to say, Westernized. The ensembles and phones are not just veneer. Before her sisters arrived and the conversation turned to politics, Ingy spent more than a half-hour describing her attitude to her work, her family, and her Islamic religion. She was one of the top law students at Cairo University, which guaranteed her a place in the public prosecutor's office. In a country where political power is mainly a way of securing private fiefdoms, that prestigious position enables the prosecutor to protect family and friends and punish enemies. The venality of Egypt's civil service is in constant competition with its indolence. A capable person can perform a full-time prosecutor's duties in a few hours a day, a few days a week.

Ingy's father was determined that she should take the prosecutor's job, so she did, and now she puts in her twelve weekly hours, filling out forms in Arabic and shuffling through the cases of accused criminals. Upon graduating, she also took a job with a young German lawyer who had just arrived in Cairo to try his luck in a less staid place than Germany. In his office she leads the working life of a Western lawyer, staying at her desk from eight in the morning until nine in the evening, six days a week, with breaks for visits to the prosecutor's office. She explains to me, "From being a prosecutor you become a judge. That is very prestigious, and very secure. The president appoints you, and only he can remove you. You have immunity, and free health care at the best hospital, and a car and so on. But what you are doing there is really nothing. So it is just doing whatever is set before you. So if I have a master's degree, so if I speak five languages or just one, it doesn't make a difference."

Instead, she says, she wants work that challenges and engages her, that makes her learn. She wants it to be at the center of her life. So work is not just something I do. It has become"--she struggles for a phrase--"my point of stance." "Your identity," I suggest, and she lights up: "Exactly."

Ingy's attitude toward work has the thrill of rebellion against a culture with limited space for professional women. Once when we were in her ground-floor office after dark, she made a show of pulling the curtains "so that the men in the street will not think I am being abused. It is a terrible thing for a woman to be made to work so late." This small performance was directed at me, a way of letting me know that her staid work has, in its context, a lively hint of scandal.

Her work is also an anesthetic. Of her two closest friends from college, one has died of cancer, and the other is married and living in the oil-rich Gulf emirate of Dubai. "When my friend died," she tells me, "I worked so hard that I had no time to be depressed. So that was something for me." She is just as direct about losing the other friend to marriage: "She is telling me, you should get married and so on. And she is sitting there, pregnant." There is a hint of disgust in her face. "So of course she is telling me this."

A career as stimulation, fulfillment, identity, and anesthetic: a place in the world and an obsessive distraction from one's own life. These are contemporary, Western, and especially American experiences that have become global. But they have not set Ingy against Egypt, or made her one of the frenetic imitators of American manners who can now be found anywhere. She says of those people, "They do not belong in Egypt anymore, but they are not European or American, either. They want to be modern, but they adopt only the superficial things. So, a man and a woman live together before they are married. In the U.S., that is a part of your society; but here, it does not make sense, and they are not happy. And if they go abroad, then when there is terror, everyone will remember that they are Arabs."

Ingy has always prayed five times a day, in the prescribed Muslim fashion, and a few years ago she had a kind of religious awakening: "Now I can feel it, it is what is in me, and it is beautiful." She does not elaborate on this passage from ritual to personal expression, but it is most important to her. It sits comfortably amidst the rebelliousness, conformity, perfectionism, and self-seeking of her professional life.

Ingy seems a model for the view, fashionable among commentators on globalized culture, that people combine useful or compelling global trends with their local culture to make hybrid lives. With more options, people become more complicated versions of themselves--as has been true throughout history when cultures meet. Implicit in this picture is the idea that everyone will also become more tolerant and peaceful, as if all diversity had the mood of American multiculturalism.

This optimist's idea is in my mind as Ingy makes another try at elaborating on the text message promoting DJ Osama bin Laden. "Osama is a defender of the Palestinians. Of course, as Arabs we hate Israel. But that hatred for Israel we do not feel for the United States. And of course, people like me think that the way Osama did it was criminal. He should have attacked the White House. Then, no one could have said it was murder."

I let that go unremarked. It is a commonplace among liberal Arabs that suicide bombings against Israeli government targets are legitimate, but that attacks on civilians are morally uncertain. Ingy assumes that extending that logic to the United States will reassure me. Instead of responding directly, I point out that Osama bin Laden has only recently put the Palestinians at the center of the account he gives of his terror campaign. His fatwas from 1997 and 1998 are directed mainly at the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. It was only after September 11 that he warned: "Americans will not know peace until the Palestinians know peace."

When I recite this phrase, the young women laugh merrily. Between the American pop music hitting my right ear and the breeze blowing off the river, I think I must have missed something, and I look inquisitive. Ingy's sister, the medical student, explains: "We laughed when he said that." Osama's words placed the collapsing World Trade Center towers in a story of Israeli wrongs and Arab retribution that most Egyptians immediately understand. The same words that reassured Egyptian listeners sent Americans into their most intense alarm after the shock of the attacks themselves.

Almost every major city abroad has a World Trade Center (or Centre), symbolizing its aspiration to commercial modernity. Cairo's is across the Nile, its red neon logo glowing from the top floors. With the young women's laughter like a translucent wall between us, I look away. Half the letters have burnt out, leaving only W T de Ce re, a nonsense phrase lighting a patch of the night.

This is the first fact of global life. We Americans live in an American world, more than the citizens of imperial Rome inhabited a Roman world or nineteenth-century Englishmen a British one. The sun never sets on us. Where two or more are gathered, we are with them. Wherever one is trying to make sense of her life, we are there.

Beyond our power and wealth, America provides the global language of dreams and the imagery of ambition. We are what everyone, everywhere, might yet be. Ours is the face that has launched millions of planes and billions of migrant journeys, whether from Bombay to New York or from a Tamil Nadu village to Bangalore.

People everywhere want to spend their days not eking out survival, but enjoying the bounty of a rich country. The fantasy of a land of plenty is very old: it figures in Muslim views of paradise, Hindu descriptions of the Golden Age, and the legendary Cockaigne of medieval Christianity, an imagined place of perpetual feasting. Americans live in that place, the everyday tenants of one of the enduring human myths.

Apart from wealth, people are moved by the wish for freedom--which today means American freedom. The ordinary liberty to go through a day or a week without harassment from the police; to choose your own friends and lovers; to speak your mind and come to your own opinions; to have ways of making the powerful answer to you: these are human aspirations, charged with new force in our age of democracy and human rights. For all its failings America stands for them. We live in the flesh and trip off the tongue of anyone, anywhere, who desires what it is human to want.

The world's hunger is not exactly a compliment, and we should not take it complacently. We are loved, desired, and resented, often in one breath. Life is full of injury, confusion, and humiliation in a world upset by vast migrations, the rise of huge cities only fifty years old, and the collapse of social orders to which people belonged for centuries and millennia. Resentment and hurt, like aspiration, run to America: the country that offers to the mind and heart everything that real life denies the hand and mouth. This is not a question of what attitude we deserve. Admiration and resentment have always attached themselves to the powerful, the successful, the visible.

There is no guarantee of an American future. It is naive to believe that the migratory icons of American modernity--constitutions, regular elections, free markets, shopping malls, MTV--will turn every place to a version of what we already are. What awaits us is not restricted to what we wish for, or even what we can imagine.

From the Hardcover edition.
Jedediah Purdy|Author Q&A

About Jedediah Purdy

Jedediah Purdy - Being America

Photo © Shoreline Studios

Jedediah Purdy teaches law at Duke University and has also taught at Yale and Harvard. Purdy is the author of For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today and Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World, and has written for The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Democracy, and other publications.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Jedediah Purd

Q: What is the relationship between this book and your first one, FOR COMMON THINGS?

FOR COMMON THINGS addressed certain specific topics—strip mining, genetic engineering, politics in the Clinton era—but it was really about how to think about politics, how we can take political questions seriously, and take ourselves seriously as we address them. Being America takes a sustained look at specific issues: the American place in the world, how we understand ourselves and how others see us, the human effects of global markets. It looks through the lens of the ideas in the first book, so in that way it is an extension of the same project. But it is also very much its own book. It takes its shape from the questions it asks. I think they are questions that a lot of people are asking now.

Q: Did you write BEING AMERICA after September 11?

No—or much less than it might appear. I was sketching parts of this book in the winter of 2000-2001, and began writing it in June, 2001. In August I published the first version of the “Invisible Empire” chapter, describing how American cultural and economic power make people both admire and resent us. That was in Die Zeit, the German weekly. So I was working on these themes from the beginning. I’m sure September 11 did lend its stamp to the book. When I was abroad in the fall and early winter of 2001, for instance, people everywhere talked about American power in terms of the World Trade Center and Osama bin Laden—except in China, by the way, where they talked about the World Trade Organization. And I’m sure that I thought about things differently after September 11, in subtle ways, as most people did. But this is not of those books written as responses to the attacks of September 11.

Q: You write in BEING AMERICA about different kinds of American empire: some invisible, at least to Americans, and some visible to everyone. Is this a radical view?

Well, it used to be. This is one thing that’s changed. Before September 11, only the far left and the far right would talk about empire: the left, like Noam Chomsky, claimed we had one and it was evil; the right, such as Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard argued that we should aspire to have one, because it would be good for everyone. They are having a pretty good year, by the way, although not as good as they hoped.

Now, there are matter-of-fact references to “American empire” on the pages of the New York Times Sunday Magazine and the New York Review of Books, not to mention the Harvard alumni magazine, which came my way recently. I think this is a step forward. Whatever our opinion of it, it’s better to start with an accurate description of where we stand. Being America will seem less radical now than it would have a year ago; but I hope that means people are ready to think about its study of the cultural, political, psychological, and moral aspects of America’s several kinds of empires.

Q: Explain how American is, as you call it, a universal nation.

A: Two things. On the one hand, we Americans think we are what human beings would be if we were just natural, without any weird stuff overlaid on our humanity. We think being French is an affectation, Russian a perversion, German maybe an inhibition, and Bangladeshi a deprivation; but being American is just being human. This can make us obtuse and obnoxious. It keeps us from understanding that we are one particular civilization, and that when we make a case for ourselves, it is as a civilization, not as natural humanity. We can’t just show up and be taken as a revelation, and this comes as a surprise to us.

On the other hand, we have a culture that anyone can join, coming from anywhere. That is the nature of a great immigrant culture: a fairly thin public life, an open commercial economy, a lot of respect for plurality in religion and in the kitchen, and a huge dose of individualism. That anyone can become American, and in a generation, sets us apart from such great civilizations as China and India, and other liberal societies, such as France and Germany. It also gives us rather more in common with imperial Rome. This is part of our greatness.

Q: You write about how people both admire and resent the United States. Have you found both attitudes within the states? Which attitude to you take?

A: As we were saying, it used to be that people who talked about American empire, and weren’t cheerleaders for it, were anti-American. I’m not at all. I’m a patriot. I believe America is a great country, and that some of our values are the world’s best future. The great American openness—to diversity, to cultural and demographic change, to the whole complexity of the world—is the do-or-die value of the next century. Wherever people are killing each other or developing authoritarian governments and nationalist or fundamentalist political movements, they’re rejecting this openness. We are the great emblem of that openness. It is tied up with our constitutional culture, with our free-market culture, with our being an immigrant nation, and also with our forgetfulness, our tendency to image that we have no past, that we have always been as we are. It is as a bearer of this openness, above all, that the world needs America.

Q: But you are critical of America.

Yes. I believe in critical patriotism: that the job of citizens is often to call the country back to its own best values. After all, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt, to name a few, were all great critics of the world as they found it. Let alone revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, or our heroic dissenters, like Frederick Douglass, Dr. King, or even Thoreau.

Something that’s disturbed me about political culture after September 11 is the idea, which the Bush administration has encouraged and Democrats have mostly accepted, that patriotism means being loyal to whoever is in power now, and believing that America has no faults and does no wrong. That is not patriotism: it is what used to be called jingoism.

Q: What are some of your specific criticisms of the United States now?

I argue in the book that we behave in ways that undercut our ability to promote our own values. Whenever we behave in ways that bespeak arrogance, ignorance, opportunism, even bullying, we weaken the case for the best American values. In the abstract, of course, our good values and our bad behavior are different things; but in practice, they are all woven together in people’s minds, and the bad compromises the good.

Self-undermining begins at home. The announcement of secret military tribunals for suspected terrorists, the request that the networks suppress the new bin Laden tape last October, the proposal that Americans should spy on each other: these are noted everywhere. Repressive governments like China and Egypt take comfort from them. People who are already inclined—often for ideological or emotional reasons—to think the United States acts in bad faith have their cynicism confirmed by these actions. People working for democracy in other places are undermined.

This administration behaves abroad as if the United States needed no law but its own conscience. Repudiating the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, trashing the International Criminal Court, and claiming the right to intervene militarily pretty much anywhere we judge it appropriate—which is now administration policy—these things make other people nervous. They mistrust us, they resent us, and they want to keep us in check. And we, in turn, see them as anti-American—which they may be, but that is not an excuse for our confirming every bad suspicion they have about us.

Q: So what do you see as legitimate uses of American power?

I think the first thing to say about this is something that George Kennan observed: in international affairs, the power of example is greater than the power of precept. Trying to direct other nations isn’t nearly as effective as guiding them by inspiration. This is particularly true for the United States, because we are the global icon of liberal modernity: of prosperity, personal security, opportunity, and political liberty. We make a powerful appeal to other peoples’ fundamental aspirations. That our greatest power, and it’s what we compromise when we behave badly.

Of course, that doesn’t solve the question of how to use the most powerful military in world history. Like many liberals, I supported the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, because they helped to prevent humanitarian disasters and uphold a basic idea of international humanitarian law. Like many people, I have been deeply ambivalent about the program for invading Iraq.

I can suggest a few principles: except in strict self-defense, the use of force should fall in line as far as possible with these considerations: the conscience of the other decent nations, the general lines of international law, respect for imperfect stabilizing institutions such as the United Nations Security Council, and—maybe most important—the aspirations of the people in the place where we’re getting involved. It should also be tempered a certain skeptical humility, a recognition that violence, once started, is often hard to stop or to control, and that for that reason war should not be an easy or early choice. Now this will never be perfect: as for international conscience, Indians, Russians, and many others tend to oppose American intervention out of a mix of principle, resentment, and fear, and there’s not much to be done in bringing them around. Everyone knows how compromised the Security Council is with China and Russia as permanent members, and France and Britain included while India, a billion-person democracy with a million-person army, is not. International law contains a deep tension between respect for national sovereignty and regard for universal humanitarian principles. And so on. But these are compass points, at least.

Q: Who are your literary models?

: They are not so much guides to writing as models of temperament, people who had a clear grasp of the many faces of human nature, and how it interacts with politics. One is Czeslaw Mlosz, the Lithuanian-Polish poet and Nobel laureate, who wrote a great set of essays on intellectuals under the various spells of communisms, which is called The Captive Mind. George Orwell, for his lucidity and his ability to see the hazards of ideology in an intensely ideological time. Michel de Montaigne, because he saw so clearly the dangers of self-certainty and moral arrogance. Isaiah Berlin for his understanding that the human world is too complicated for any single resolution, and his ability to keep a clear moral vision despite that. Among recent books, I have particularly admired Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Berlin, and Mark Lilla’s collection on the attractions of tyranny to intellectuals, The Reckless Mind.

Q: What do you see as the most important ideological question for our time?

There is a great historical question, and a great question in the battle of ideas. With the ideological wars of the twentieth century over, we know the basic facts of social and political life: some kind of market economics; popular politics with a democratic twist—not necessarily electoral, but meaning that it is ever harder to govern long without some popular support; and mobility and individualism that uproot traditional forms of life. But these conditions can produce more liberal or more illiberal and violent kinds of social and political life.

There are two basic versions of the future at stake around the world now. One is roughly based on the American model, with a degree of tolerance, acceptance of change, and a willingness to give up heroism and historical drama in order to get a measure of comfort and opportunity. The other is national or religious chauvinism, founded on myths about historical greatness, which are supposed to compensate for and maybe redeem the confusions, humiliations, and injuries of everyday life. These are both children of modernity, but only one of them can seize the most humane possibilities of the modern world. The other can only pervert the power of technology and mass politics to destroy modern liberty and tolerance. The world’s image of America is a fulcrum on which the choice between futures turns.



“Incisive and timely. . . . Purdy stands as a calm and articulate voice, able to put much of the current world situation into thoughtful and pragmatic historical context.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Offers refreshing insight into today's debates. . . . If you're looking for something to challenge common assumptions, Purdy's book . . . is well worth the effort." —The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A profound thinker and a fine writer. . . . He offers fascinating theorires.” —The Denver Post

“Purdy is a surprisingly sharp observer. . . . He has the ability to perceive the mix of good and bad in most things.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Keenly observed and brightly reported.” -—San Jose Mercury News

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