Being America

Jedediah Purdy's new book, Being America: Liberty, Commerce and Violence in an American World (Knopf, 2003) is a long but absorbing essay on the liberal temperament. Liberal temperament has little to do with 'liberal' politics as they've been practiced in this country since the Great Depression; although in favor of effective government regulation of commerce, it takes a more conservative dislike to social engineering. But politics in America is not Mr Purdy's subject. Traveling around the world and talking to young people like himself (and also a few older ones, such as Infosys founder N. R. Narayana Murthy), Mr Purdy combs through the inconsistencies in foreign responses to the United States. These inconsistencies, on balance, appear to stem from the difference between looking at the United States as a possible destination (in which case it's very attractive) and looking at it as a world power (in which case it's a bully). Although Mr Purdy does not press the point, it appears that America is a great country to live in and a terrible one not to live in - everyone, American and foreigner, seems to agree about that. (I hasten to note that Being America does not travel to France, or to any other European country, either; aside from an account of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, the other countries on this side of the world are also bypassed.) 

Inconsistency is familiar to anyone with a liberal temperament, because liberal values can be counted upon to collide. Tolerance and justness are difficult for anyone to reconcile, for a sense of justice will not tolerate clear offenses, while tolerance in its turn will not allow self-righteous punishment. (This is one reason why liberals are seen, by illiberal people, to be 'soft on crime.' Illiberal people are sure of themselves - that's the giveaway.) The liberal impulse to let bygones be bygones often conflicts not only with the liberal sense of justice but also with the liberal characteristic that illiberals dislike most: the habit of critical response. Liberals don't take things on faith; their idea of loyalty is a complicated affair compared to the lockstep reliability of today's conservative right, which appears to have given up thinking altogether, in favor of prayer. Liberals aren't universal skeptics, but they're skeptical of authority. They can imagine - they may even know;  is it any wonder that so many, possibly most, liberals appear to come from affluent, even privileged backgrounds - what power feels like; they can guess its temptations.  Above all, liberals are aware of their own conflicted views. 

The foreigners whom Mr Purdy talks with, in contrast, seem altogether unaware that their hatred of America and their equally enthusiastic admiration of America (which usually manifests itself, as I've noted, by a desire to emigrate to the United States) are incompatible. It's possible that they see something we don't - that the American Government and the American people are two very different things - but it appears to be more likely that they simply haven't acquired critical habits of thought. The centers of resistance to American might that run like a necklace from Cairo to Beijing are governed by authoritarian regimes that have hardly encouraged the free expression of ideas, a sine qua non for the exercise of liberal temperament. Mr Purdy doesn't try (very hard) to change the minds of any of his interlocutors; rather he hopes that improved economies and extended civil rights might have the chance to bring them round. He shares Montesquieu's faith in doux commerce - the civilizing power of business. So do I, although I wish that Mr Purdy had more to say about the scale of business. Why do small businesses seem so vital and enriching (at least to passers-by), while large corporations seem to suck the life out of everything? Well, the author has plenty of time to get round to this. 

Because Being in America is a conversational book at heart, I rather wished that I had read the concluding 'Bibliographic Glossary' first. Here Mr Purdy summarizes his understanding of the concepts that loom large in his book - 'modernity,' 'globalization,' 'nationalism and fundamentalism,' 'the Anglo-American tradition,' and, finally, 'liberalism' - and acknowledges the writers who have influenced his understanding. The summaries put Mr Purdy's cards on the table so frankly that I think it was a mistake to consign them to a small-type 'bibliography' that many readers will flatter themselves into thinking that they're much too busy to read. The very heart of the book beats in the following bit of disclosure:

Neither do I spend much time with the idea that clever institutional design, by itself, can do much to produce liberal social relations. This is the "mechanical" view of James Madison's Federalist No. 10, which I mention in the last chapter, and which seems to me to beg the question of why people would submit to liberal institutions unless they already had partly liberal dispositions.

"Clever institutional design" is one way of saying system, as in the kind of social engineering that politicians and bureaucrats have been fiddling with since the Enlightenment. In 1992, John Ralston Saul published a furious denunciation, Voltaire's Bastards,  of the institutional violence that has been wrought upon the world's populations since the dawn of 'the Age of Reason,' which he felt was at last coming to an end. Mr Purdy never writes with anger; a modest patience that counts on the reader's working things out for himself is no small part of this young man's literary appeal. But I suspect that he feels much the same as Mr Saul about social systems. And I think he writes more eloquently about the flaw at the heart of rationalism. In a moving meditation on the blind optimism that permeates the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Mr Purdy writes,

The effect of reading the eleventh edition is not comic but tragic. Every passage displays a world lurching toward destruction, yet unaware of any danger. Its rationalist optimism lives, like the protagonist of the archetypal Greek tragedies, in a world whose elemental forces are kept secret from him. He believes that he is directing his life, until he discovers that greater powers have carried him their own way, far from his designs, to a terrible end. The Encyclopedia describes an age that does not understand its own achievements and limitations, and for that reason is vulnerable to awful failure.

Being America, it follows, does not offer a collection of programs for improving anything; its grain resists the very idea of the automatic, the if-this-then-that way of solving problems. Like Jane Jacobs, Mr Purdy sees the diversity of manners and methods as the primordial facts of social life: trying to suppress them, or to create 'pure' environments, leads directly to suicide. (For this very reason, differences don't need to be actively encouraged or preserved - only tolerated.) Being America is concerned rather with trying to explain the increasing gap between the vernacular American impression of America's global role and the rest of the world's. It is particularly astute on the troublesome question of empire. Is there an American empire, or isn't there? Americans themselves don't want an empire, but they derive no small satisfaction from the spread of Coca-Cola and McDonald's around the world, and take this as proof that we must be doing something right. Mr Purdy, showing us how to look at America with foreign eyes, teaches that while it may be true that the United States has no intention of creating a second Roman Empire, it has created at least two imperial matrices that people elsewhere find it difficult if not impossible to avoid. The first is our network empire. In order to get ahead almost anywhere today, you will find it enormously helpful to be able to work in English. This is the result of nothing other than law of scale-free networks that Albert-Laszlo Barabasi worked out in last year's best-selling Linked. The second is our empire of desire, the American-made asteroid belt of products and advertisements that spew largely false but also fairly irresistible promises of paradise on earth. American marketers have devoted years of research to finding the shortest route to the average libido, and the billboards, feature films, and other images that map this alleyway tend to disgust those whom they fail to captivate. Although Mr Purdy does not explore women's rights in this context, it's obvious that the position of women in today's America (the very multiplicity of positions) also gives rise to powerful desires and fears in more traditional societies. Americans, he does point out, must cope with these empires as well, but most don't identify them as 'American.'

That's part of a larger failure that Mr Purdy addresses in the last part of his book, "Living in History." People of liberal temperament avoid the extremes of memory; they are neither obsessed with the past (and especially with its wounds) nor oblivious of it. They understand that the purpose of history is always to inform life in the present, not to impose rituals of observance (a matter for religion) or to provide the recreational experience of a different way of life. America has a special lesson still to teach:

Because America has suffered so few collective injuries, because history has been generous toward a country of refugees and eccentrics, slavers and emancipators, opportunists and idlers, the United States has as good a chance as any to nation to cultivate memory without resentment. To be liberal by memory rather than from amnesia, and optimistic by determination rather than from imagined innocence, is America's still unrealized contribution to human civilization.

History, as a study, is the attempt of living men and women to make the decisions faced by those no longer alive intelligible, and in so doing enlarge the practical experience of anyone who will give their work attention. History doesn't predict which course of action will bring success, but it highlights the issues that we ought to bear in mind when making the hard choices. Obvious contempt for history ought to disbar anyone from public life.

As a report on America's standing in today's world Being America probably won't convert anyone who doesn't already share it to the author's cosmopolitan outlook; the author is keenly aware, as the quote above shows, that only liberals think liberal thoughts. And its very resistance to sweeping, programmatic thinking keeps it from offering a coherent platform of liberal ideas. But in this dark moment, it's a cheering read - it's cheering just to know that so thoughtful a young man is out there, already committed to serious but not self-absorbed reflection. And now, certainly, is the time for all good liberals to give a lot of thought to the shape of their party.  

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