BEING AMERICA by Jedediah Purdy


Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World
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No one ever said running the world would be easy. Wunderkind pundit Purdy (For Common Things, 1999) offers a pensive argument for the US empire: a humane one, but an empire all the same.

“We Americans live in an American world,” he writes, “more than the citizens of imperial Rome inhabited a Roman world or nineteenth-century Englishmen a British one.” Call it globalism, call it Pax Coca-Cola: whatever the case, Purdy observes, America provides to the world an image of attainable wealth and personal freedom, and the world loves and hates us for it. There is no guarantee that this image will continue to endure, nor that reality will back it up; the cost of maintaining it is not only eternal vigilance, but also an unceasing commitment on the part of all Americans to the idea of liberal democracy, a commitment that involves shedding our usual hypocrisy, arrogance, and opportunism for the better angels of our nature. All of this involves a high level of airy abstraction, and Purdy proves himself an accomplished dreamer and master of the hortatory subjunctive. But it’s no armchair argument; the author has traveled the globe, witnessing the profound misery of India and pessimism of the Arab world, and emerged with the conviction that America can do much to make the world a better place by advancing the ideals of “democracy, free markets, human rights, and peaceful behavior toward other countries.” Of course, he acknowledges, that will also involve picking better allies, inasmuch as the likes of Jonas Savimbi, Reza Shah Pahlavi, and Augusto Pinochet have not done much to further such values. Purdy’s outlook is nonideological and realistic, despite the occasional lapse into rosy rhetoric such as that characterizing liberty’s best friends as those “who can remember without ceasing to hope or to laugh.”

It’s your empire, so get used to it. A thoughtful survey of things as they are, and an optimistic vision of things as they could be.

Pub Date: Feb. 19th, 2003
ISBN: 0-375-41307-3
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2002


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