A review of Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World, by Jedediah Purdy

After 9/11, some sensitive people wondered: "Why do they hate us?" Jedediah Purdy poses a set of rather more interesting questions: Why is it that America is loved and despised, resented and emulated and envied—often all at the same time? Seeking answers, Purdy, the homeschooled Wunderkind whose first book, For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today made a big splash in 1999, ranges widely both around the globe and through Western philosophy. The result is an odd hodgepodge of a book, a whistlestop world tour that is part local reportage, part sociology, and part political analysis.

Purdy is interested in the intersection between abstraction and reality, between the writings of an Adam Smith or a James Madison and the lived experience of a Cambodian union organizer or an Egyptian shopkeeper. Such a project is implicitly indebted to Tocqueville, and Purdy clearly intends to establish himself within an intellectual tradition. The subtitle and thesis of the book derive from Edmund Burke, who "defined his marriage of liberal and conservative commitment by saying that he loved liberty and hated violence." Purdy is aware that human nature inclines toward both, and believes that this duality now defines world affairs. If he examines familiar issues, Purdy seems determined to get beyond the usual cant. An unsympathetic critique of neoconservative foreign policy, for example, is refreshingly free of the cynicism and reflexive anti-Americanism of many left-wing arguments. Purdy asks whether the almost Wilsonian idealism of some Republicans is truly practicable in what Christians would call a fallen world. Do neoconservatives put too much faith in American power? Do they have an adequate sense of the tragic, or of the limits of political possibility? These are valid, intelligent questions.

A shrewd observer and a lucid writer, Purdy displays the virtues of an elegant mind. Unfortunately, one of these very virtues—sensitivity to contradiction—sometimes seems to leave him afraid of committed opinions. Purdy is almost too quick to see and see through all sides of an argument. At times, the result is a weird postmodern limbo in which all claims are equally invalid, and we are left wondering what to think. A complicated world is not, or need not be, a world without truth. Still, while he is perhaps too cautious, it seems uncharitable to fault Purdy much for a book otherwise so thoughtful, so intelligent, even, one must admit, so often wise.