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Selected reviews of Being America are featured below:
Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, February 18, 2003
We in America tend to think of ourselves as the world's universal nation. "Being French is an affectation, being Russian a perversion, being from the world's poor regions a deprivation; but being American is just being human.... [W]e secretly believe that everyone is born American, but that certain people become something else due to bad upbringing," writes social critic Jedediah Purdy in "Being America," an incisive and timely book that anyone concerned with the looming war with Iraq should read.
In this earnest exploration of what it means to live in an Americanized world, Purdy (whose previous book, "For Common Things," was lauded for its non-ideological approach to moral issues) asks readers to observe our country and its actions from the point of view of foreign nations, and to consider how our efforts to export American values have affected people the world over. There's no question, he tells us, that the U.S. has provided inspiration and enticements that are both captivating and paradoxical to the world.
Our nation's example has, at times, encouraged increased liberty in other countries, freed the channels of commerce and upheld an appreciation of human rights in foreign lands. At other times, though, the effects of our proselytizing for American values (which we tend to view as natural and inevitable) have alienated those we wish to convert and inadvertently contributed to a rise in global unrest and violence. "Terror has become a favorite weapon of the very angry and very weak," Purdy suggests, "because it is the only way they can injure the strong."
Today, as the political and military rhetoric heats up, so does the discrepancy between how we in America see ourselves and how the world sees us. In many ways, we ask outsiders to judge us by our intentions and high aspirations, and we are perplexed when the world continues to judge us by how they perceive our actions and their effects. We view ourselves as an honest, hard-working avatar of human rights, Purdy postulates, while much of the world sees us as imperialistic, coercing others into embracing our values and exporting our culture with little regard to whether the appetites we incite can ever be sated in the poor countries to which they're sent.
To explore this divide, he interviews people in Indonesia, China, India, Egypt and elsewhere, meeting numerous individuals who would want to live in the United States and see our freedom and prosperity reflected in their own countries, "but who also -- if their words and spontaneous emotions are any guide -- imagine that they would be glad to see us destroyed."
This tension between our self-image and the world's perception of us, between our stated ideals and our actions, between the impulse to admire us while wishing us harm, fuels much of the political maneuvering that's now threatening the peace. "Emulation and resentment are the paired fruits of imperial power," Purdy reminds us, "and the stronger the compulsion to emulate, the more intense the resentment is likely to be."
But we're not, readers might argue, an imperial power; we're a democracy, we're fair and just. But our insistence that democracy and capitalism are the true path has earned us a reputation as an imperialistic bully, he contends. Countless reasons could be enumerated as to why we're not imperialistic, but a more productive path, if mutual understanding is to be our goal, might be to ask why we appear this way to so many people around the globe and yet not at all to ourselves.
"Being America" is a levelheaded, coherent and complex meditation in which Purdy neither vilifies nor celebrates concepts that America has historically stood for, like global commerce, but shows readers in human terms the effects these concepts have produced in foreign lands. He considers, among other things, the push in the U.S. against corporations that rely on sweatshops and what the repercussions of this activism have been; the way the Zapatistas in Mexico were able to tap into marketing techniques pioneered in the U.S. to call attention to their plight; how Islamic fundamentalism is rising in response to world events and the impact of "Benetton politics" (the anti-corporate and humanitarian discontent currently in vogue with many liberal Americans). To the author's credit, Purdy's well-argued points come off not as an indictment of America -- it's clear he's enamored of the democratic experiment undertaken by our forebears and the success it's encountered -- but as praise for what America set out to be, paired with a call to consider where we've gotten off track. Amid the hotheaded arguments for and against war, Jedediah Purdy stands as a calm and articulate voice, able to put much of the current world situation into thoughtful and pragmatic historical context. -- By Bernadette Murphy
Thursday, January 23, 2003
The 28-year-old lawyer has taken the first step in fulfilling the agenda set out in his widely noted first book, 1999's For Common Things: using earnest dialogue to remedy America's political and cultural ennui. In the months following September 11, Purdy set off on a trip through Egypt, India, Indonesia and China to assess perceptions of America abroad. He found most people divided in their feelings, often simultaneously admiring bin Laden and longing to emigrate to America. Self-consciously brainy, Purdy is preoccupied with initiating dialogue and does not shy away from discussing big issues-AIDS, globalization, environmentalism, nationalism, refugees, empire, freedom-which he often links to political and cultural movements of the past. He's also keen to assess the usefulness of icons on both the political right and left, and of capitalism itself, including groups such as the Mexican Zapatistas, Rainforest Action Network and the International Monetary Fund. For someone young, yet who thinks so hard about so many befuddling issues, he comes across as wonderfully sane: the writing is unadorned, lucid and without cynicism. This new book is a worthy companion, and in some ways counterpoint, to the more world-weary work of Thomas Friedman. Purdy is already among the most inspiring political thinkers writing today, and his ideas resonate like the clear ring of a bell through the cacophony of better-known pundits.