Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in
an American World
by Jedediah Purdy
A non-review by J. STEFAN-COLE
BEING AMERICA; Knopf, 2003, Jedediah Purdy has taken a big
bite of history to chew and feed back. Before the dust had
settled from the Trade Towers collapse he was in a Cairo
cafe talking to an Egyptian lawyer, Ingy, about America
and Osama Bin Laden. Ingy is a worldly Egyptian, "Westernized,"
so when she said Osama was a hero for having hit the U.S.,
Purdy was surprised. She then qualified; because of the
Palestinians, but, also, that Osama should have hit only
the White House, destroying the Towers was in fact criminal.
The thrust of the book is America as Empire: out of the
closet, in full Technicolor, America is an empire. Not in
the sense of land grabbing, but an empire of capitol, technology
and the imagination. Americans may view this as an alien
concept, but, according to Purdy, we are the modern empire,
like it or not. Two areas, he says, have sent us global:
"Microsoft power and the power of seduction."
In a nutshell, we rule both the software language, Microsoft
("network power") and the literal language, English,
and the "empire of desire" through our offerings
of endless liberty and possibility to all the citizens of
the world via advertising and the American Dream.
Let's go back to Cairo where a bookseller tells Purdy Americans
have a low regard for Muslims. Look at Bosnia or Afghanistan,
the bookseller says. When the author points out that in
Bosnia the U.S. was helping Muslims, the bookseller answers
that they went in only after thousands of Muslims were already
dead. He also said Israelis or Americans flew the planes
into the World Trade Towers; it was obvious, all the Jews
stayed home that day. On the other hand, as Ingy, the Cairo
lawyer, points out, the American people are good and generous,
but are, like the Egyptians, victims of a corrupt government.
The bookseller seconded that.
Here Purdy scores his first historical hit: Americans like
to believe we are benevolent in supporting Egypt, but in
fact we are supporting an oppressive, corrupt regime under
strongman Hosni Mubarak. Even Ingy admits there is little
for her to do as a lawyer, the system is so corrupt no one
much bothers to apply the law. Here we have a critical dichotomy:
American self-ignorance; we are generous, sure, but we somehow
think no one notices that while we stand for the rule of
law and democracy we hand out money to lawless dictators
of oppressed nations. This behavior is not lost on the Egyptians.
Purdy writes, if the Egyptian government is hopelessly corrupt
and we support it, what else can the Egyptians conclude
but that our government too is hopelessly corrupt? Perception
becomes reality. Who placed the repressive Shah in Iran,
and once courted Saddam Hussein, and who supported the mujahideen
warriors against Russia in Afghanistan? Us. And who financed
the mujahideen? Osama, among other radical Islamic fundamentalists.
Yet, at the same time that Americans are perceived as hypocrites
and dupes, we are also envied for our liberty and wealth.
Admired and resented. Purdy, "For many Americans, September
11 seemed to represent a loss of innocence about the country's
place in the world. For most in the Middle East, America's
political innocence was lost many decades ago, if it ever
What follows is a partial history of America from the colonialists,
starting with the first governor of Massachusetts, John
Winthrop, who said the whole world was watching the new
American experiment. Onto the cornerstones of American democracy,
the Declaration of Independence and The Bill of Rights through
to Abraham Lincoln who believed the Civil War was the first
great test of democracy. To Emerson's caution that Americans
remain ever vigilant against falling into a slumber of unconscious
political actions. All the way up to the "visible empire,"
spelled out, according to Purdy, in the September, 2002,
Bush doctrine of foreign policy (so-called pre-emption).
The tone of this doctrine, he writes, is "blithely
imperial". Given the United States recent dismissal
of the United Nations, and many of our allies, he makes
a good case. Simplified, in Mr. Purdy's words, the Bush
doctrine: "First, there is one set of principles binding
all countries in the world, whether their governments acknowledge
or ignore them. These are democracy, free markets, human
rights, and peaceful behavior toward other countries. Second,
we embody these principles, and we have the last word as
to what they mean and where they have been grievously violated.
Third, we will enforce these principles with our unparalleled
military strength and will not permit competitors to arise
and challenge our supreme position. In us, and only in us,
power and righteousness coincide."
Empires, the author then points out, are expensive and
they are morally dangerous--who checks the leader with the
"last word"? What about other nations following
the pre-emptive example? How will the large military security
force required to maintain an empire be kept from biting
the hands that feed it? (Not to leave out the old saw, power
corrupts.) The Bush doctrine, amazingly, assumes perpetual
wisdom in American leadership. You don't to have to be a
scholar of American history to know how either cynical or
naive this sounds. Above all, the founding fathers feared
leadership without checks and balances. Replacing a King
George with an Emperor George blows the whole experiment
called America sky high.
At times Purdy sounds like a TV pundit with his analogous
leaps and historical dot connecting, but he is not arguing
that we not be an Empire, we already are, he questions the
expression of power. The doctrine of pre-emption might have
been better left unstated; instead of placing the U.S. as
its "sole enforcer," kept as the quiet option
it has always been. "...Large principles forged in
extreme times lie around like loaded guns, begging to be
put to bad use. I fear that the American Government, having
loaded for bear, is preparing a dangerous legacy."
So far so good, but the book at times sounds like a college
survey course on modern history. The pros and cons of global
capitalism are explored. Resistance to the displacing effects
of capitol on rural societies, the Diaspora mind set of
those displaced. Nationalistic tendencies in India are looked
into, also states in financial ruin thanks to sudden, massive
global investment that suddenly pulls back out--Indonesia.
And China, wanting to compete economically with America,
but disallowing its people self-rule. The brush strokes
become widening sweeps with ever thinning color meant to
cover a very broad surface. I sometimes lost the point.
Mr. Purdy visited each of the locations he writes about,
talking to Muslim timber police in Indonesia, a journalist
and Hindu nationalist in Bombay, visited an American style
mall in Madras and a Brahmin entrepreneur, N. R. Narayana
Murthy, the Indian equivalent of Bill Gates, in Bangalore.
We move from there to China, to a University teacher who
wants to use American style advertising with star driven
ads to enhance China's image so it can compete globally.
We are taken on a tour of the Italian clothing company,
Benetton's famous united colors ad odyssey against racism.
Then it's on to South Africa and the fight to bring low-cost
AIDS medication where the disease runs rampant. We take
a glance at the Zapatista Revolutionaries in Chiapas, Mexico
and finally end up right here in Williamsburg, Brooklyn,
to meet RAN (Rain Forest Action Network) activists who have
taken over corporate techniques to publicize causes like
old forest cutting and companies that sell the product,
like Home Depot. A bit dizzying to cover so much under the
umbrella of one book.
As for my own backyard, I knew we were the current epicenter
of hip, here in the 'Burg, but not that we were on the cutting
edge of activism. Shucks. I got a little nervous though
when Mr. Purdy called the Gray Parrot Cafe the Green Parrot.
For a split second I doubted all his references, but, hey,
he's been all over, what's a little mistake in a name? As
I mentioned, the book takes on a lot. The whole world, practically,
and Purdy ties it all up in a knot with America as the rope.
The world seemed smaller and grouchier after reading BEING
AMERICA-- Who am I kidding? People are dying in Iraq as
I write this. But Jedediah Purdy isn't peddling anger, he's
taken a brave look at things global and wants to caution
us that the experiment called America is still evolving.
There are no guarantees against shortsighted policies, loss
of liberty or democracy. It is up to the people to stay
awake and ask questions. Jedediah Purdy: "The spirit
of patriotic hesitation, which sees circumspection and self-scrutiny
as the duties of power, is old and eminently American, and
without it we are off our balance."
©April, 2003 J Stefan-Cole