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BEING AMERICA:
Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World
by Jedediah Purdy
A non-review by J. STEFAN-COLE

In, 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.

Other Book Reviews:

A Whistling Woman
- A. S. Byatt

Being America
- Jebediah Purdy

The Man with the Dancing Eyes
- Sophie Dahl

The Stone Virgins
- Yvonne Vera

The Murdering
of My Years

- Mickey Z

Vanishing Splendor
- Alain Vircondelet

Skirt and Fiddle
- Tristan Egolf

Dogwalker
- Arthur Bradford

Nowhere Man
- Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of Illusions
- Paul Auster

Lightning Field
- Dana Spiotta

It's a Free Country
- Danny Goldberg

Some of the Parts
- T Cooper

Palladio
- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

Atonement
- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

Godspeed
- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

Somebody's Gotta Tell It!
-
Jack Newfield
Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
- Vince Passaro

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
- Gore Vidal
The War Against Cliche
- Martin Amis
Look at Me
- Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
- Jon Ronson

Tishomingo Blues
- Elmore Leonard

Letters to a Young Contrarian Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby
Wei Hui
Shop Talk
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel
David Markson
My Name is Red
Orhan Pamuk
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young

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 existed."

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




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