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Books In Conversation

JEDEDIAH PURDY with Charles Wilson

Jedediah Purdy’s first book, For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today, argued that America’s political and social life had become tainted by ironic detachment and a “quiet refusal to believe in the depth of relationships, the sincerity of motivation, or the truth of speech—especially earnest speech.”

It was a quiet book that launched a media firestorm. The author’s cherubic face, his young age (24), his rural West Virginia upbringing, his impeccable education (Exeter, Harvard, and Yale Law), his earnest prose, and his willingness to challenge the glibness of Seinfeld and South Park earned him harsh criticism as well as measured praise. Alfred A. Knopf recently released Purdy’s second book, Being America: Liberty, Commerce and Violence in the American World, which examines globalization and foreign perceptions of American power. The week before the U.S.-led coalition launched its war against Saddam Hussein’s regime, Purdy, now 28, spoke to Charles Wilson of the Rail in DUMBO about his work and future.

Charles Wilson (Rail): What were you doing September 11?

Jedediah Purdy: I was in Washington. As I was walking near Dupont Circle, where I had an office, a friend called me on my cell phone and said, “Don’t go near anything.” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” And he told me what had happened. Then I realized that half the people walking by me knew what had happened and half didn’t, and you could tell the difference by their expressions. There was very little practical effect in Washington, even though the Pentagon was struck.

Rail: I remember the Onion ran a tiny sidebar on the cover: “Massive Attack on Pentagon, Page 14.”

Purdy: The Onion post-September 11 issue was so incredibly good.

Rail: Some people might be surprised to hear you say that.

Purdy: I just thought it was the most emotionally acute thing that anyone did at that time. Part of what I was actually getting at in For Common Things was that heavily laden language about moral purpose is really not available to us. And that sometimes passing it through the acid bath of self-awareness and finding an especially reflective way to make the same point is more resonant. That issue of the Onion had very powerful rhetoric in its way, rhetoric in a good sense. They communicated a lot in the little sketches that weren’t even exactly satirical; there was one story in the same issue, told very deadpan, about a woman somewhere in the Midwest who didn’t know exactly what to do, so she made a red, white, and blue cake and gave it to her next-door neighbor. That very delicately captured how people somehow wanted to connect themselves to what had happened, and there was no way to do it, and they were looking for some form of conviviality and an expression of solidarity. I also liked the headline, “Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.” It showed how history can force itself on you.

Rail: How did you move to Being America after you finished For Common Things?

Purdy: The untold true story of the day the idea gelled: I woke up super early one day—I was supposed to meet someone and he cancelled—and I was slightly woozy. It was shortly after the Genoa protests, so there was a photographic essay profile in a magazine on anti-globalization activists and one of them was this absolutely beautiful Kurdish woman. The nominal headline was “Anti-Globalization Activists Aren’t Just Smelly Rabid Freaks, But Some Of Them Are Savvy, Thoughtful People Who Have Points To Make.” Four of the five people portrayed were smelly, rabid freaks, but one of them was this striking Kurdish woman who was portrayed with a cell phone—which was an indication of her being savvy, and wired, and so on—and I thought, maybe if I write about globalization, I will get a chance to meet her. I never actually tried to figure out what organization she was with or anything like that, but it was a triggering moment.

Rail: If you had to say whether America’s cultural, economic, and military extension throughout the world was a good or bad thing, how would you answer?

Purdy: One of the things I was interested in thinking about in the new book was the relationship between globalization and modernization and Americanization. I think that the desire that drives modernization—that urges people to leave their traditional communities to go to cities and try to find new jobs and new industries or new areas of life; that leads parents to try to get their children to learn languages they didn’t speak; that drives the world of motion and ambition—is a widespread motivating force. Once evidence is out there that you have more choices, more security, more comfort, more experience even, many, many people will be drawn to that.

If you called that for a moment modernization, and thought of globalization as its vehicle, the Americanization part has to do with the sort of contingent fact that we got there first, and that means that the form it has taken is ours, whether you learn English because that is the language of global opportunity, or global culture is American culture because we were the first ones to create a global culture industry.

I guess I would say that the world I would ultimately be attracted to would be one in which the gains of modernization and modernity would be compatible with a greater diversity of cultural forms that it could take. I mean ideally you would hope in 100 years, for example, there would be an Indian or Hindu modernity that would have overcome many of the inheritances of caste and landlessness and not only enormous inequality, but also enormous embedded social cruelty and so on, but that also would not simply become a Kansas on the subcontinent.

Rail: In talking about the anti-globalization protests in Seattle in 1999, you mention an incident in which a protestor raiding Niketown in Seattle is caught in a photograph with his Nikes on. Do you use this to reveal that those in the anti-globalization movement haven’t thought through too thoroughly their own causes—and don’t realize how implicated they are in what they are protesting—or do you think this is an isolated example?

Purdy: The reason that the campaigns against Nike and its labor policies abroad were relatively successful, considering the number of people who were involved, was that Nike had spent so much effort at establishing itself as a visible and prominent brand with definite associations with health and youth and liberty and vitality. And its symbolic charge was visibly reversed by activists who were able to throw up images of Nike side by side with children chained to sewing machines in sweatshop factories. In a funny way, I thought it was not so much aberrant as representative that he was wearing Nikes when he raided Niketown, but it was representative in a way that didn’t necessary delegitimize him. It just pointed to the complicated situation that he was working in, where you are living in a culture that has actually got a fair amount of its conversation about value through a commercial vocabulary—advertising images and so on—and yet those images are not totally controlled by the companies that are generating them. They are actually available to activists who pick them out and use them against the company as cultural weapons. So I thought it was a fascinating paradox.

Rail: How do you feel about the Bush administration, particularly in relation to its foreign policy and Iraq?

Purdy: There is a passage in the book that deals less with the specific question of Iraq than with the doctrine of global unilateral military domination and preemptive warfare that the administration outlined, not only as an update of the 1992 Cheney-Wolfowitz plan for a “New American Century,” but also as a specific vindication of what they were looking to do in Iraq. To my mind, this doctrine offers a very dangerous set of principles. It sets the U.S. up, first of all, in a position that no country should be trusted in: To make on its own a judgment when violence among countries is okay and necessary, which I think in itself is very, very dangerous, and all the great critics of imperialism have recognized that part of its danger is continuous with the larger danger of the abusive power. When people have untrammeled control over other peoples lives, they’ll tend to make increasingly bad use of it, and increasingly violent, unwise, disrespectful use of it. Once you have a unilateralist doctrine in place, other people are going to take it up. Russia has already done it in Chechnya. China may do it in Taiwan. It’s a dangerous principle to have out there.

Rail: You defended yourself in the afterword of the paperback edition of your first book by saying that you are implicated in the things that you are criticizing. Do you worry that people perceive you as aloof?

Purdy: With that afterword, I was feeling pretty battered at the time that I wrote it.

Rail: Did you feel the need to apologize?

Purdy: What irritated some people about the book was a feeling not too different than what some people felt about Al Gore—that I put myself outside the culture that I was observing and criticizing, and that I was judging it with the conceit that I was superior to and untouched by it and that I could apply my unblemished moral compass to it. There was the sense that I was setting myself up as the kind of authoritative outsider. People found that irritating. And this was also what some people who liked the book and who maybe didn’t read it all that carefully found attractive in it. While I think that the new book has no need of my biography or any personal testimonial qualities, I think part of the reason that it doesn’t have those elements is that those are what made me feel vulnerable in the first book, and I didn’t want to undergo the same sort of personal—very, very personal—criticism intermingled indiscriminately with criticism of the book.


Charles Wilson

CHARLES WILSON is a writer.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN-JUL 2003

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