Review: Novel explores complexities of an American world

Sunday, April 6, 2003

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans have been subjected to a barrage of books purporting to reveal the spirit of their country, whether transformed or simply reaffirmed.

Jedediah Purdy's "Being America" is a welcome respite from these books, whose conclusions are easily drawn from their introductions.

In place of knee-jerk patriotism, Purdy offers a sober assessment of America, neither glorifying its history nor condemning its present course.

After recounting American exploits during the Cold War, including the 1973 U.S.-orchestrated coup in Chile that led to the violent dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Purdy writes: "Anyone who believes that American power has been good for the world in this last century -- which I am inclined to believe -- has to consider these acts, and admit that they leave us anything but innocent."

For Purdy, acknowledging historical violence is not the same as being ruled by it. While he criticizes America's tendency toward selective amnesia, he is just as critical of those who "can only hold themselves intact by recalling where and how they have been injured, and who has been their enemy."

Here, he cites South African President Thabo Mbeki, whose failure to deal with his country's AIDS crisis Purdy blames, in large part, on Mbeki's inability to separate it from Africa's legacy of colonialism and racism. Instead of informing Mbeki's decisions, the past is paralyzing him.

In place of these two extremes, Purdy urges a middle ground in which people remember without resenting. An idealistic pragmatist, if such a thing is possible, Purdy appeals to humanity's better angels throughout "Being America," all the while conceding that the world is often more suited to devils.