For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment In America Today

Author:Jedediah Purdy

“Americans who came of age after 1974,” writes Jedediah Purdy, “have never seen the government undertake a large-scale project other than highway maintenance and small wars, and relatively few are inspired by the idea that it should.” Not only is Purdy inspired, but this impressive first book, penned when he was 24, articulates a conceptual groundwork for renewed commitment in American public life.

Stylistically anchored by essayists such as Thoreau, Emerson, and Montaigne, Purdy takes the reader on a topographical tour of the American political psyche, navigating around two touchstone issues: the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and strip-mining in his native West Virginian hills. Dedication to “commons” — shared interests whose maintenance requires mutual support (such as the environment) — is a powerful refrain. His pragmatism is refreshing, his line of argument lucid.

For Common Things contains a fascinating evaluation of private life and freedom, updating Alexis de Tocqueville with chilling urgency. “[A]nything that individuals could not accomplish in solitude would fall to bureaucrats. Americans would forget how to govern themselves. They would forget how to be free.” This is strong work. Least fruitful, however, are Purdy's outcries against irony.

“Are y'all ready for some real lip-synching!” cheered Chris Rock during MTV's 1999 Music Video Awards — inadvertently highlighting Purdy's blind spot. People love Seinfield and South Park (both attacked here), people love irony, and people even love blatantly false things: lip-synching, gangsta rap, silicon implants, Las Vegas. These preferences indicate an unrepentantly plural society rather than national pathology. Lamenting a mythic monocultural sincerity detracts from the force of his ideas.

Purdy shines — even allowing some irony into the cracks — when he speaks of self-serving politicians, dedicated dissidents, the grim facts of strip-mining, and Americans' well-fed unawareness of our individualism's true cost. For Common Things offers lessons in the extraction of hope from a weary, wry world, a hope tempered with terse pragmatism and edged by love.