For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today
by Jedediah Purdy
Knopf. 226 pp. $20.00
Jedediah Purdy’s book is one of the minor sensations of the publishing season, a fact owing in no small part to the attention lavished on it and its author by the New York Times Magazine and other elite media organs. A meditation on the current ills of our national character and public life, it is the latest installment in the long American tradition of the jeremiad. Yet there are many other books working the same territory and making the same appeals. What is it about this one that has attracted so much attention?
The answer, of course, is that Jedediah Purdy is no ordinary brooding public intellectual. To the contrary, he is an attractive, high-minded, and immensely earnest twenty-four-year-old wunderkind. Homeschooled in rural West Virginia by his ex-hippie parents, he went on to scale the academic heights of Exeter, Harvard College, and Yale Law School, and he has evidently come through it all without succumbing to the fashionable disillusionment and world-weary jadedness of his peers. Jedediah Purdy, his publicists would have us believe, is a moral exemplar for his own generation and a sorely needed preceptor for the rest of us. Unfortunately, this is a burden that his youthful shoulders cannot begin to bear.
For Common Things is by no means a rigorously argued book—much of it consists of autobiographical reflections—but Purdy does try to sum up what he sees as our national predicament. Today’s America, he contends, is permeated by an ironic sensibility, embodied for him in the wildly successful television show Seinfeld. Faintly amused by or contemptuous of every serious thing, people who share this destructive attitude close themselves off from the most elevating passions, from wonder, surprise, awe, and outrage. They prefer a life lived provisionally—a life enclosed, so to speak, within quotation marks.
Worse, by Purdy’s lights, the ascendance of irony has proved deadly to our public life. It feeds the impoverished view that politics is an inherently disreputable and corrupt activity, and that there are no common purposes worth sacrificing for—indeed, that there is nothing beyond the individual. The result, he laments, has been the loss of a genuine public sphere and the reduction of politics to an ugly contest of who gets what, developments that reinforce each other in a deepening cycle.
In Purdy’s view, however, the ironic sensibility is built upon an illusion. It ignores the inherent limitations of individuals and their radical dependency on one another. For Purdy, this need for mutual support is visible in a triad of successively expanding “ecological” networks: the moral ecology of family and friends, the social ecology of civic life, and the natural ecology of the physical environment—all of which he illustrates with examples drawn from his own idyllic upbringing.
By learning once again to “pay attention” to this vast web of interrelationships, Purdy concludes, we can be lifted above our mere “quantum selves,” finding joy and fulfillment in a restored and genuinely public existence—a term that, for him, points to the cultivation and improvement of “the commons,” the world we all share.
Needless to say, Jedediah Purdy’s themes are not exactly new. In fact, they are among the most venerable in the history of Western thought and sentiment. Man is by nature a political animal. No man is an island. Who gains his life loses it, and who loses his life gains it. And so on.
But it is one thing to invoke such worthy themes and quite another to apply them with any sophistication to the complex reality of one’s own day. Purdy’s pretensions and weaknesses are precisely the characteristic failings of a bookish young person whose reach exceeds his grasp. He has thought a lot about the things he has experienced—indeed, he intellectualizes everything around him—but he has as yet experienced very little.
Purdy is no doubt right to fault his classmates for failing to take seriously their emotions and commitments, their lives in the broadest sense. As he points out—in one of the book’s few genuine insights—great fearfulness and self-distrust lurk behind this façade of insouciance. Still, consequential though these corrosive attitudes may be, students from the elite schools that Jedediah Purdy has attended are hardly representative of the American mind.
What, then, explains the seemingly undeniable fact that public life has deteriorated in contemporary America? Well, one can think of lots of things beyond the decision of Harvard graduates to “opt out” of public concerns (a phenomenon—if in fact it exists—that one might be mischievously tempted to describe as a net gain for American public life). Purdy might have considered, for instance, the imposition of a range of controversial liberal policies through the courts and regulatory agencies rather than through democratic elections; the “culture wars” that have arisen in the wake of such advances, making it virtually impossible to agree on those things that compose our “commons”; and the reign of politically-correct speech, which has done so much to sap the vitality and honesty of public discourse. As for overcoming current public apathy, one might have expected Purdy to give serious consideration to, say, devolving governmental decision-making to the local level, where responsible citizenship can be more readily exercised.
But Purdy evidently has not given much thought to any of these things—or if he has, is unwilling to depart from the conventional liberal wisdom that is as much a part of the social and educational environment in which he has spent the last several years as the ironic detachment that he so passionately decries. In the end, his moral exhortations amount to little more than nebulous uplift of a rather familiar political variety.
At the same time—and this bears emphasis—it would be a mistake to make too much of For Common Things. Lord knows, Jedediah Purdy certainly wants to be taken seriously, but it is impossible in reading his book not to be reminded again and again that one is in the presence of a very young man and intellectually a very immature one.
There are the expected sorts of errors: attributing quotations to Thoreau that really belong to Emerson, providing a mistaken etymology for the word “public,” etc. Then there is the writing style—self-importantly academic and abstract, bordering at times on malapropism. “Emotions,” Purdy opines in a typically overfreighted sentence, “have attracted relentless and often vapid attention in recent decades, abetted by the confessional culture of talk shows and choreographed political repentance that makes such concern unabashedly public.” Finally, there is the humorless earnestness of this apostle of “the reality of things,” with his implicit judgment that all who do not share his sentiments are guilty of bad faith or “inattention.”
Having taught a number of bright students very much like Purdy, I could not shake the intuition that what I was reading was a revised and expanded version of an undergraduate thesis. I have no idea whether there is any basis for that feeling, but if Jedediah Purdy had been my student, I hope I would have cared enough about him to say, “Don’t publish this.” Clearly, those in a position to give Purdy such advice refrained from doing so.
But then again, the actual contents of For Common Things have much less to do with the noise it is making than the carefully created persona surrounding its author. If we did not know who Jedediah Purdy is—an improbable combination of Appalachian authenticity and Harvard-Yard smarts—we would read his words very differently, if at all. Is there not wonderful irony in the fact that a book disparaging the world of false surfaces and advocating a life of simplicity and candor should rely so heavily for its appeal on the most obvious sort of imagemongering?