Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Before the Demonstrations: A Call to Civic Responsibility

For Common Things:  Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today
Jedediah Purdy
Vintage Books, Copyright 1999

Myself, I'm a cynic, not anywhere near as hopeful as an ironist, but still I found this book fascinating.  Purdy is idealistic in the truest sense without, amazingly, becoming either dogmatic or partisan, and while I may not agree with all of his politics,  the landscape he paints depicting the way contemporary Americans think is flawless.  Granted, the Millenium was still on the horizon when this book was printed, and the insane economic environment we now find ourselves in was just a glint in the eye of some mortgage packager at a Wall Street firm, but the way we think about the world around us, as he describes it, still rings true.

"We live in the disappointed aftermath of a politics that aspired to change the human predicament in elemental ways, but whose hopes have resolved into heavy disillusionment.  We have difficulty trusting the speech and thought that we might use to try to make sense of our situation.   We have left behind an unreal hope to fall into a hopelessness that is inattentive to and mistrustful of reality."

"To talk about politics today is to presume insincerity.  It is the first requirement of even modest political sophistication to understand that public figures neither say what they mean nor mean what they say.  Rather than expressions of conviction, public statements are moves made according to an elaborate game.  The thing to understand is not what is said, but the goal that the speaker is manipulating us to achieve....For most people, especially young adults contemplating careers, the view of politics as self-serving theater is uninspiring."

There are very few books dealing with civic life and politics that actually make an effort to show the issues from all perspectives.  This is emphatically one of them.

Many of us have heard comments like "Sheeple just go along with everything, why don't they fight back?"  "Why don't any of the young folks get involved in politics?"  "Why are people so apathethic when clearly things are broken?"  "Why don't people attend City Council meetings?" and on and on.  Purdy attempts to tackle these questions in the context of our cultural attitude - one of irony.  We don't trust anything politicians say, we aren't sure we can fix anything, and we aren't really willing to risk being seen as someone with strong opinions.  In short, we've become wimps, and it's killing our society.  He, of course, is a bit less caustic about it, and a lot more willing to explain where, in our cultural psyche, all of this comes from.

He also takes the time to be sure we're all on the same page as far as definitions go, something that we've not seen in political discussion in quite some time.  What do we mean when we talk about "public service," and what's the relationship and history of the terms "public" and "private" and how have their definitions changed over time?

There are some places where things can get a bit pedantic, but considering Purdy is a professor, he's done a good job of keeping the arguments solid without getting overly pompous and throwing big words around.  He wants the reader to understand.   Even though he brings in writers, who are often discussed in politics and philosophy classes, as diverse as Karl Marx, Nietzsche, and Montaigne, they are mentioned in context, and including them makes sense.   At many points in this book there were "Aha moments" where the reader knows exactly what he's referring to and can say "yes, I've absolutely seen that" even while taking on topics that range from the insincerity of political communication to dissident movements in Eastern Europe, to being equally wary of both King Coal and carbon footprint politics.

This is a book that makes you think.  Not only about the way our culture colors our politics, but about our individual civic awareness and responsibilities.  His views open a possible path to a better future that doesn't involve spin, partisanship, ideological wrangling, or activist demonstrations,  but still insists that we get off our butts and start participating in the politics swirling around us.   All without spin.  Amazing.

For Common Things gets five stars in my view, and while it's not the easiest of reads because he is very thorough in his explanations, it's well worth the time and intellectual stimulation that comes from reading something that makes sense of the seemingly chaotic political inconsistencies we deal with on a daily basis.


  1. Good post,really informative being a public administration student.

  2. Someone sent me this review at random. As the author, I was really glad to see the book is still spurring thought. Thank you.


We'd love to hear from you! Tell us what you're reading, what you want us to review, how we're doing, or just comment on the blog!