Purdy, who had moved to New York City only days before, met with PW at a midtown Italian restaurant to discuss his new book, Being America. A home-schooled graduate of Harvard and Yale Law School who has recently begun clerking for a federal judge, Purdy has the remarkable skill—a politician's skill—of speaking in fully formed paragraphs, even while eating.
PW: How did you react to the reception of the first book, For Common Things, calling you the voice of your generation?
Jedediah Purdy: I was only 24 when I wrote that book, and it's still a little hard for me to concentrate all my feelings about it. There is the perpetual appetite to find out what the next young attitude is going to be. It's a pretty impoverished place to start with in trying to think about culture now. I'm inclined to think there is so much variety of experience and relatively little in the way of overwhelming, unifying experience. The idea that I was supposed to be a generational spokesperson struck me as not all that plausible.
PW: People didn't know whether to call you a conservative or a liberal. Where do you stand?
JP: My own point of view is idiosyncratic, which is normal these days. People wanted a book that fell into a category that made them comfortable by familiarity. I don't think the new book will allow that, either. I've got a real concern about inequality of resources and of power, and a pretty strong worry about the environmental situation. Not a surprising set of concerns, pretty conventional liberal attitudes. But I've also got a pretty conservative temperament and a philosophical view toward what's needed to fulfill these progressive aims.
PW: Do you think the second book builds on the first?
JP: The first book is obviously a young man's book: the question is, how am I going to think about this? And the new book is really an attempt to think about something in that fashion. It's about globalization politics and America's place in the world. I became interested in people who were at the margins of a world where America was so much at the center of imaginative and cultural life, as well as economic and political power. I think that may have been because of my experience of having come from one of the margins of the American world, West Virginia, and having grown up on the margins of those margins—because my parents were not from there, though I was born there—and having gone to places that consider themselves the center of American civilization, Harvard and Yale, and feeling on the margins there. It gave me a fascination about the relationships between margins and centers and led me to thinking about our relationship with the rest of the world.
PW: There are so many contradictory attitudes to the U.S. abroad: how is it possible to ascertain the truth about what people think of us?
JP: I think the voices of the people I met and spoke to will ring true. I also hope it's apparent to anyone reading the book, unlike most Americans sympathetic to people outside the U.S., this isn't a book by someone who doesn't like or hates America. The two types of writers most willing to talk about American empire are triumphalists on the one hand—William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and the National Interest, who's sort of a muse for people in the Bush administration—and, on the other side, people like Noam Chomsky. I think the book makes clear that I'm neither. I'm an American liberal in the old tradition of skeptical patriotism.
PW: You've been criticized as being almost too sincere or earnest in your writing. Do you now think that's at all valid?
JP: I hope that since the author comes in good faith, it makes some difference to the reader.