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A call to reclaim lost public values


Over the past few years, there has been no shortage of provocative books decrying the current state of politics and culture in American society. Most recently, historian Andrew Delbanco surveyed the shrinkage of the American soul in his lucid and thoughtful "The Real American Dream" (reviewed Sept. 9).

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But it is easier to enumerate problems than to come up with viable solutions. And often, those who do try to suggest a positive approach end up sounding vacuous or banal.

One sterling exception to this rule is Jedediah Purdy's "For Common Things." It is the kind of book one finds oneself recommending unreservedly to friends, colleagues, and neighbors. It is filled with trenchant insights, thoughtful analyses, solid suggestions, and a mature wisdom rarely found among would-be prophets and futurists, a wisdom all the more remarkable coming from a young man who is still a student at Yale Law School.

Looking around him, Purdy aptly diagnoses what is wrong with the tenor of our times: "Our idea of success is an almost unworldly prosperity and security, our idea of failure the unextraordinary existence that most of us actually lead."

A native of West Virginia who grew up on a farm, this young writer brings a strong sense of reality and common sense to the issues he discusses.

He also shows a sophisticated understanding of the various factors that have led many Americans to feel that politics is a dirty word. Purdy perceives a widespread attitude of ironic indifference, as citizens retreat, not only from taking an active part in politics, but even from talking and thinking about public issues: "The most prevalent attitude toward politics after indifference treats it as a hybrid of spectator sport and People magazine's celebrity culture," he notes. "The Sunday-morning talk shows are fodder for the sports-fan stance, providing competitive accounts of who's up, who's down, and what the smart money is on the coming week."

It is only recently, as Purdy points out, that the word "public" has become associated with "undesirable, inefficient, second-rate," and the word "private" endowed with an aura of privilege and desirability. But the word "public," he reminds us, means the people and is the source of "republic." Whereas the

etymological root of "private" is linked to "privation," someone or something denied the status of public life.

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Purdy quite brilliantly links several seemingly unrelated manifestations of our dangerous retreat into the private realm. What does the gung-ho entrepreneur have in common with the credulous person who believes a guardian angel will fulfill her most trivial wish? Both, he claims, imagine that reality will automatically bend to their will. Both are in flight from the shared realm of action and discourse that is public life. So, too, is the individual whom Purdy calls the ironic skeptic: the person who "knows better" than to get involved in anything besides looking out for No. 1.

Not only in America, but throughout the world, there is a dangerous - and, as Purdy argues, utterly erroneous - belief that "politics should stand back and let economics do its work." But the proliferation of McDonald's fast-food joints is no guarantee of human rights. Allowing the marketplace to "do its work" in Purdy's home state has resulted in the coal industry's removal of mountaintops and despoliation of the environment.

'Our private lives - our work, our families, our circles of friends - are pervasively affected by things that can never be private: law and political institutions, economics and culture," Purdy declares. "Indeed, the interdependence of public and private is so great that speaking of them as separate is often misleading."

What, after all, can be more dangerous to every private life than a society of individuals who do not care about the consequences their actions may have on the rest of the world? In the long run, clean air and water, public health, safe homes, schools, workplaces, and a living wage benefit everyone. It is, as Purdy suggests, a kind of "maintenance" work, a work of preservation and attentiveness that's needed rather than the "Promethean" heroics - and the inevitable disillusionment - of revolutionary politics.

In one of the most important insights of this unusually insightful book, Purdy identifies a great pitfall of the moderate and reasonable kind of politics he preaches: The commonsensical goals that you find yourself proposing over and over again begin to sound too much like the empty bromides mouthed by the wrong sort of politician.

But, as Purdy takes pains to show us, there are many examples that can inspire us, from the dissidents of Central Europe to the watchful environmentalists of West Virginia. He also reminds us that we participate in public life not only when we attend a meeting, serve on a jury, vote in elections, or run for office, but when we practice our professions or raise our children in a way that serves the common good. To read his book is an eye-opening experience - and a heartening one.

The antidote to ennui

Skepticism about public life finds an answer not in mere declaration, but in people who make public responsibility an integral part of themselves. To establish the necessity of public things is only half the argument against the social withdrawal of the lifestyle enclave and the psychic withdrawal of unremitting irony; one must also establish that taking responsibility is viable. The full response to despair is not just to invoke hope, but to generate it.

- From 'For Common Things'

*Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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