The Return of Jedediah Purdy


Scourge of smart-alecks, butt of Saturday Night Live gags, whipping boy for underemployed culture critics… Back in the nineties, Jedediah Purdy was all these things and more, on the strength of his book, For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today. Although the Washington Post still calls him "ubiquitous," the only thing I've seen from Purdy in the past few years was a sidebar in Esquire, and with his biggest boast being that he's affiliated with a Hot Think Tank, I figured him for another unsung victim of September 11. So it's good to see Purdy, a sadder and a wiser man, back in action, grappling with our changed new world in a think piece for The Atlantic. (Is it too much to hope that Clinton-era sensations Quentin Tarantino, Newt Gingrich and Wendy from Snapple might get second acts of their own?) Having disposed of cynicism, Purdy now takes on the great debate over Trust, and his arsenal of Ye Olde Hornbook aphorisms ("Mistrust is not bad in itself. A polity of suckers is no better than a nation of cynics."), airy generalizations ("before the controversy over Vietnam got ugly"), and dubious policy ideas ("Funding AmeriCorps and other volunteer programs will help.") will undoubtedly send all foes packing.

The important question, then, is what fosters a trustworthy government. At least part of the answer appears to be interpersonal trust—the supposition that most other people are trustworthy. Suspicious people are less likely to join associations, follow public events, get to know their neighbors, or make contact with their congresspersons. In fact, they are less likely than others to do just about anything except watch TV and flip off other drivers on the highway. That means they are not the kinds of citizens who are likely to hold government accountable, intelligently and regularly, and thus keep it trustworthy.

The irony in all this is that back when he first ran the media gauntlet of envy and skepticism, the one person Purdy could trust to give him a tough-but-fair interview was the late Tim Cavanaugh—who even during the boom times flew so low that a second ride on the nineties comet is a truly horrifying thought.