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Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
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Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom

A-A Tolerable AnarchyNow a professor of law at Duke University, Jedediah Purdy is best known for the book he published in his mid-20s, For Common Things (1999), a sermon against irony and for public responsibility.

The Topic: In his third book, Jedediah Purdy continues to elaborate on his interest in the common good in American life. Drawing his title from a speech in which the British philosopher Edmund Burke defended American liberty, he explores the intellectual evolution of American liberty over time, starting with the American Revolution and drawing upon thinkers from the Founding Fathers to Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, among others. Purdy, who examines ideas about capitalism, freedom, community, justice, and liberty, argues that our ideas of freedom must continually adapt in order to survive. He is particularly insistent when he argues for what he feels must be the next adaptation: a recognition of the need to contain environmental destruction.
Knopf. 294 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 1400044472

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"With Purdy’s passionate engagement with ideas and American tradition, as well as his elegantly crafted prose, A Tolerable Anarchy makes an important contribution to American intellectual history. It also provides pleasure to anyone seeking serious thought about the meaning of American freedom." Chuck Leddy

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"Twenty years [after For Common Things], Purdy has matured as a writer and thinker, offering provocative ideas for a democracy that is showing signs of wear and tear. … Citing the distinctly original voice of Henry David Thoreau, who said that living honestly is the cornerstone of freedom and dignity, Tolerable Anarchy is a new and provocative way to look at the pressing environmental concerns of today." Bob Hoover

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Purdy’s A Tolerable Anarchy is a … philosophically cast meditation that, in part, attempts to grapple with the paradox of American individualism. … It is fair to describe this, he writes in one of his better-turned phrases, as ‘the politics of the American dream,’ but he cautions that our idea of freedom is deceptively simple, requiring both restraint and engagement from government, and autonomy and interdependence in civic affairs." Art Winslow

Philadelphia Inquirer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As with a good after-dinner talk, we leave entertained, edified, provoked, and slightly drowsy." John W. Morris

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Jedediah Purdy creates an idea-packed sandwich in A Tolerable Anarchy … Purdy’s thesis is a work in progress by an inventive mind in evolution, a didactic and synoptic tour of American thoughts on freedom. It is sound descriptively, less sagacious prescriptively." Gary Hart

Critical Summary

What all critics appreciated about A Tolerable Anarchy was the rich intellectual history Purdy has constructed; more than one reviewer compared the book to a college course with a very engaging professor. But they were less certain about whether Purdy had reliably proved his particular thesis. In the New York Times Book Review, Gary Hart, the former senator and presidential candidate, compared Purdy’s book to Alan Wolfe’s recent title The Future of Liberalism and found the former the equivalent of a course for sophomores and the latter the equivalent of a course for seniors. Hart wrote that he did not intend this to be a criticism, but it was not quite praise, either. Nevertheless, Hart and others strongly endorsed the book, particularly the sections that try to reconcile American individualism with environmentalism.

Cited by the Critics

The Future of Liberalism | Alan Wolfe (2009): Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston College, defines liberalism through a core principle: "As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take." The Washington Post noted that Wolfe’s liberalism doesn’t fit neatly into the current political party system: "The book is also a gut check for liberals. It takes equal-opportunity aim at the left as well as the right—at those Wolfe sees as dogmatic, bullying advocates of abortion, multiculturalism and laws against hate speech as well as at those who oppose immigration and globalization."