American History

April 05, 2009|By Art Winslow | Art Winslow,Los Angeles Times

A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of America's Freedom

By Jedediah Purdy

Alfred A. Knopf / 294 pages / $23.95

Jebediah Purdy's book is loosely about pushing the boundaries of liberty and searching out the common good, in pursuit of what John Adams called "the sensations of freedom," often as revealed in presidential rhetoric.

Tracking the speeches of various U.S. presidents, he laments that "the divorce of civic identity from government, which Nixon set in motion, is nearly complete in Bush's speeches," and that in this conceptual shift, government "is the thing that went away and cleared the space now filled by private virtue."

The Myth of American Exceptionalism

By Godfrey Hodgson

Yale University Press / 222 pages / $26

Godfrey Hodgson, an associate fellow at an American studies institute at Oxford University, sketches out international contexts from the American Revolution forward. He points out that the American revolt was but one theater in a global struggle between England and France.

Hodgson takes pains to point out that principles of the revolution were "deeply rooted in European origins" and English Common Law but that Americans were "increasingly attracted to a national ideology that cast them as redeemers of a sinful world."

Other than that distinction, much of his historical overview is an attempt to correct the record by showing how similar experience was in U.S. and European industrial nations, eroding the perception of American difference.

Several of Hodgson's points, sadly, show how very unexceptional - or negatively exceptional - America is: Our incarceration rate is among the highest in the world (along with Russia's); as of 2006, our life expectancy ranked 25th among sovereign states; 33 countries or territories had lower infant mortality rates; and a 2003 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked the United States 24th educationally, out of 29 nations.

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