Terry Eagleton’s Across the Pond

Across the PondI am a big fan of Terry Eagleton’s books, so I was quite excited to read his newest book, Across the Pond. It is subtitled, “An Englishman’s view of America.” It is a subject that he has a special expertise in, given that his wife and pretty much his children are Americans. So it should come as no surprise that he has a fondness for we colonists. But he’s also quite clear about our foibles. And he is very entertaining in talking about them.

The overriding attitude that Eagleton takes is that Britain is superior to America, but only because you can’t get a decent cut of tea in the latter. This sits rather well with me, because I feel very much out of place here in the land of coffee. Tea is my drink of choice, yet Starbucks seems determined to destroy any of the extremely poor teas they stock. Can an entire civilization be judged on its handling of tea? I think so and apparently so does Eagleton.

On a more serious level (Taking nothing away from tea!) he discusses how freedom works in the United States. Here, thanks to the First Amendment, we have more explicit freedoms. For example, I’ve written at least one book that would not be legal in the United Kingdom. But as a result of this greater explicit freedom, there is far more social pressure on people to behave. Now libertarians and the like would claim this is a good thing because it isn’t the government telling you what to do. This is something I’ve never understood: freedom is freedom. It doesn’t really matter how it comes about. If the masses are serfs because of the government or just because corporations have so much power, it hardly matters.

Eagleton distinguishes between this American “you have rights but you aren’t supposed to use them” and the more formally restricted English system. What it means is that Americans are for a kind of theoretical freedom, where the British are for practical freedom:

The British dislike authority not because they are opposed to the state on principle, but because they want to be left alone to breed pigeons or attend classes in flower arranging. They do not want to be free of regulation so that they can aspire, rise through the ranks or accumulate profit, but so that they can putter about as they please. They are not so much individualist as idiosyncratic. Their resentment of those in charge is less politically militant than passive aggressive. It is part the the “free-born Englishman” syndrome, which is less strident and self-conscious than the “free American” complex.

I doubt that many people would disagree with this contrast. And this does get to perhaps my biggest problem with America: the greatest good is money. That’s such a thin notion of good. After all, regardless of what we do in life, the best we can hope for is that at the age of 95, we are able to putter around the garden. But the issue is bigger than that. It isn’t that money isn’t a perfectly fine obsession. It is that in America, money is considered the only acceptable obsession.

This gets at the very central characteristic of modern American politics. The great political divide is between idealism and realism. The problem with this is that now this divide exists almost entirely along partisan lines. The Republicans have an ideology and are not at all interested in the practical consequences of it. The Democrats have no ideology and are only interested in the practical consequences of policy. This is a terrible state of affairs. It leads to conservatism that is immune to facts and liberalism that is rudderless. It also leads to two political parties that effectively speak different languages. The result of this is that the Democrats have been pulled inexorably to the ideological edge along with the Republicans, skewing our politics far to the right of what the vast majority of Americans actually want.

Eagleton gets at this problem:

Whereas Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes, the United States multiplies options. No restaurant in Britain would ask you how you liked your fried eggs, any more than they would ask you what exotic national costume you would like your waiter to be dressed in. Choice in the States is a paramount value. “I’ve made my choices” is a common American phrase, meaning among other things that one is the author of one’s own existence rather than ignominiously shaped by circumstance. Life is a self-authoring narrative in which, unlike Oedipus or Anna Karenina, you get to decide what happens to you. It is therefore all the more surprising that there is so little political choice in the country. In fact, the United States is a one-party state. There is the Democratic capitalist party and the Republican capitalist party. The diversity of political options hardly rivals the variety of candy bars.

Put another way: America is a fraud. We are a country where everyone can have their eggs prepared just the way they like them but who have no real choice when it comes to important things like who is going to make your laws or who is going to determine whether you can pay your bills.

I should be clear, though. This is my take on the issues that Eagleton discusses. He is much more positive about it. And he is also well aware that there are many Yankees like me who find life in America an uncomfortable experience. In “The Outgoing Spirit” chapter, he applies Milan Kundera’s idea of the angelic and demonic views of the world:

The opposite of the angelic for Kundera, predictably enough, is the demonic, by which he means the language of the cynical and nihilistic, one with too little meaning rather than (like the angelic) one stuffed with sonorous cliches. There is enough demonic discourse in the States to suit anyone’s taste, but the fact remains that the official rhetoric of the country (which, on should stress, is far from the discourse of everyday life) is too pious, elevated, hand-on-heart and histrionic for us jaded Europeans. A dash of the demonic would do it no harm. The demonic can be found in the edgy, abrasive, sardonic speech of New York Jews, which is much closer to the Irish than it is to the Midwest. When they hear angelic American speech—”this great country of ours,” “let freedom ring forth,” and the like—most Europeans simply stare at their shoes and wait for it to stop, as some people do whenever Schoenberg comes on the radio. Many Americans, to be fair, find this kind of language just as excruciating.

And that should give you a good idea of where Eagleton is coming from. Just the same, as I read Across the Pond, I was struck by just how much of a real American I am. Despite myself, I really do have a “can do” attitude. And I am rather more positive than I would like to be. And in his conclusion to the book, I think he sums up both America and me, though I do wish he were wrong:

The good news about the citizens of this kindly, violent, bigoted, generous-spirited nation is that if ever the planet is plunged into nuclear war, they will be the first to crawl over the edge of the crater, dust themselves down, and proceed to build a new world. The bad news is that they will probably have started the war.

Terry Engleton certainly does understand America!

3 thoughts on “Terry Eagleton’s Across the Pond

  1. I will definitely check this out. Such a brilliant writer.

    On the American quest for money, from Taibbi’s "The Divide":

    "People in America hide financial need like they hide sexual perversions. Why? Because there’s a direct correlation between need and rights. The more you need, the more you owe, the fewer rights you have.

    "Conversely, the less you need, the more you have, the more of a free citizen you get to be. On the extreme ends of this spectrum it is literally a crime to be poor, while a person with enough money literally cannot be prosecuted for certain kinds of crimes."

    Since Day One, Americans have been criticized by Europeans for being money-obsessed. Once upon a time, that was because we had no class system, and many misunderstand what that meant. Many think that our lack of a class system meant that any American could succeed if she/he had the gumption; it never meant that. What it meant was that rich Americans had no sense of obligation towards taking care of their tenants. Granted, rich Europeans who were supposed to take care of their tenants rarely did, and some American plutocrats threw the poor a bone or two, so it probably was a wash.

    Today, as in the beginning, criticizing Americans for being money-obsessed is both apt and misguided. Of course we’re money-obsessed. Unless we have enough, we’re second (or third, or fourth) class citizens. The rules/the law ostensibly apply to all equally, but everyone knows that you can’t fight a mistake on your hospital bill or shitty treatment by your landlord unless you can pay a lawyer to fight for you, and if you can, you don’t care about that mistake on your hospital bill, you don’t receive as shitty treatment from your landlord.

    What’s odd, to me, is how internalized these values are. Nobody even imagines resistance to them. If you get fucked . . . well, you should have been richer. (Our "post-racial" politics amount to "you should have been richer.")

    Just about everybody in America feels they personally are boned, yet few feel as though the others who got boned didn’t deserve it. Accordingly, we cling to our status symbols like refugees clinging to some meagre, desperate personal possession on the boat, in the internment camp. As though such things will protect us.

    Reagan, in hindsight, was the most important American political figure, ever. He was a good actor who did a good job expressing what American power has always wanted Americans to believe — that resistance is not only futile, but somehow immoral.

  2. @JMF – Thanks for the quote. I’ve requested the book, but it hasn’t come.

    Yeah, I think that America is the most class based advanced economy. And it is largely because most people believe in this myth that we are classless.

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