I 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:
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:
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:
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:
Terry Engleton certainly does understand America!