Books,  Stateside

Terry Eagleton looks at America

Carlin Romano reviews Terry Eagleton’s book Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America:

Across the Pond chiefly shows why it’s dangerous to offer British academics secondary or tertiary appointments at American universities (in Eagleton’s case, at Notre Dame). They become know-it-alls…

A large part of Eagleton’s outrage rides on the familiar George Bernard Shaw quip about two countries divided by a common language—mocking our use, for example, of “bathroom” and “restroom” for public closets where people neither bathe nor rest. A predictable, arch tone about obvious targets appears quickly, usually with enough overkill to sour the point. “If the word ‘awesome’ were banned from American speech,” Eagleton assures, “airplanes would fall from the skies, cars would lurch wildly off freeways, elevators would shudder to a halt between floors, and goldfish would commit suicide by leaping despairingly from their bowls.”

Yeah, yeah.

Never using one example when his editor will permit him four, Eagleton grows tiresome in this mode—seemingly determined to clinch his case by always overriffing on each crime he detects against the English language: “The British use the rather beautiful word ‘children’ far more often than Americans do, who tend to prefer the ugly, demeaning monosyllable ‘kids.’ It is surprising that a nation so scrupulous about political correctness should be content to regard its offspring as small smelly goats. Perhaps portraits of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus should be renamed ‘Madonna and Kid.’ Clinics could specialize in kid psychology. Wordsworth’s line ‘The Child is Father of the Man’ could be rewritten as ‘The Kid is Old Man of the Guy.’”

Yeah, yeah. (If he had criticized the annoying American habit of referring to people in their late teens and early twenties as “kids,” he’d have a point.)

We are, as USA Today might put it if the paper ever risked a curmudgeonly tone, “mind-warpingly” obese munchers, “tastelessly dressed” tourists, “lexically challenged” writers, “severely addled” students, and middle-class plodders “permanently preoccupied” with money. We are prone to “constant moralising, sermonising and cheer-leading,” and live in a “one-party state” with a “Democratic capitalist party” and a “Republican capitalist party.”

I’ve grown to hate this last, smug observation, whether it comes from American leftists or foreign leftists. Can anyone read, for example, my posts about American politics and economics on this blog (usually from a fairly mainstream Democratic perspective), and the resulting comments, and believe this to be the case?

Sometimes, in a more deadly serious register, Eagleton will remind self-satisfied Yanks of their diminished standing in the global ranking of key social indicators: “The United States has a higher proportion of its population in prison, higher levels of mental illness, greater rates of teenage pregnancy, a lower level of child well-being, and higher levels of poverty and social exclusion than most other developed nations.”

To which my ornery (and non-self-satisfied) American response is:

1) Yes, that is all true and shameful.

2) We don’t need you to tell us. So…

3) F**k off.