Why do they hate us? Why do they love us? Why do they love us and then hate us? Why do they hate us and then love us? (OK, a little wishful thinking.)
No, not the terrorists; I’m talking about all those damn foreigners writing books about America. It’s been an international obsession since the United States began. The French incline downward from Tocqueville to Bernard-Henri Lévy to Baudrillard, and the Italians punch out lighthearted takes on their own tours in the New World, from Luigi Barzini’s O America, When You and I Were Young to Beppe Severgnini’s Ciao, America!
But the British—including Irish and Scottish who have become functionally English—are by any measure the worst of the lot, insisting inconsistently that they speak the native tongue but also don’t. They’ve been publishing these books forever—nearly every British intellectual and writer is a Tocqueville (or Tocqueville wannabe) waiting to happen.
On one level, of course, the attention is flattering. America is the biggest target in the world, and in the estimation of most futurists we’re still in the first-class section of the global zeitgeist. Aren’t all sentient Americans dying to hear what reflective Britishers think of us?
Well, probably not all. Still, the two latest offerings in this genre provide occasional snippets of transcultural insight and understanding. Across the Pond is a rambling, motormouthed pontification on the virtues, foibles, and delusions of America by Terry Eagleton, the longtime quasi-Catholic, loyally Marxist, interminably careerist academic who makes Slavoj Zizek look like a self-abnegating Simone Weil. To America with Love, for its part, proffers a politically incorrect and deeply wet kiss to the United States by A. A. Gill, the London journalist best known for outraging the Welsh, professional women, animal lovers (he once shot a baboon “to get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone”), and other eclectic constituencies. Together, Eagleton and Gill furnish a snapshot of how our British cousins view the American scene.
But first, a quick sideways thought on how we judge such books. The scholar Michael Wood suggested a useful criterion in America in the Movies, his idiosyncratic contribution to the cavalcade. Early on, Wood addresses the reader apologetically:
It is time for a mild confession. This is another one of those books by foreigners about America: a book by an Englishman who lives in New York. It presents all the drawbacks of the foreigner’s view, and I can only hope it shows a couple of the virtues. The great potential virtue, it seems to me, is a sight of things that have become invisible to the natives through familiarity or proximity, a sense of context and continuity where the natives tend to see only random change and crack-up.
Neither Eagleton nor Gill quite meets that standard, though each has his moments.
Eagleton’s 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. Across the Pond most closely resembles BAD and Class, the sardonic later works of Paul Fussell—slingshots from the prestigious literary scholar on a lark, unburdening his prejudices in any bloody way he pleases, with cheeks frequently stuffed of tongue.
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.”
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.’”
All of this carping about the unlovelier byways of American English advances Eagleton’s belief that “the culture of the word has taken something of a nose dive in today’s United States.” That, in turn, forms part of his familiar condescension to America. Harrumphing away, Eagleton adopts the monotonous and not infrequently maddening tone of a tosser who’s had too many in a corner of the pub.
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.” 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.”
Eagleton occasionally balances the on- slaught with shout-outs to the slivers of America he likes—e.g., Emily Dickinson and “magnificent bacon.” But with so many flaws and delusions, does it matter that we’re also “straight, honest and plain-speaking,” full of “emotional frankness and directness,” preternaturally “enthusiastic,” and “suspicious of the aloof, clinical and impersonal”? That we rank “among the most inventive, imaginative people ever to have walked the earth”? That the United States “is a land where for the most part things work”?
Not much. Especially if such putatively positive traits are, ultimately, indications of rampant egotism and lack of dignity. In the end, Eagleton fails to achieve Wood’s “potential virtue” in books of this kind: telling us fresh things about ourselves. His overarching explanation of Americanness—that “behind so much in the United States” lies “the culture of Puritanism, with its conviction that daily life is the arena of salvation and damnation”—is an old crutch less true than ever. Tell it to Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Eagleton copes with his problem—that he’s retailing clichés throughout—by repackaging them. Most of the time, he does so in a pedestrian way. So we hear that the qualities we most value in daily existence are “strength, heroism, glamour, spectacle, self-discipline, stamina, recklessness, a winning spirit, a consuming desire for wealth and ferocious competitiveness.” We’re also reminded of America’s “hunger for progress, achievement, expansion, advancement, possession, consumption.”
Sometimes the new packages glitter. When Eagleton’s at his mordant best—remarking brightly that in the United States “problems are not a problem,” and that here, “Christianity needs to be sanitised, modernised, de-Judaised, and Americanised, a project which is known among other things as the Mormon Church”—Across the Pond rises to a secondary virtue unmentioned by Wood: acerbic echo chamber of all the truisms we’ve encountered forever about America.
By contrast, Gill, who at times approaches radioactivity in British journalism for his scabrous remarks about one group or another, proves to be a poodle in the bounteous lap of these United States. The bulk of his appropriately titled love letter to America consists of hyperdescriptive sections loosely linked to the part of his Scottish family that took off for the New World (the initial move goes back generations).
This set of reportorial pieces covers a kaleidoscopic landscape, the parts not terribly interrelated except in Gill’s mind: Lincoln’s assassination, Topsy and electricity, elevators and skyscrapers, sex and Playboy magazine, the Midwest and loneliness, Emerson and the Transcendentalists, philanthropy, Alistair Cooke and Britain’s “special relationship” with America, German-American heritage, the Scopes trial, Kentucky and “mountain people,” D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the joy of New York, and personal ads in the New York Review of Books.
More provocative is Gill’s stalwart defense of all the things you’d expect an official socialist like Eagleton to hate and an employee of Rupert Murdoch’s flagship English paper to praise. Gill’s key chapter here is “Stupid,” which offers a rousing salute to how wonderful we Americans are, and a lament for how abused we tend to be by Europeans and a particular sort of English twit.
Gill’s unironic frontispiece quote—Emma Lazarus’s “Give me your tired, your poor . . .”—signals his reverence for “an America that grew to become the best and finest creation of Europe, the culmination of all its deepest aspirations . . . a creation that Europe can take no credit for.”
Gill’s stance as self-anointed defender of the US of A springs from his conviction that “Europe’s view of America has been formed and deformed by the truth that we are the ones who stayed behind, for all those good, bad and lazy reasons . . . but mostly, I suspect, because of habit and fear.”
Europeans have consequently developed, in Gill’s view, sharp ressentiment against America, and in “Stupid” he gleefully swings away at the old-world elite’s continuing vision of Americans as “stupid, crass, ignorant, soulless, naive oafs without attention, irony or intellect.
“These same people,” Gill notes, “will use every comforting, clever and ingenious American invention, will demand its medicine, wear American clothes, eat its food, drink its drink, go to its cinema, love its music, thank God for its expertise in a hundred disciplines, and will all adore New York.”
“Enough of this convivial rant,” he declares, “this collectively confirming bigotry. The nasty laugh of little togetherness, or Euro-liberal insecurity. It’s not just another lazy, thoughtless prejudice. It’s embarrassing, infectious and belittling.”
The rest of Gill’s chapter, and indeed much of his book, becomes a paean to America as “Europe’s greatest invention.” Don’t look for any Eagletonian balance here. As Gill writes of the Constitution, “There is not a stupid word or thought in it.”
Oh, I don’t know. Just think how much better off we’d be if the framers of the Bill of Rights had worded the Second Amendment better.
So: Why do they love us and hate us? Why do they keep writing books about us? Well, one can only point to the obvious: At age 237—no tyro as countries go—the United States remains an inconvenient behemoth plopped in the middle of the world’s main highway. Everyone, everywhere, must make some sense of us—even if, as in the case of Eagleton and Gill, we’ve heard most of it before.
Carlin Romano, critic at large of the Chronicle of Higher Education and a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College, is the author of America the Philosophical (Knopf, 2012), recently out in a Vintage paperback.