July 1, 2013


No Self-Mockery, Please, We're American (Terry Eagleton, 7/01/13, The Chronicle Review)

Despite all this, no more generous, open-minded, and enthusiastic group of students can be found in the world. American students tend to be courteous, responsive, cooperative, eager to acquire ideas and ready to criticize anything whatsoever, not least themselves. They are also the last group of students on the planet who are prepared to speak up in class.

One of the gravest moral defects of Americans is that they tend to be straight, honest, and plain-speaking. There have been various attempts to cure them of those vices, including the establishment of clinics where they can receive intensive therapy for their distressing tendency to mean what they say. Even with compulsory daily readings of Oscar Wilde, however, it is hard to rid them of the prejudice that there is something admirable about what you see being what you get. ("I live in constant fear of not being misunderstood," Wilde once remarked, a statement it is hard to imagine on the lips of Pat Robertson.)

For puritan types, appearances must correspond with realities, the outer presenting a faithful portrait of the inner, whereas irony involves a skewing of the two. To the puritan mind, appearances are acceptable only if they convey a substantial inner truth. Otherwise they are to be mistrusted as specious and superficial.

Hence the familiar American insistence that what matters about a person is what is inside. It is a claim that sits oddly with a society obsessed with self-presentation. There is no room here for what Lenin called the reality of appearances, no appreciation of just how profound surfaces can be, no rejoicing in forms, masks, and signifiers for their own sake.

In The American Scene, James writes of the country's disastrous disregard for appearances. For the Calvinist, a delight in anything for its own sake is sinful. Pleasure must be instrumental to some more worthy goal, such as procreation, rather as play on children's television in America must be tied to some grimly didactic purpose. It can rarely be an end in itself. The fact that there is no social reality without its admixture of artifice, that truth works in terms of masks and conventions, is fatally overlooked.

Language for the puritan is at its finest when it clings to the unvarnished facts. 

Because we eschew political correctness we can actually say what we mean.  It's why we have a monopoly on comedy.
Posted by at July 1, 2013 7:25 PM

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