Magazine article The Spectator

Uncle Sam on the Couch

Magazine article The Spectator

Uncle Sam on the Couch

Article excerpt

GOD WON'T SAVE AMERICA by George Walden Gibson Square Books, £16.99, pp. 302, ISBN 190393379X . £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

According to George Walden, the United States is a country with a psychosis, which the dictionary defines as a serious mental disorder characterised by, for example, delusions and a lack of insight into his condition on the part of the patient. No wonder that even sympathetic foreigners, says Walden, understand less than ever what makes America tick. This book is his attempt to enlighten them.

'How can America's intellectual and technological sophistication be reconciled with primitive attitudes on gun law and capital punishment?' asks Walden. 'How can its creed of self-seeking be combined with its religiosity? And how can its culture be at once infantile and highly mature?' Why, in particular, is American society 'manically sexualised'? Easy, he says: it is all the fault of the Puritans. Putting America on the couch, he examines its contradictions, hypocrisies and neuroses, in everything from sex and crime to business and foreign policy. All, he declares, can be explained by the enduring influence of this bunch of early English immigrants.

Part essay, part rant, often perceptive, sometimes wildly wide of the mark, his analysis contains lots of good stuff and is mostly rather enjoyable. The 'mental isolation' of America, the narcissism of its incumbent president, the paradox of a country that is curious about everything except abroad:

these are among the many topics elegantly picked over. His carefree approach to the central proposition (never mind the spelling, punctuation or footnotes) allows a few sideswipes at non-Americans, too: Russia is crippled by 'chronic immobilism', Britain is 'an ex-world power, on whose willingness to make international judgments the sun never sets', and so on. And on the Puritans, those 'utopian pessimists', Walden is subtle and interesting. On the ubiquity of their influence, though, he is unconvincing.

First, his ability to attribute to them all the oddities of modern America is possible only with an attitude to logic that is as elastic as his treatment of evidence is Procrustean.

Unwelcome facts are either ignored or dismissed. Thus Walden claims that the Lewinsky affair -- the open discussion of the presidential penis, the sexual inquisition, the debate about the varying methods of sexual congress --showed how much the times have remained Puritan, and if they also showed how far America has strayed from its traditional Puritan reserve that also, apparently, makes his point. Then there is the 'cropped' prose style inherited from the Puritans by Americans such as Hemingway, in which 'even commas are seen as sinful'. So what about Henry James and those American writers who go in for decorative elaboration? Oh, they are evidence of the 'inevitable reaction'.

American business, notes Walden, is both free-market and interventionist. That just shows how much it owes to the Puritans. The country's high crime rate is likewise asserted to be as much attributable to the Puritan cult of individualism as to the consequences of slavery, ghetto life and poverty. And, by the way, America's 'new religion is "cool"... Everyone and everything in America now claims to be easy, relaxed, playing behind the beat. …

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