In the 1970’s, when I lived in America, McDonald’s, apart from being a fast-food chain, was a powerful symbol of everything that was wrong with that country. Neither I nor anybody I knew ever referred to the leviathan as a source of nourishment; invariably, its name was placed in a quarantine of ironic quotation marks, in the manner of Soviet dissidents speaking of Stalin’s constitution; and, if anyone did eat there, he kept it to himself, evasive as a respectable citizen who frequents a lugubrious part of town.
Either with voluble and thoroughgoing political theorizing, like myself, or else tacitly, like many in my circle of acquaintance, everybody seemed to agree that McDonald’s was a significant step in the preparation of a global concentration-camp mentality, a state of mind enfeebled by Pavlovian conditioning whereby man accepts any kind of indignity in exchange for any kind of alimentation. It picked up where the authoritarian regimen of the school left off, in the dining hall, with its Dickensian rations of mystery meats and hydrocephalic potatoes. Obviously, in those days, none of my friends had served in the Army or been to prison, and the American private school was a common point of reference.
The McDonald’s polity was a convincing caricature of untrammeled democracy as the leveling tyranny so richly adumbrated by John Stuart Mill, as well as to some extent by several of America’s Founding Fathers. At the level of the most uncomplicated senses, it illustrated the parallels between the two varieties of capitalism, the Western-model, global-corporate kind and the Nazi-Soviet, totalitarian-state kind.
Finally, the polity backed up rather neatly into the residual tradition of Puritan intolerance verging on meanness verging on cruelty. Suffice it to remind the reader that Dr. Kellogg, he of the cornflake way, became the nation’s authority on nutrition thanks to the runaway success of a book entitled Plain Facts About Sexual Life, largely a manual on the prevention of self-abuse and, more generally, on the suppression of what the doctor termed “the unnatural excitement of the animal propensities.”
In the 1980’s, after I had more or less emigrated to Britain, my hostility to McDonald’s only intensified. To the reasons already enumerated was added colonial resentment: “Why should there be a McDonald’s in Leicester Square, and isn’t everything that’s repulsive about this dump the fault of there being a McDonald’s right over there?” It was as though a fiery exhalation of the globalized Godzilla had torn the guts out of a peaceful and picturesque Japanese village; cut to mother screaming. Everything that followed the 1980’s, in fact, seemed to have about it the historical inevitability inherent to the horror genre, from the Kelloggization or “dumbing down” of English newspapers to the passing of British publishing to transnational conglomerates, from the effective disbanding of the House of Lords to the new English cooking. McGodzilla, Scourge of the First World.
In the 1990’s I was spending most of my time in Italy. Periodic sojourns in London threw up a curious novelty—namely, that the more sophisticated and glamorous the whole metropolitan scene appeared, the more characterless, insipid, and foolish was the food people ate. In 1985, for instance, there was hardly a place in London that made an Italian espresso. In 1995, there were hundreds of such places, each proffering a large cup of dirty dishwater—usually to accompany a sandwich described on the menu as “a panini”—at the cost of a three-course meal anywhere in provincial Italy. By 2005, some of the fanciest restaurants in town had only the prices to distinguish themselves from McDonald’s; every Londoner was now obliged to dine at whatever branch of it he could afford.
At the lowest end of the scale, moreover, as my novel experience of abject indigence soon revealed, the score was decidedly in favor of the original. The American institution, which I had imperceptibly begun to think of—along with Coca-Cola, Heinz beans and ketchup, and even Grape-Nuts—as The Real Thing, now seemed a haven of unpretentiousness in the sea of tomfoolery and grandiloquence, to say nothing of salmonella. For eating in a pub was no longer a reasonable or even safe alternative; this was no longer the ploughman’s and the pint; rather, it was the spinach lasagna, the panna cotta, and the chardonnay that combined in wholly unexpected ways to arrest digestion for many a night of silent anguish. The background music, too, was slightly better at McDonald’s, at least in the sense that it was ever so slightly quieter.
In these last 30 years, Europe has so progressed—I mean, with respect to such palpable realities as government, sovereignty, liberty, press, family, education, culture, and gastronomy—that the vital difference in the degree of collectivism that made me quit the United States in the first instance is now a matter of argument. If, when in London, I now take my morning coffee in the McDonald’s on Edgware Road—at £1.19, exactly the same travesty as anywhere else at twice the price—then it is no longer inconceivable that one day I should find myself writing for the National Enquirer. Perhaps even The New Criterion.