Quite simply, the best cultural review in the world
by Conrad Black
A review of After America: Get Ready for Armageddon by Mark Steyn
was right!Support The
It is impossible to read Mark Steyn for more than a couple of paragraphs without encountering a startling aperçu, formulated in arresting terms and usually with a felicitous wit surpassing the highest level of professional comedians and punch-liners. Whether in straight works of reportage, such as his immortal treatment of the events around the impeachment of President Clinton (“Air Force One is back in its hangar”), or more ambitious analyses such as he provides in his new book, After America, he always exposes problems with greater clarity and in starker (and more entertaining) terms than others have.1
Steyn (and I should reveal that we are friends and have often been associated with the same publications and remain so at the National Review Online) has become one of the great people in the information industry throughout the English-speaking world. He is a cult figure whose previous book, America Alone, was a bestseller and who even raises the ratings of the mighty Rush Limbaugh when he is the guest host on that radio show.
After America is in all respects a worthy sequel to America Alone. The earlier book extolled America’s heroic status as the chief and only plausible resister to the degeneration of the West and the endless primitive depredations of militant Islam, carried out with the mischievous connivance of a greedy and malevolent China. In the sequel, Steyn recounts the spectacular failure of the United States to meet that challenge. As these books are more or less snapshots of exquisite vividness of the World According to Mark, there is not a great deal of emphasis on the irony of America leading the world to the triumph of democracy, free enterprise, and ordered individualism, but then swiftly eroding as an exemplar of everything that produced its vertiginous and almost uninterrupted two-century rise.
Having led the defeat of Nazi-occupied Europe; armed and orchestrated the greatest and most bloodless strategic victory (over Soviet Communism) in the history of the nation state; and seen off the brief commercial challenge of Japan, the United States has suddenly become, in Richard Nixon’s cautionary words of 1971, “a pitiful, helpless, giant.”
After America ticks off the boxes that line the conveyer belt of American decline. While his lamentations are frequently hilarious, the tenor of the book is sober, and only an outline in the last chapter of how the strength and courage of olden times can be retrieved saves the reader from having to swim for his life in a sea of persuasive gloom.
All the shortcomings of the current West are trotted out in vintage Steynese, reinforced by startling statistics. In the eighteen months following the economic crisis of September, 2008, 7 million Americans lost their jobs, but the percentage of federal government employees earning over $100,000 rose from 14 to 19; the number of Transportation Department employees earning over $170,000 annually rose from one to 1,690. In the year following the $800 billion Obama “stimulus,” unemployment increased by 2.5 million despite the engagement of 416,000 new federal employees.
Steyn builds on the dire warning of Belshazzar’s Feast in the Book of Daniel, “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin”; it is generally translated with the less mellifluous “You have been weighed in the balance and you have been found wanting.” Steyn holds that America, and most of the West, is addicted to borrowing from the future, largely for self-indulgent and nonessential pleasures and luxuries. In the name of an equitable society, the productive class is constantly being thrust into tighter and heavier bonds of taxation and regulation, and a coalition is developing between the unaccountable regulators and taxers and their direct beneficiaries, which will create a permanent majority of the unproductive that will steadily oppress and demotivate and drive out the wealth generators. (The Health and Human Services secretary “shall develop oral healthcare components that shall include tooth-level surveillance—from colonial subjects to dentured servants in a mere quarter-millennium.”)
“We the people” has given way to “We the people who know better than you other people,” and America is ruled not by a meritocracy, “but by a cartel of conformicrats imposing a sterile monopoly of outmoded ideas.” Where George III’s authoritarian monarchy consisted of “a pantalooned emissary (who) might come prancing into your door-yard every half-decade,” the authoritarian regulators are relentless. “What the hell did you . . . bother holding a revolution for? George III didn’t prosecute the Boston Tea Party for unlicensed handling of beverage ingredients in a public place.”
Steyn writes that the country is sclerotically seizing up and that the problem is compounded by the crumbling birthrate, which causes the skyrocketing debt to be stretched over an ever-diminishing number of productive people on behalf of a constantly more numerous and aged class of recipients. He takes some comfort in the fact that in America, the contest is still closely fought between the wealth-generators and the “true believers in the Nanny state . . . [led by] the emirs of incumbistan.” Unlike most economic commentators, he makes the point that Europe is dependent on the continued accumulation of U.S. consumer debt to buy their luxury and engineered products—and that well is going dry.
Steyn deplores America’s self-absorption, which ensures that its eroding influence in the world is taken over by less benign forces. Completely unsustainable numbers of people perform unproductive and superfluous jobs as consultants and tinkerers: “The ideological homogeneity and social engineering of the nation’s schools would be regarded as child abuse in any other age. . . . It will prove increasingly impossible to insulate yourself from the pathologies a decadent liberalism has loosed to rampage Godzilla-sized across the land.”
At this point in the recitation of America’s chronic ills, Steyn goes into overdrive and writes that continuation of these trends will incite secessionist ambitions: “Without the American idea [of freedom and individualism], there will be insufficient glue to hold the United States together.” He sees China, Russia, and the “New Caliphate” as the rivals, and believes that they think the United States could disintegrate. It is certainly possible to consider these projections alarmist (and I do, though not if the premise of continuation in the present trajectory is accepted), but the author roots his concerns on scholarly insights as well as current observations. Alexis de Tocqueville is invoked over his vision of “an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.”
As always, Steyn’s talent for mockery, directed at foolish fads, is withering: “President Obama promising to end the rise of the oceans, or the Prince of Wales saying we only have ninety-six months left to save the planet.” fema, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is become the “Fairyland Equality Makework Agency,” and the “enhanced patdowns” of air travelers do nothing for security but victimize the “nonagenarian spinster at La Guardia with a tsa agents’ paws roaming ’round [her] bloomers while the Yemeni madrassah alumnus sails through the express check-in.” The tone of the public policy debate is suitably deprecated: there’s the “side of the ‘environment’ and there are the ‘deniers’; there’s the side of [demographic] ‘diversity,’ and there are the ‘racists.’”
The middle of After America is a stately procession of well-founded and well-formulated reservations about a great range of related misorientations, a tour de force of a very forbidding horizon. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is reconditely cited in its presaging of mindless rap lyrics. Public school employment in the United States (mainly teachers) has risen ten times faster than the number of students, with a discernible decline in standards, especially in functional literacy. At Harvard, only 23 percent of courses now require a final examination. “For most of its ‘scholars,’ college is a leisurely half-decade immersion in the manners and mores of American conformism. . . . [The diploma] used to be made of sheepskin. But these days the students are the sheep and the ones getting fleeced are the parents.”
Manhood itself has eroded: “Where have all the men gone?” Three-quarters of all men between forty-five and sixty-four are officially overweight; “We are our own waddling metaphor for consumption unmoored from production.” (The only chubbier nationalities are Western Samoans and Kuwaitis.) The Dutch writer Oscar van den Boogard is quoted: “I have never learned to fight for my freedom. I was only good at enjoying it.” This seems a little severe, given the valor and competence of the volunteer and very professional armed forces of the United States, but Steyn is speaking of the masses of America, not the half of one percent of the population who protect them.
The mechanization of agriculture, and advances in scientific inducements to greater harvests, reduced the share of American labor devoted to agriculture from 90 percent at the founding of the country to 3 percent now, and agricultural production is immensely higher. The unneeded farm labor fed urbanization and manufacturing, which now produces about the same amount of product in dollar values as in 1950 with a third of the manpower then required. America has become
a society with tens of millions of people for whom there is no work, augmented by tens of millions of low-skilled peasantry from outside its borders, [and thus] is unlikely to be placid. . . . Big government is a jobs killer. Big government augmented by a terrible education system and a tide of mass immigration is a life-killer.
General Motors has one auto-manufacturing employee for ten retirees. Detroit’s population has fallen by half since 1950: 30 percent of the employed people work for the government, and 29 percent of the work force is unemployed.
The Drug War is also laid bare as the fraud that it is; 4,000 Americans died in Iraq from 2003 to 2010, and 13,000 Mexicans died in the drug battles of that country in 2010 alone. Although Steyn doesn’t get too much into it, he touches on the facts that the United States has concentrated on reducing supply and transport of drugs in foreign countries, rather than on the demand in the United States, and that it has endlessly taken the dragnet through the ghettoes rather than through the middle-class university students and young white-collar urban youth. The emphasis has been on imprisonment rather than treatment, and it is not credible that the greatest military power in the world could not control its own borders if it was serious. While this is not a particular focus, the War on Drugs is a sinkhole of corruption and hypocrisy, as is much of the rest of the American legal system.
Despite his many concerns about the future of the West, Steyn is not throwing in the towel. He believes that if the productive forces roll back government, regulation, and the more cynical and undeserved entitlements, America “can rediscover the animating principles of the American idea—of limited government, a self-reliant citizenry, and the opportunities to exploit [their] talents to the fullest-or join most of the rest of the world in permanent decline.”
After America also discusses the under-emphasis on the shell game being played by the Federal Reserve. Some 70 percent of treasury bonds have been issued to cover the immense annual federal deficits that the author rightly decries and sees as, effectively, additions to the money supply and blasts of time-delayed inflation. The Chinese don’t finance U.S. public debt any more. My only differences with the case the book makes are that I think the deficits could be stopped relatively easily by raising consumption taxes on nonessential spending and transactions while reducing income taxes.
I’m also not as convinced as Steyn seems to be that China, much less Russia and the militant Islamists, will be in any position to challenge American leadership in the near future. Russia, as the author elsewhere implies, is an alcoholic, demographically shrivelling basket case; the militant Islamists are a terrible nuisance, but they have neither the geostrategic mass or the possible mystique to mount a serious global challenge. China is a great power, but its system is even more corrupt than that of the United States. It is still largely a command economy, has no reliable institutions, and not a single economic number it publishes can be believed. It also still has many hundreds of millions of backward peasants, and almost no system of general social services. China has been a strongly performing developing economy, but talk of world leadership is greatly exaggerated.
But these are minor cavils. After America is an almost unputdownable book by a brilliant author, and every significant part of its disconcerting message is true.
1 After America, by Mark Steyn; Regnery Press, 400 pages, $29.95.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 October 2011, on page 66
Copyright © 2013 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.comhttp://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Found-wanting-7189
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