As a warning and an apology, I offer that Mark Steyn’s After America: Get Ready for Armageddon is a broad critique that by itself cannot reach the level of particular individuals. Likewise, although I largely agree with what I have understood on a first reading of Mark Steyn’s critique, I would not have anyone understand my summary and review as reaching to particular individuals. Looking at matters the other way around, in my present capacity I am a reviewer, whether or not I am a proper role model. In any case, understand that accusations of “Tu quoque!” made to Mark Steyn, me, or anyone will not refute Steyn’s critique, but strengthen it with fresh examples. Readers of After America or my review will discern the relevance of the following autobiographical detail: I thank my professors at the University of Dallas for having allowed me to study with you when I was in my early thirties. You indicated the problem that what should not be said cannot be said. You were right about the cancer of administration, its deformation of the Congress, and its undermining of virtue in the states, cities, and people. You were right about the death culture. You described the seemingly irresolvable tension between general prescriptions and particular judgments.
For readers not already acquainted with Mark Steyn’s comic style, it seems good to prepare you before you read his book, After America, which Regnery Publishing released in August 2011. Consider revising whatever expectations you may have for a book on politics by imagining yourself going to a comedy club to hear a standup comic who is politically minded, fast-talking, rambling, and liberally but intelligently insulting. Mark Steyn often writes in that style, and he wrote this book much like a transcript of a standup act, right down to the sentence fragments. As a reviewer, and having been reading Mark Steyn’s writings since 2002, I may resemble a longtime regular in the audience; however, I am no warm-up act. For the comic delivery and for everything Steyn has to say that I cannot so much as summarize, “see the show,” and do not run the risks involved in letting my interpretation be a substitute for your own.
Mark Steyn seems to travel widely where he sees fit, make the acquaintance of a variety of people in his traveling and publishing, keep in communication with the better sort, and read widely both what he thinks fit and what he thinks unfit. From all those sources, he has a great stock of observations and stories. He has thought through what he has read and seen, and he has arrived at a pervasive and deeply negative judgment that does not lend itself readily to popular comedy, but that he nevertheless makes his subject. Governmental and cultural processes at work in the citizenries and institutions of left-“liberal” democracies have dissipated and are still dissipating the human and institutional sources of their wealth and power. Mark Steyn has published such an opinion already, but now he draws further conclusions with special reference to the Americans. Without widespread and wrenching corrections of these mutually sustaining processes of dissipation, the United States and much of the world will predictably come to ruin. The precise events by which ruin will come about will depend on the unknown minds of diverse men, both within and outside the United States, who will see opportunity or necessity in the Americans’ decline. Moreover, the operation of the dissipating processes is so widespread as to deny Mark Steyn the comfort of partisan membership. For he has come to see most of the Americans and most of the leading figures of their dominant parties as participants in conducting each other to a common ruin. The dissipating processes have operated for so long without correction, Mark Steyn scarcely any longer expects correction to precede ruin. It seems that in his estimate, his message approaches the end of its urgency with regard to America as a whole, for America as a whole comes close to putting itself beyond all considerations of urgency.
With “federal,” state, and city governments that were already deeply in debt and going deeper, the Americans elected a Congress and a President to take them much deeper, much faster. The Americans and their governments seem variously incapable of stopping each other, unwilling, and merely unaware. They rapidly approach a time, 2020 or even earlier, at which they can reasonably expect their interest payments to exceed their military expenditures and to have begun contributing mightily to the military investments of men, notably in China, who hold their “bonds,” the “securities” of the Americans’ so-called “treasury.” Worse, Steyn reasonably foresees that the very low interest rates prevailing when he sent After America to press, and still prevailing as I write in September 2011, seem to conceal the scale of the approaching interest payments and of their domestic and foreign effects. For if interest rates revert, the Americans’ interest payments will increase even faster. One might expect the Americans to put a stop to their further impoverishment and subjection. However, the two great parties controlling the Congress, the Presidency, and the state and city governments have so far been distinguishable only as a matter of degree, their leading figures neither effecting meaningful corrections nor even preparing the Americans to accept them. Ruin approaches certainty, for the Americans will shortly deplete themselves fiscally and economically, and their financial depletion entails their military decline. Their military decline will open the way to conquests, wreckage, disruptions of trade, and death around the globe; for unlike the formerly great British, they have no successor as a globally dominant and relatively benign power.
Moreover, surveying the Americans’ technical capacities, Mark Steyn finds the Americans already involved in a complex of stagnation and decline. The regulatory burden of the Food and Drug Administration increasingly thwarts the Americans’ development of new treatments for diseases. The National Aeronautic and Space Administration is a rump power, diminished even in the little time since After America went to press, when at least NASA still had a shuttle. Air travel has changed little, and for everyone who must stand in line for the Transportation “Security” Administration’s groping and fondling, it is actually slower. Some of the Americans advocate greater development of renewable energy sources, but their “federal” government, at least, refuses any longer to build new dams. When After America went to press, nearly a decade after the destruction of what used to be a world trade center, the place was still just a construction site. (As I write, in September 2011, what is reportedly complete is just the memorial: a wooded park and a pair of waterfalls pouring into large, deep holes where the towers used to be.) Mark Steyn even largely discounts the Americans’ recent technical advances in electronics, focusing on the role of personal computers, the Internet, and wireless devices as engines of entertaining distraction, merely more capable and more pervasive than the radios, televisions, and telephones they replaced.
As for their “federal,” state, and local governments, the Americans have been altering them for generations, until they resemble institutions of a sort Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw. Tocqueville said one might describe such governments as paternalistic, but for the circumstance that real fathers aim to make adults of their children. The Americans’ governments help the people extend adolescence in early life, make subjects of them in mid-life, and then help them return to dependence well in advance of any disability. Moreover, the Americans’ governments have grown similarly to the manner Tocqueville foresaw: Wherever they do not monopolize some human activity outright, they tend to extend a confusing, discouraging complex of rules, certifications, permits, licenses, filings, fees, and fines. As public justifications for their expansions, the governments use the complexities and expenses that have grown up around their previous expansions. As an attractive alternative to fully adult engagement in the complicated, expensive societies they have devised, the Americans’ governments make it easy, and even to a great extent customary, to postpone adult independence indefinitely. They drag out elementary and secondary education to the eighteenth year, and thereafter they provide subsidies, grants, and loan guarantees that allow most anyone to drift through another four or six years of studies. To everyone who just makes it to his mid-sixties, they offer money and medicine on which to live for as many more decades as one can manage. They staff their regulatory bureaus and other institutions by promising the workers they will be able to quit working even sooner than everyone else, to live on pensions ultimately provided and guaranteed by taxes on the people. The producers truly supporting this superstructure are far less numerous than it may seem. They are the men and women not continuing in school well into their twenties or thirties, not living in the untaxed shadow economy, not working for a salary that is itself publicly funded, not working in subsidized “industries,” not providing “professional services” in support of regulatory “compliance,” not sent off to wage long and expensive “wars” or “build” others’ “nations,” and not living on “welfare” or unemployment or “old” age “benefits.”
Mark Steyn delivers many funny passages in disparagement of American left-”liberalism,” in its corrupt, petty, spendthrift decline. Having read this far in my review, readers must see that my summaries do not convey any of Steyn’s comic style. On the other hand, brief excerpts will not convey the humor, either, as the effect is cumulative. So I will just say that readers will enjoy these passages in the balance of chapter 2: “The Statist Quo,” “Two Solitudes,” “Fiddling While Rome Burns Money,” “The Bureau of Compliance,” “As Un-American as Apple Pie,” “Bulls in a China Shop,” and “Slow Boat to China.” Chapter 3, the first chapter taking up the cases of nations other than the United States, serves as a reminder and respite for American readers. The nations of Europe may spare Americans’ pride by serving as examples of nations in some ways even farther along their respective roads to ruin.
However, Mark Steyn now seems to have discounted Europe, and he does not dwell on the European nations, but returns to the American case in chapter 4, “Decline.” Beginning on page 128, he reaches what seems to be the peak of his critique. He begins the passage with a summary of a published study and uses it for comic setup and illustration. For readers unaccustomed to Mark Steyn’s style or even just disagreeably humorless, I point out that his claim that the researchers may have discovered the key to understanding all of American and Western politics is comic hyperbole. For in any case, the general problem Mark Steyn indicates here is one of knowledge or complacent confidence in the truth and sufficiency of the good opinions of the members of one’s social set.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia published an exhaustive analysis of all those stories you read in the paper that begin “A new study shows that….” In effect, UBC did a study of studies. They found that between 2003 and 2007, 80 percent of the population sample in the studies of six top psychology journals were university undergraduates, a demographic evidently containing many persons who would rather take part in studies than study what they’re supposed to be studying. But these same psychology journals had somewhat carelessly assumed that the behavior patterns of wealthy western co-eds speak for the wider world. …The researchers were concerned with a very specific point: How representative of humanity at large is a tranche of affluent western college students? But they may have stumbled on the key not just to “scientific” studies but to liberal foreign policy, domestic spending, and the advanced social democratic state in the twenty-first century. If you take the assumptions of almost any group of college students sitting around late at night having deep-thought-a-thons in 1975, 1986, 1998, and imagine what a society governed by that sensibility would be like, you’d be where we are now—in a western world in elderly arrested adolescence, passing off its self-absorption as high-mindedness.
The researchers seem to have drawn their samples from among the people right around them whose participation they could easily obtain. Thus, they drew their conclusions from samples unrepresentative of humanity at large or even of the general populace of their own locale. Mark Steyn was young once and must have his own experience of restricted social circles, so he proposes that the students tend, in their own way, to behave much like the researchers. Much as the researchers drew conclusions from an unrepresentative sample, he imagines the students tend to derive their opinions from their academic social circle, as little as the members may differ and as little experience as they may have of anything other than a comfortable upbringing and the academic environment they all share. In regard to everything from “‘scientific’ studies” to “foreign policy, domestic spending,” and all the other ruling functions of “the advanced social democratic state,” what seems important here is that mutually reinforcing social circles in sheltered, soft settings now shape most men who go on to positions of influence. Cases differ, but the general outcomes of this course of early life are “arrested adolescence,” that is perhaps, the pervasive influence of opinions formed in youth and never changed afterward; “self-absorption,” that is, mutual absorption in the restricted range of opinions of one’s own social set; and a presumption of the “high-mindedness” of one’s own social set, that is, a mutually reinforced, good opinion of the opinions shared by most everyone in one’s group.
Further, as we will see, Mark Steyn proposes that in the left-“liberal” democracies’ long, post-war period of economic growth, improvements in material well-being have allowed men to buffer themselves and preserve their opinion of their own high-mindedness, untested. For a time, it seemed they could afford to be stupid. It was easier to pay money to “federal,” state, and local governments, or let governments just run up debt, than to think hard thoughts, make hard choices, or test in action the supposed high-mindedness of one’s opinions. Mark Steyn makes the point with standup-comic flair.
After the publication of America Alone, an exasperated reader wrote to advise me to lighten up, on the grounds that “we’re rich enough to be stupid.” That, too, has about it the sun-dappled complacency of idle trust-funders whiling away the sixth year of Whatever Studies. But it’s an accurate distillation of a dominant worldview. …If you have old money well-managed, you can afford to be stupid—or afford the government’s stupidity on your behalf. If you’re a carbon-conscious celebrity getting $20 million per movie…[,] a tenured professor or a unionized bureaucrat in a nominally private industry whose labor contracts were chiseled in stone two generations ago, you can afford it. …In any advanced society, there will be a certain number of dysfunctional citizens either unable or unwilling to do what is necessary to support themselves and their dependents. What to do about such people? Ignore the problem? Attempt to fix it? …The modern progressive has no urge to emulate those Victorian social reformers who tramped the streets of English provincial cities looking for fallen women to rescue. All he wants to do is ensure that the fallen women don’t fall anywhere near him.
So the easiest “solution” to the problem is to toss public money at it. …Since the Second World War, the middle classes have transferred historically unprecedented amounts of money to the unproductive sector in order not to have to think about it. …That works for a while. In the economic expansion of the late twentieth century, average citizens of western democracies paid more in taxes but lived better than their parents and grandparents. They weren’t exactly rich, but they got richer. They also got more stupid. …At a certain level, your nine-to-five bourgeois understands that the bulk of his contribution to the state treasury is entirely wasted, if not actively destructive. It’s one of the basic rules of life: if you reward bad behavior, you get more of it. But, in good and good-ish times, so what?
As long as highly placed Americans, well trained by each other, continue in the opinion that they and their countrymen are sufficiently well off, it will seem safer to keep offering opinions in agreement with those they have been repeating to each other since the days of their late-night pizza parties.
Very few people are fiercely political, which is reasonable enough. The point of politics is to enable life…. So, among America’s elite, there are many non-political members, comfortable, educated beneficiaries of the American Dream who just want to get on with their lives. For these people and many others, liberalism is the soft option, the one with all the nice words—“diversity,” “tolerance,” “peace,” “social justice,” “sustainability”—and the position that requires least defending if you happen to be at a dinner party and the conversation trends toward current events. If you have to have “opinions,” these are the safe ones. They’re not really “opinions,” are they? Just the default settings of contemporary sensibility.
As America’s money and credit runs out and the Americans come to feel compelled to think fresh, there may cease to be opinions that are simply safe socially. Some time may remain, in which safety-seeking men can begin investigating sound plans and persuasive arguments to replace their stock replies. Moreover, safety-seeking men with sound plans and persuasive arguments may make for themselves an important role in politics. For considering the growing debts of the Americans’ governments, the small proportion of Americans who seem to sustain the existing order economically, and the burdens on those few, I do not have a counterargument to Mark Steyn’s opinion that the Americans are approaching ruin. Considering the difficulty of challenging and changing the left-“liberal” opinions the Americans have held all their lives and to which they cling as evidence of their intelligence and goodness, I share Mark Steyn’s doubt the Americans will make corrections before ruining themselves. If the Americans progress all the way to disintegration, safety-seeking men with sound plans and persuasive arguments will have to try to bring some of the rest to new accords.
One can try to avoid sharing fully in the common disaster, and one can try to avert it, as a matter of degree. To know how bad one man thinks the Americans’ ruin may be and to learn his advice, you will have to read a book. For Mark Steyn’s description of the formerly great British, see chapter 5, “The New Britannia: The Depraved City.” For his overview of Americans’ blithe defenselessness against their own further decline, see chapter 6, “Fall: Beyond the Green Zone.” For his description of the Americans’ abandonment of Israel and of what it teaches the Americans’ enemies, see chapter 7, “The New Jerusalem: The City Besieged.” For his broad description of the world of the near future without the American superpower, see chapter 8, “After: A Letter from the Post-American World.”
To read Mark Steyn’s advice concerning manliness, find the exact center of the text. To read his open invitation to deconstruction, see the epilogue. To read his advice to children, see the last lines of the epilogue. It is advice often given to children, I think. Does it make simply no difference here that it comes from Mark Steyn, at the end of After America?
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