Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

After America: Get Ready for Armageddon
By Mark Steyn.  Washington, D.C.
Regnery Publishing Inc., 2011.  424 pp.

April 11, 2012 

“Europe climbed out of the stream [of the natural order of things]. You don’t need to make material sacrifices: the state takes care of all that. You don’t need to have children. And you certainly don’t need to die for king and country. But a society that has nothing to die for has nothing to live for: it’s no longer a stream, but a stagnant pool.” (123)

 

The ominous-sounding title of this book may steer some away from Mark Steyn’s description of the grave dangers facing America and the rest of the still-free world. But if they are prepared for an honest encounter with what is eating away at the very foundations of American society (and our own), readers will be well rewarded. 

Steyn has the knack of blasting away the sugar-coated cover of the fact that powerful forces are busy dismantling America. This is the same country that for more than two centuries – though not without its failures -- has stood out as a beacon of freedom and opportunities for millions of people. Now it’s not so sure.  

The author’s previous book, written in 2006, bears the title America Alone, by which he meant to say that America was indeed an exceptional nation. It still had the opportunity to avoid what he called the “civilizational exhaustion” that is afflicting the West. However, five years later, the title After America suggests that America, too, has capitulated to the same destructive forces and beliefs. 

In the prologue, “The Stupidity of Broke,” the author reviews the various phases of being insolvent, in addition to running out of money. He points out that it starts with the money; last year’s debt had risen to $13 trillion, which is more debt than all the Congresses from 1789 till 1989 accumulated. A fundamental change of course is needed, but it will be extremely difficult to do.  

The writing on the wall

Steyn believes that America is in danger of following on Europe’s path to becoming an ever expanding state that will drown itself in a sea of indebtedness. Now is the time for America to get serious about drastic   cutbacks though that will hit many people very hard. At the same time Steyn is convinced that the financial mismanagement is much more than a problem that can be neatly isolated and treated by itself. He writes:  

Increasing dependency, disincentivizing self-reliance, absolving the citizenry from responsibility for their actions:  the multitrillion-dollar debt catastrophe is not the problem but merely the symptom. It’s not just about balancing the books, but about balancing the most basic impulses of society. These are structural and, ultimately, moral questions” (14)  

Interestingly, Steyn draws an analogy between our time and a  story told in the book of Daniel. King Belshazzar of the Babylonians threw a party where they toasted the gods of gold, silver, and other materials. Suddenly in the midst of the drunken revelry there mysteriously appeared a hand that wrote these words on the wall: “mene, mene, tekel, upharsin,” which means: counted, weighed, and found wanting. The same night Belshazzar was killed and Darius the Mede became the new king.  

Steyn has a list of words beginning with all the letters  of the word Armageddon as in: “Addiction. We spend too much, borrowing from the future to such an extent it’s no longer clear we’ve got one.”  

Redistribution.  Day by day, an unprecedented transfer of wealth from the productive class to the obstructive class is delivering a self-governing republic into rule by regulators, bureaucrats, and social engineers.”  

“Global Retreat. As Britain and other great powers quickly learned, the price of Big Government at home is an ever smaller presence abroad.  An America turned inward will make for a more dangerous world.” 

Steyn sets out the two possibilities in stark terms. If America continues on its current course, he predicts that there will be nothing to unite it.  It will no longer be a nation with a limited government the first generation of Americans built. “And life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness will be conspicuous by their absence.” 

Steyn points out that America is still different. In other countries, including France and Britain, rioters took to the streets demanding more from the government. America was the only nation in the developed world where millions took to the streets to tell their government to stay out of their lives and their pockets. The America that  “stands for economic dynamism” for “self-reliance …not the security state in which Britons are second only to  North Koreans in the number of times they are photographed by government cameras,” that America, Steyn wants to believe, still has a fighting chance. 

Undreaming America

The bulk of his book is devoted to describing how far America has already gone in the wrong direction. The notion of multiculturalism is a major contributor to that wrong turn. If you really believe that no culture is better than another, you will do very poorly in defending your own. As Steyn puts it: “There is a fine line between civilization and the abyss.” 

Steyn traces the current problems afflicting America not in the first place to this or that policy. Instead, he takes a critical look at the underlying popular mindset that has given rise to the current and impending dangers facing America.  

In  the chapter” Undreaming America,” Steyn  refers to the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59), who praised the American sense of self-reliance and cooperation, but he also had a warning for the seductions  of the all-providing state. He envisioned a herd mentality that surely would undo the dream of America as the land of the free and the home of the brave. De Tocqueville’s premonition has proved to be close to the mark and is worth pondering: 

I see 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…. The sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations – complicated, minute, and uniform – through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way…it does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting on one’s own… it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way:  it curtails,  it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more  than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.” (45,46) 

This grim picture of herd--like behaviour all too realistically reflects the behaviour of a large and growing segment of the America population. Steyn piles example on example of cases where indeed the state hinders people in their entrepreneurial endeavours by means of complicated and costly regulations, as well as by silly rules that make a child’s lemonade stand and serving customers a cup of coffee in a neighbourhood hardware store  illegal and punishable acts. 

During the frantic campaign to force through the gigantic ObamaCare legislation, it became obvious that the more than the 2000--page bill had not been carefully read by the lawmakers themselves. In response to a question, Nancy Pelosi, then House Leader, said that they should first pass the bill so that they then can find out what it contains.

Regulatory nightmares

It gets worse. For a 2000 –plus page bill is to be applied by many more thousands of pages of regulations. Who writes the regulations? Not the lawmakers but the thousands of bureaucrats led by the various cabinet secretaries. This will call for an untold number of oversight management agencies and committees that are bound to get bogged down in the complexity and the vastness of this bureaucracy. The American health sector covers 16 per cent of the American economy and involves doctor--patient relations that are often accompanied by deep emotional feelings. No bureaucracy can “manage” such a monstrosity.

Kathleen Sebelius, as Secretary of Health and Human Services is required to oversee the application of the ObamaCare bill. This law contains 700 references to the Secretary “shall,” another 200 to the Secretary “may,” and 139 to the secretary “determines.”  If you were tasked with such a huge responsibility, what would you do? Would you be able to sleep at all? Of course the Secretary passes those tasks on to an army of regulators. But the point that Steyn makes is that she can pretty well do anything she wants. Here is a sample plucked at random: 

“The secretary shall develop oral healthcare components that shall include tooth-level surveillance.”

Steyn remarks: “Tooth-level surveillance: From colonial subjects to dentured servants in a quarter- millennium.”  

While Steyn is on the subject of regulations, he points out that to open a restaurant in NYC you need to deal with at least eleven municipal agencies, plus submit to twenty-three city inspections, and apply for thirty  different permits and certificates. The city realized that this could all become quite complicated, so they created a new bureaucratic body to help you navigate through all the other bureaucratic bodies. “Great,” says Steyn, “An agency of Bureaucratic Expeditiousness Regulation to keep it up to snuff.”

Now you know why bureaucracies always keep growing – at least until they self-destruct and leave only wreckage. A current case is the meltdown of Greece, a disaster that other countries are now desperately trying to avoid. The prospects do not look promising. 

The sexual revolution

Steyn is convinced that the family is an essential building block for a healthy society. Here the picture is bleak, and possibly more devastating than in any other sector of society. The sexual revolution of the 1960s is based  on the Big Lie that to live free is to have sex whenever and with whomever you want without consequences, now that the normal results of  sexual relations can be prevented, or can be  undone by abortion. 

Steyn writes that the traditional notions of chastity, fidelity, monogamy, are now considered mere social constructs. In other words, the traditional bonds of marriage between a man and a woman, calling for responsibility and self-denial in the raising of children, have been destroyed in the revolution. What has been the result?  

He reports that 40 per cent of American children are now born out of wedlock, a majority of Hispanic children are born to unmarried mothers; so are 70 percent of black children. New categories of crime

have sprung up in the wake of familial collapse. Millions of American children are raised in dysfunctional households where even elemental character formation is near impossible. Steyn predicts: 

In an America of fewer jobs, more poverty, more crime, more drugs, more disease, and growing ethno-- cultural resentments, the shattering of the indispensable social building block will have catastrophic consequences.”(234) 

Steyn writes that the sexual revolution was well--named because its consequences are everywhere. It was not only a revolt against sexual norms but against all norms. Its underlying normlessness, or nihilism, eats away at all the other social structures too. Many now look to the government as the only source of support and stability, which is the reason that the government is expanding and everything else is diminishing. 

Thought control in academia

The American educational system is another significant building block of society -- for good or ill. Steyn

Thinks it is the latter. In fact, he bluntly states that education is “the biggest single structural defect in the United States,” though he acknowledges that America has world--class academic institutions in science and engineering. 

America spends more per pupil on education than any other major industrial democracy, but the results do not reflect that. Nearly 60 percent of U.S high school graduates entering college require remedial education. In New York, it’s 75 percent. 

Steyn argues that the educational system has been hard hit by the experiment with affirmative action and diversity. He believes that it has corrupted the integrity of American education, so that it now “affirmatively acts in favour of ideological and cultural homogeneity.” He writes that American education is now in the “grip of a ruthless and destructive conformity,” also referred to as political correctness. 

One might think that the academy would be a place where conformity of thought would be shunned like the plague. Should it not be a place where all ideas can be openly stated and debated in an atmosphere of freedom and intellectual curiosity?  

 Yes, but the reality is very different, because politically correctness and intolerance now rule the Academy, where only the liberal, far Left ideology is acceptable. Hence conservative academics are rarely invited to address a university audience, and if they are, they often need bodyguards. Even then they are sometimes shouted down and unable to complete their presentation. Just ask David Horowitz, Nonie Darwish, Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, and others on the “wrong” side of the Ideological divide. 

Political correctness kills

This is not a minor issue. In fact, political correctness kills. As Steyn reminds us, thirteen men and women and an unborn baby died on  November 5, 2009, gunned down, of all places, at a military base at Fort Hood, Texas.  They died because the military authorities did nothing although they  knew that the killer, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, was a Muslim fanatic who hated America. They knew that he was in contact with the late Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born radical cleric who advocated all-out holy war against the United States. 

 Still they did not dismiss Hasan  from the army. Instead, they promoted him, and fourteen  people died. Nobody got fired or court martialled. Subsequent investigations mentioned nothing about Hasan’s Islamic fanaticism, but this crime was categorized as a case of “workplace violence.”  

Why such negligence that borders on the criminal? The associated Press reported that “a fear of appearing discriminatory against a Muslim student kept officers from filing a formal written complaint.” 

To put it bluntly, political correctness has reached the highest levels of the American military and the Obama administration. As Steyn put it: “The craven submission to political correctness…the wish for a quiet life leads to death, and not that quietly.  When the chief of staff of the United States Army has got the disease, you’re in big (and probably) terminal trouble.”   

Here is Steyn’s summation of the choice before America –and the rest of us: 

Americans face a choice: you can rediscover the animating principles of the American idea – of limited  government, a self-reliant  citizenry, and the opportunities to exploit your talents to the fullest – or you can join most of the rest of the western world in terminal decline. To rekindle the spark of liberty once it dies is very difficult. The inertia, the ennui, the fatalism is even more pathetic than the demographic decline and fiscal profligacy of the social democratic state, and, because it’s subtler and less tangible, even harder to rally against.” (348)  

After America is easy to read but hard to absorb. In good Steyn fashion there are some funny stories and deft wordplays. But if you are looking for an honest, straightforward --though painful--diagnosis that is essential for the proper treatment of the disease that is afflicting America, this is the book for you.