Whistling Past the Graveyard

 by John Derbyshire (Nov. 2006)

Is the world of today a better or a worse place than the world of 100 years ago?  On all the ordinary indices of human felicity—health, longevity, security, hygiene, comfort, prosperity, equality, dentistry—the answer is of course that we live much better lives than our grandfathers did. 

That is not the whole story, though.  There has, for example, been much loss of liberty in those nations where individual liberty is (I first, very significantly in this context, wrote “was”) most prized.  As A.J.P. Taylor noted in English History 1914-45:  “Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman.”  The America of 100 years ago was even freer, and our freedoms persisted for longer.  A fiftysomething American friend of mine remembers being a 13-year-old, strolling down his suburban New York street carrying a rifle under his arm, on the way to some shooting practice.


Taking the world at large, I think you can make a case that, net-net, and even allowing for the amenity improvements listed in my second sentence above, civilization has in some other respects slipped backwards.  Take “diversity,” for example.  For all our fantasies about having vanquished “racism,” “discrimination,” and the rest, we are in many places less tolerant of each other than we were a hundred years ago.  There has been a slow separating-out of ethnicities everywhere these past few decades. 


In British India, as Kipling’s stories illustrate, Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsees, and half a dozen lesser sects jostled together without any very dramatic friction.  When the British left, it was suddenly found necessary to place Hindus and Moslems in two (then, a quarter-century later, three) different nations, which to this day have not been able to settle their differences.  The astonishing salad that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not survive World War One (which, admittedly, its internal strains had helped to start), and squabbles over which bits of its remnants belonged to whom helped to ignite World War Two.  The Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds of Mesopotamia seem to have coexisted reasonably well under Ottoman rule; in today’s Iraq they prefer to massacre each other.  Even the streets of Belfast were more heterogeneous in 1906 than they are today, when thirty years of sectarian violence has chased even middle-class Protestants and Catholics off into different neighborhoods.


Education, too, the great panacea of the twentieth century (“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe”—H.G. Wells in The Outline of History, 1919), delivers less than it once did in many places.  No doubt the average Chinese peasant knows more about the world now than his revered ancestors did; but as Mark Steyn notes in his new book America Alone, an intelligent young Pakistani lad of 1906 would have become acquainted with Shakespeare, the Magna Carta, and Sir Isaac Newton, while his present-day counterpart will more likely spend his schooldays memorizing the Koran—trading in his grandfather’s twentieth-century mentality for a seventh-century one.


*    *    *    *    *


The 500 words I have just written were prompted by that single remark of Steyn’s (it is on page 170 of his book).  There were at least twenty places in America Alone where Steyn says something equally thought-provoking, so that a full review of his book would need at least 10,000 words.  That is getting close to the length at which reading the review is so much trouble, you might as well just read the book.  I am therefore going to pretend that this is not a book review at all.  I’m just going to pick up some of Mark Steyn’s ideas and pass comments on them.


I will say, though, that this is a book wonderfully rich with insights, from a writer with a great many interesting things to say about the state of our world.  Further, Steyn says those things superbly well, with a imaginatively rococo style that draws its metaphors and allusions from an array of sources that is very wide, and deeper (intellectually, I mean) than it looks at first glance.  Here he is, for example, on former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and the proposed constitution for the European Union.


Why, even if the French and Dutch had been boorish enough to want to vote no to the constitution, they would have been incapable of so doing, as the whole thing was designed to be way above their pretty little heads.  “It is not possible for anyone to understand the full text,” declared M. Giscard.  During his labors on the constitution, he’d told me he saw himself as “Europe’s Jefferson.”  By referendum night he’d apparently become Europe’s Jefferson Airplane, boasting about the impenetrability of his hallucinogenic lyrics.  The point is that his ingrate subjects had no need to read beyond the opening sentence:  “We the people agree to leave it to you the people who know better than the people.”


Every page has passages that read as well as that.  Memorable images and apothegms abound.  “The happy-face nothingness of multiculturalism” … “There are moderate Muslims, but no moderate Islam” … “If England is the mother of parliaments, America’s a wealthy spinster with no urge to start dating.” 


Steyn is often very funny, too, while yet managing never to let surface humor overwhelm the fundamental seriousness of his topics.  Sample:  The North Koreans have a missile called the No Dong (this being the name of a town in that country).  Meanwhile, in 2003, there came a story out of Sudan about a peculiar mass hysteria sweeping the males of that country.  The rumor was going round that foreigners were shaking hands with Sudanese men and thereby causing their penises to disappear.  (Steyn: “I know the feeling.  The same thing happened to me after shaking hands with Senator Clinton.”)  These two stories together start the author off on a hilarious three-page riff on the themes of geostrategic potency and the conjunction of modern technology with medieval religion.


Inevitably Steyn gets carried away by his own fluency now and then, and he drops a couple of historical clangers.  (“There are no examples of sustained atheist civilizations.”  Matteo Ricci would have had a brisk reply to that.)  All in all, though, this is a lovely book, irresistibly readable. 


All the more reason to distrust it.  It is not the case that beautiful women are wicked and plain ones virtuous.  It is the case, though, however unfair it may be, that if a beautiful woman commits an error of judgment, she is much more likely to get away with it than is her ugly sister.  Just so with books.  A literary and stylistic gem like America Alone might be utterly wrong-headed; but one would be much more reluctant to think so than one would in the case of a dull, clumsily-written book on the same subject.  Language is a charmer.  If female beauty were removed from the world, in fact, language would be the charmer.  


So:  Is Steyn right in his analysis?  Should we take up his prescriptions?  Or does he leave important things unsaid, and offer strategies that have no chance of victory?


*    *    *    *    *


One of the strongest themes of America Alone is demographic.  Practically all advanced Western countries have birthrates below “replacement level”—their women, that is, having less than an average 2.1 children in their lifetimes.  In some nations the birth rate is quite dramatically low:  Russia and Italy at 1.2, Spain at 1.1.  On the other hand, some countries are reproducing at well above replacement.  Steyn:


The global fertility leader, Niger, is 7.46;  Mali, 7.42;  Somalia, 6.76;  Afghanistan, 6.69;  Yemen, 6.58.  Notice what those nations have in common?  Starts with an I, ends with a slam.


In fact, there is much more to be said than that.  Birthrates are dropping everywhere, even in Muslim countries, even in non-Israeli Palestine.  This is just a feature of our postindustrial age, and it’s unlikely there is anything we can do about it, or should want to.  The earth’s surface is finite, after all, and the human race can’t go on increasing indefinitely.  Our grandfathers were farmers or miners who had five or six kids (one of mine  actually had thirteen) per family;  our fathers were factory workers who had two or three kids;  we are “symbol manipulators” who have zero or one kids.  That’s how it is.


The trouble is, as Steyn explains, that a falling birthrate takes time to “work through” to actual population numbers.  Japan had more deaths than births in 2005 for the first time ever; yet her birthrate has been below replacement level for decades.  If my nation’s birthrate sinks below replacement level a generation later than yours did, my population may still be increasing long after yours has begun declining.  It is, as Steyn says, a game of “last man standing.”


For the future of Western civilization, the most consequential demographic difference is the one between Islamic peoples and Christian, or post-Christian ones.  This will have—already is having—dire consequences for European nations, most of whom have permitted massive Muslim immigration in the past few decades.  Steyn argues that European civilization is a goner—that its will to defend itself has been sapped by welfare statism and the U.S. defense umbrella, that the barbarian hordes will take over its depopulating husk, and that we may as well just write it off, leaving America alone.


Would Western civilization then survive?  Steyn thinks not.  So what must we do?  He offers three options:  Submit to Islam, destroy Islam, or reform Islam. 


It is implicit in his argument that much of the Western world will submit to Islam.  Okay, how about that portion, including one hopes the U.S.A., that does not?  Option two—the destruction of Islam—“doesn’t bear thinking about.”  I disagree with the author here.  I find I can bear to think about it without really disabling distress, and I have even written about it.  The “window” of time during which this is really an option for the West is closing rapidly though.  One Islamic nation is already nuclear; another soon will be;  and more will then surely follow.  In any case, as Steyn emphasizes, the Islamists of Paris, London, Hamburg and Malmö are just as much, if not more, at issue here as those of Teheran and Karachi.  Even the most ferocious nuke-’em proponent, which is certainly not me, will surely balk at nuking Finsbury Park or the 20e Arrondisement.


Our only hope, therefore, says Steyn, is in the reform of Islam.  Yet this is not ours to do.  “Ultimately, only Muslims can reform Islam.  All the free world can do is create conditions that increase the likelihood of Muslim reform, or at any rate do not actively impede it.”  Steyn goes on to give a list of suggestions:  Support women’s rights … Support economic and political liberty … Deny international legitimacy to really bad Muslim regimes …  Transform the energy industry (i.e. to reduce out dependency on oil) …  “Strike militarily when the opportunity presents itself.”


After the pungent brilliance of the preceding 200 pages, this all falls a bit flat.  And in fact, the reader who has traversed those 200 pages has been having different thoughts from the ones Steyn tries to guide him to.  For example:  Is that original list of options—submit to, destroy, or reform Islam—really exhaustive?  How about we just fence it off :  Expel our own Muslims, forbid Muslims to enter our countries, proscribe Islam, and deal with Muslim nations commercially at arm’s length?  (They have to sell their oil to someone, or else starve.)  Such actions are, of course, way over the line of politically acceptable discourse today; but in five or ten years, after a couple more jihadist atrocities, they will not be.     


*    *    *    *    *


America Alone is a pessimistic book.  (When the checkout clerk at Barnes & Noble saw the subtitle—“THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT”—on the cover of the copy I was purchasing, she smiled and said: “A little light reading for the weekend, is it?”)  I put the book down at last, though, wondering if it is pessimistic enough.  For all his splendid conservative credentials, Mark Steyn has tendencies towards root-causes liberalism.  He takes me to task at one point:


Wearying of what he regards as the deluded idealism of the liberty-touting Bush doctrine, National Review’s John Derbyshire began promoting the slogan  “Rubble Doesn’t Cause Trouble.”  Cute, and I wish him well with the T-shirt sales.  But in arguing for a “realist” foreign policy of long-range bombing as necessary, he overlooks the very obvious point that rubble causes quite a lot of trouble:  the rubble of Bosnia is directly responsible for radicalizing a generation of European Muslims…  the rubble of Afghanistan became an international terrorist training camp…  the rubble of Grozny turned Chechen nationalists into pan-Islamic jihadi…


Ah, but Mark, there is rubble, and there is rubble.  Of the 13th-century Mongol horde it was said that when they had once bestowed their attentions on a city, you could afterwards ride over the place where that city had stood without your horse stumbling.  If the indignities suffered in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Grozny are the root causes of present-day Islamic terrorism, then I submit that the indignities were insufficiently severe.


Armchair warriors like myself are sometimes accused of laboring under the illusion that all the world’s problems can be solved by neat “surgical strikes” on troublesome locations, in which suspect facilities, or persons, are cleanly eliminated with minimal collateral damage. 


Not guilty!  I am, in fact, willing to confess myself a collateral-damage armchair warrior, who would be happy to see us trade in our inventory of smart laser-guided precision munitions for lots and lots and lots of old-style iron bombs, and fleets of great big iron planes to deliver them.  Remember those photographs of mid-1945 Berlin, fragments of broken wall sticking up out of vast drifts and dunes of pulverized masonry?  Now that’s rubble. 


Oh, and we won that war.


*    *    *    *    *


And there are, of course, as must always be pointed out nowadays, the Great Unmentionables.  Mark Steyn:


The refined antennae of Western liberals mean that whenever one raises the question of whether there will be any Italians living in the geographical zone marked as Italy a generation or three hence, they cry, “Racism!”  To agitate about what proportion of the population is “white” is grotesque and inappropriate.  It’s not about race; it’s about culture.


Ah, culture.  Of course it’s not about race!  Nothing is about race, because there is no such thing as race.  (Repeat 100 times.)  It’s about culture—the aether, the phlogiston, of current social-anthropological speculation, whose actual nature is mysterious, but whose explanatory power is infinite.  You know, culture:  those habits, folkways, beliefs, ways of thinking and behaving and connecting that arise from…  pure chance!  Or geography (see below).  Or something… but definitely nothing to do with biology. 


Please don’t get me wrong.  I am sure Mark Steyn is sincere here.  I am sure he believes this stuff about “culture.”  Most educated people do.  Most will continue to do so for a few more years, while the neuroscientists, geneticists, genomicists, anthropologists, paleontologists, and statistical sociologists sap away beneath them—until the ground gives way.  (A professional academic biologist friend of mine is in the habit of snapping out, any time anyone takes refuge in this “culture” stuff:  “Culture?  Culture?  What does that mean?  Where does it come from?  What are the upstream variables?”)


One of the great anthropological-historical best-sellers of recent years was Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer-prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel.  Different human populations, in different parts of the world, says Diamond, developed different cultures, depending on whether they had draft animals to hand, easy routes for disease transmission, and so on.  Diamond almost completely ignores the role of inheritance and natural selection in shaping human populations.  Natural selection?  That all came to a screeching halt 50,000 years ago, don’t you know, when homo sapiens showed up.  There have been no biological changes since then, none at all!  Certainly none that affect behavior or socialization.  We are all exactly the same structurally, we just behave differently according to the local geography.  Location, location, location.


Alas, our understanding of population genetics has already left Jared Diamond behind.  Good, solid scientific studies are beginning to appear that altogether refute the “culture” paradigm.  We are not a uniform species, inclined to different folkways by the pressures of geography.  A population of human beings, breeding mostly within itself, is shaped by the menu of genetic peculiarities it started out with, and by its breeding practices (did you know that 55 percent of Saudi marriages are between first or second cousins?), and by its environment.  We are not a uniform species at all.  Not many world-wide species are.


Mark Steyn is a sort of Jared Diamond of geopolitical commentary.  No, that is a bit unfair.  He actually takes a poke at Jared Diamond himself:


Poor old Diamond can’t see the forest because of his obsession with the trees.  Russia’s collapsing and it’s nothing to do with deforestation.  It’s not the tree, it’s the family tree.


It may be, it may very well be, though not in quite the cold-demographic sense Mark intends.  What of those Muslim Middle-Eastern family trees?  The ones labeled “Arab Shia,” “Iranian Shia,” “Mesopotamian Sunni,” “Saudi” (that’s the one with a 55 percent cousin-marriage rate), and so on?  Can they, with a little help and encouragement, make harmonious, consensual modern societies out of themselves?


The Bush Doctrine says that they can, and for all I know the Bush Doctrine may be right.  Our president is betting the farm that it’s right, and Mark Steyn has pooled his chips with the president’s.  It’s not an outrageously bad bet, given the alternatives.  Given the alternatives, in fact, it’s a very attractive bet.  It’s far from being a sure one, though.


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