Awaiting the Fall: A Few Thoughts on Mark Steyn’s After America

by Mark Anthony Signorelli (September 2011)
 

 

After America: Get Ready for Armagedon
by Mark Steyn
Regnery Press, 2011
400 pp.

 

There is a particular difficulty in writing a review of a Mark Steyn book. Typically, a reviewer has one basic question before him: “is this book worth the attention of the reader or not?” But with a Steyn book, the question is moot. Of course its worth the reader’s attention; its by Mark Steyn, probably the most brilliant commentator on current affairs writing today. And since After America is already a best-seller (almost the only book in recent memory which actually deserves such status), its very likely that many readers are already familiar with it. So rather than offer a conventional review of Steyn’s new work, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on one of his basic theses: namely, that “big government” corrupts the character of a nation. I certainly agree with this thesis as far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes quite far enough, and I suspect that in the end, it prevents us from assessing our situation in a way that might allow us to make the necessary changes in our society down the road.

So let me begin where Steyn ends his book, with an imagined appeal to an imagined youngster to begin resisting the encroachments of the hyper-regulatory, profligate liberal state: “This is a battle for the American idea, and it’s an epic one, but – to reprise the lamest of lame-o lines – you can do anything you want to do.  So do it.” It is a bit strange to have to level the charge of romanticism at Steyn, one of the coldest-eyed realists among us, but this passage is pure fantasy. There are vanishingly few adolescents left in our culture who would respond to any sort of appeal to their sense of dignity or civic pride. There are very few left who are even literate enough to read Steyn’s book and arrive at his concluding appeal. The mental and moral devastation wrought among our youth is extensive; anybody harboring the hope that the virtue of the rising generation will save America from ruin is bound to be disappointed. 

How did things get this way? Steyn excoriates the grotesque incompetence of our schools, rightly declaring the American educational system a form of child abuse. Appallingly low standards (can they even be called standards any more?), a corrosive emphasis on nurturing children’s self-esteem (read: narcissism), the inculcation of habits of indolence and incuriosity: these are the distinctive traits of schooling in America, and the consequences for the future citizenry of this country will be disastrous. No one even slightly familiar with our schools can doubt the propriety of Steyn’s indignation.

A further question remains to be asked, however: how did the schools themselves get this way? Lazy teachers, partisan unions, corrupt administrators – certainly, the usual suspects bear their responsibility. But these figures are rather symptomatic of the real problem. Why do our students fail to demonstrate any academic improvement? Well, when you have been placed in front of a television at six-months old, when you have occupied the years of decisive neurological development with hour upon hour of video games and cartoons, when you are being pumped full of various chemicals – prescribed and unprescribed – it is highly unlikely that you will take all that easily to reading the Odes of Keats, or working out a differential equation. What about the low standards for graduation and advancement? What is causing this phenomenon? Can it be the relentless badgering of faculty and administration which is routinely carried out by parents, convinced that their child deserves all A’s for the simple reason that he is their child? And why have the colleges been transformed into credentialing services, offering no opportunity for real intellectual cultivation to their student-bodies? Isn’t it because a college degree is now conceived of by the majority of Americans as primarily an economic investment? Even Steyn thinks this way, writing: “ninety percent of expensively acquired college ‘educations’ won’t see any return on investment.” But once education is conceived of as a means to financial prosperity, its intrinsic goods have already been forfeited. What I am getting at here is that American parents and American children are the real, the fundamental, cause of the decrepitude of our educational system, that the failures of our schools are themselves a reflection of the failures of the American people.

I use the schools to illustrate a larger point I wish to make. Throughout his book, Steyn catalogues the demoralizing effects of unlimited government upon the American citizenry. No one can ignore the power of the case he presents. But as much as government overreach erodes the character of a people, the debased character of a people manifests itself in arbitrary government. Bad institutions make bad people, but bad people also make bad institutions. Our ugly politics is every bit a reflection of our cultural failings as are our worthless schools. Steyn is not unaware of these facts; one of the passages I found most compelling in his book was when he argues that the truly horrifying thing about the rise of Obama was the fact that the majority of the American people had been duped by such an evident buffoon. Our folly created his administration, and all of its works. So Steyn clearly understands the way a people’s faults can manifest themselves in inept government. Still, the obvious emphasis of his book is on the causal relationship which runs opposite, on the way that inept government debases the character of a people. I think that emphasis is misplaced; I think the effects of a people’s character on the character of their government are more fundamental, more decisive to their happiness, and more subject to reform than the effects which flow from a corrupted government upon the citizenry. Or, to put the point in a different way, I believe that culture is far more consequential for the maintenance of a well-ordered community than politics. Steyn himself advises that, “changing the culture is more important than changing the politics,” but since the emphasis of his book is on the way that bad politics has changed our culture for the worse, he actually seems to undermine this bit of advice. 

The book that most effectively delineates the ruinous social mechanisms of liberal democracy is The Revolt of the Masses, by the early twentieth-century philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. For Ortega, modern western society was marked by the rise to power of the “mass-man,” the unqualified or uncultivated man, who, lacking all necessary intellectual and moral training in the duties of civic life, had nonetheless asserted his immutable right to impose his own mediocrity of spirit upon society: “The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.” The mass-man is not bound by any traditions or maxims of prudence; he cares only about having his own way in the world. And when he is taught (as all modern political theory teaches him) that the state is a manifestation of his own will, he freely grants it an unlimited scope of action, just as he (theoretically) grants himself a perfect freedom of action: “This is the gravest danger that today threatens civilization: State intervention, the absorption of all spontaneous social effort by the State…when the mass suffers any ill-fortune, or simply feels some strong appetite, its great temptation is that permanent, sure possibility of obtaining everything – merely by touching a button and setting the mighty machine in motion.” The consequences of this trend are catastrophic:

The result of this tendency will be fatal. Spontaneous social action will be broken up over and over again by State intervention; no new seed will be able to fructify. Society will have to live for the State, man for the governmental machine. And as, after all, it is only a machine whose existence and maintenance depend on the vital supports around it, the State, after sucking out the very marrow of society, will be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of machinery, more gruesome than the death of a living organism.

Exactly as Steyn describes it in his book, some eighty years later. But what Ortega makes us see is that “big government” results from the prior moral corruption of the people, in particular from their unbounded self-love and self-assurance. It destroys them in the end, but at the first, it was their creature.

This is my greatest disappointment with Steyn’s book: that he fails to accurately name the crisis into which we have fallen. The corresponding explosions of entitlements and the national debt, the increasing unrest in the streets, the worthlessness of our schools: each of these things signals a civilizational crisis unlike anything the Western world has faced before. But it is not the crisis of the “nanny-state;” it is not the crisis of “big government;” it is not the crisis of consumerism, or capitalist finance, or sexual liberation (however much each of these things are undoubtedly involved in the central crisis). Fundamentally, it is the crisis of democracy.

Let me be very clear about what I mean when I use the word “democracy.” The term has almost become synonymous with free or legitimate government, so that to doubt the unmitigated goodness of democracy would seem to make one a friend of dictatorship. But I have in mind something far broader than a particular political system; I am referring to a certain kind of ethos. The democratic mind derives its moral and intellectual standards from an “average” of human nature; a man of such mind is content to be as decent and intelligent as the next man, but no more so, and assumes that the next man is as decent and intelligent as himself, but no more so. The democratic mind is attuned to the equalities between men, both those which truly exist, and those which he deludes himself into believing exist. As regards his relationship with the state, the democratic man dwells with far greater relish on his rights against the state, than his duties towards the state. The democratic mind loves freedom before all else, and regards freedom as nothing more than the unobstructed exercise of volition. In every healthy polity, there will be a considerable portion of the democratic ethos, as I have described it – but there will be much else. There will be other general spirits, having other origins, balancing, and sometimes limiting, the effects of the spirit of democracy. There will be a spirit of religion, which teaches men that freedom is not license, but a perfection of their natures; a spirit of tradition, which instills a sense of awe-struck duty towards the institutions by which a man has benefited; a spirit of aristocracy, which inspires a man to live according to the highest of standards, and revere others who have done so successfully. A civil culture is one which nurtures each of these spirits, preserving each in due proportion through a fruitful tension of one against the other. 

That is not our culture now. It was once, at least to some extent; from our founding and well into the nineteenth century, the spiritual character of the American people undoubtedly revealed the influence of religion, tradition, and aristocracy (I am thinking particularly of the south with that last one). But as time went along, the history of American culture became increasingly a history of the dominance of the democratic spirit, and the resulting quiescence of those other necessary and regulating spirits. We have arrived at the horrible conclusion of this trajectory: equality imposed upon every form of social activity, no matter how ruinous the outcome; manners dictated by the most insolent among us; all notion of obligation towards our neighbor eroded, and every desire magically transformed into a “civil right;” and liberty systematically corrupted, corroded, and equated with the ability to “do what we like.” Simply put, we have had too much democracy.

The evils of our political system are a result of this excess of the democratic element in our culture. This may sound paradoxical; wasn’t Steyn’s whole point that our government has become excessively indifferent to individual liberties, shutting down lemonade stands and bake-sales, and confiscating ever greater amounts of the people’s property, in the form of taxation? It was, and I concur. But one must be a superficial student of history and political theory both to be ignorant of the way excessive populism feeds despotism. A careful reading of the works of Edmund Burke alone will soon disabuse a mind of the mistaken conviction that extreme populism and tyrannical oppression are necessary antagonists, rather than two mutually enhancing poisons, which are most fatal where they mix. When a people comes to regard the basic benefits of civilized life – like shelter, medical treatment, or education – as “rights,” and accordingly demands the provision of each out of the resources of the government, it is only too obvious how far the power of the government must be enhanced to satisfy such demands. When equality is the default expectation in all arenas, it is clear how often and how strenuously the government will need to exert itself to ensure an equal outcome that nature never would. When democratic attitudes, and democratic attitudes alone, are expressed politically, the arbitrariness of government power metastasizes, of a course.

Consider two of Steyn’s concerns, in light of this dynamic. Start with the colleges. One of the best things about Steyn is his infinite contempt for the liberal professoriate, upon which he heaps mountains of justified scorn. Our colleges are worthless indeed; but again, the question is, how did they get this way? And the answer to that question is that they were overtaken in the sixties by a massive populist movement, during which hordes of uneducated riff-raff beat down the doors of academia to chants of “hey hey, ho ho, Western civ’ has got to go.” And once in the doors, the riff-raff decided to stay. They became professors and administrators, they revised curriculums, and established whole departments as monuments to their unbounded self-regard (like queer studies and African-American studies). Now they turn around and feign an air of condescension towards the rest of the populace, as if the rest of us don’t see them for the riff-raff they are, or remember the low, dishonest means they used to rise to their present academic monopoly. Jack Cade can affect royalty all he likes; he’s still a gutter-snipe. So if the question is: “what killed the university, and made for the ascendancy of our disgraceful liberal professoriate?” the answer is, “democracy – democracy killed the university, and beat down the doors over which the liberal barbarians have trampled.” And if the question is: “how do we give a rebirth to the university (for it is too late for reforms)?” the answer is: “we establish rigid academic standards, and relentlessly exclude anyone who proves incapable of adhering to those standards.” That is to say, we proceed on decidedly un-democratic principles, one might even say on “aristocratic” principles, for scholarship is always a pursuit of excellence (arête, from which aristocracy), and ceases to be scholarship when it ceases to be so. The democratic spirit destroyed the university; the aristocratic spirit is the only thing that can resurrect it.

To come closer to the immediate cause of our impending ruin, I was struck by a line in Steyn’s book regarding the usurpation of power by the judiciary. “It is never a good idea,” writes Steyn, “to send the message, as the political class now does consistently, that there are no democratic means by which the people can restrain their rulers.” But of course, the people have restrained their leaders quite effectively on one material point: entitlement reform. Polls consistently show that a decided majority of Americans resist any cuts to their prospective Social Security or Medicare benefits; as a result, politicians have consistently refused to cut them, even though many have realized, for decades, that the programs were unsustainable. That is quite an effective restraint placed upon their rulers by the people. And, as Steyn amply demonstrates, it will kill America. Now as the refusal of the American people to accept any cuts in their entitlements obviously stems from a prevalence of the democratic spirit – that infatuation with “my rights,” with “what is coming to me” – we can safely say that, in this regard at least, more democracy is no solution. Its influence is the very essence of our problem.

What is wrong with contemporary conservatism is that it has refused to make these points consistently. Infused with a populist enthusiasm, the conservative movement of recent years has proven too timid to state frankly that the defects of our politics are merely a reflection of the defects of our national character. Steyn, for all of his magnificent virtues, sometimes displays that same unfortunate tone of populism. For instance, the rhetorical habit of his which I find most objectionable is his constant reference to the “political class,” because it allows us to flatter ourselves with the illusion that our wretched politics are the fault of “them,” of someone else, rather than a manifestation of our own inadequacies. There is no such class; our politicians still grow up among the rest of us, and enter into public service formed (or malformed) by the same cultural influences as the folks who elect them. Suppose every member of Congress, and every cabinet secretary were tomorrow replaced with some “common man,” an average American with no previous political experience; can anybody believe the government would then display greater wisdom and virtue in its exertions, or that these persons would not quickly become just as corrupted as our present office holders? I don’t think anybody can believe this.

What is worse, the crudity of our democratic culture has not effaced our characters alone; throughout the world, wherever traces of American cultural influence can be discerned, a similar disfigurement in the character of the people is also discernable. Here, too, I believe Steyn’s emphasis is misplaced. When he writes of Europe, it is primarily to warn us against following its example – in particular, in its brainless multiculturalism and unsustainable entitlement structure. Again, fair enough as far it goes, but this is to ignore the way that Europe has already followed our example - to its great detriment – by adopting the worst features of our so-called “popular culture.” As one small piece of evidence, consider the recent riots in England. Every photograph of the rioters showed mobs of thugs swarming around in hoodies and mimicking gangster mannerisms. Where did these brutes find their models for such behavior? Obviously, from the rancid “urban culture” that has been excreted out of this nation for decades. What does it tell us when the British authorities are now turning to American law enforcement specialists because of their experience dealing with this vile subculture? As explained in a recent AP article:

“analysts of gang culture say it seems logical to seek American assistance, because today's British gangs consciously ape American gang ambitions and style, from the bling to the lingo. They talk in a street patois shaped by U.S. rap lyrics, use noms de guerre lifted straight from American gangster films and crime dramas, and choose such icons as Don Corleone, Al Pacino's Scarface or Baltimore ganglord Stringer Bell of "The Wire" TV series as their avatars on social-networking sites. ‘These teenage gangsters are creating their own criminal worlds, and in their minds it's very much an Americanized world…’’ said Carl Fellstrom, an expert on England's gangs.”

Such words should be a source of unending shame to every decent American. It is certainly not a pleasant thought, but again, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that our own extraordinary cultural failings have as much to do with the decline of the West as anything else. To my mind, the saddest sentence in Steyn’s book was this: “America has squandered its supposedly unipolar moment on the world’s most expensive suicide.” The gap between what might have been, and what has been, is too painful to think about for long. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States enjoyed a global influence unlike anything ever seen before, or likely ever to be seen again. We could have used that unprecedented hegemony to share our tradition of federal republican government; we could have used it to spread an affection for the great literary monuments of our native tongue; we could have used it to exalt and improve human nature wherever we encountered it. Instead, we took our power as an opportunity to export cheese-burgers and rap music, and allow a rapacious few to stuff their pockets with exploitative lucre. That is the cultural legacy of America. We wasted the very best chance mankind has ever had to advance the cultural conditions of our species, and there are just no words to express how sad that is.   

So now we must endure the wages of our cultural sins. Steyn draws in great detail a vision of how life will likely proceed in the wake of our national demise, much of which seems plausible, some less so. There can surely be no doubt, though, about his general warning: “great convulsions lie ahead.” Indeed, I would counsel suspicion of any politicians promising broad solutions for our country; they are likely to be the agents of disaster. All we can do now is turn our energies towards the revitalization of our local communities, in the hopes that we can make them durable enough to withstand such convulsions. The famous conclusion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is more pertinent than ever; referring to the collapse of the Roman Empire, MacIntyre writes:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community with which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.

I would suggest that a prerequisite for undertaking this work effectively is a candid, uninhibited reflection on the causes of the failure of the American project. After Athens suffered her defeat at the hands of Sparta in the Pelopennesian War, thoughtful Athenians like Plato and Thucydides were jolted into reflecting on the political and moral defects which brought about that catastrophe, sparing no piety or prejudice in the course of diagnosing the maladies of Athenian democracy. We must now do the same. This means not only asking ourselves in what ways we have failed to live up to our ideals, but also asking in what ways those very ideals might have had something in them false and pernicious. It means asking ourselves what are the rational grounds – and therefore the rational limits – upon which the political concepts of rights and equality rest. Above all things, it means inquiring into the proper nature of liberty for creatures such as ourselves, who not only have the ability to act freely, but the ability to act freely towards our perfection. If we do these things, then we have some hope that on the other side of upheaval, in the lifetimes of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, civil society will reemerge. We may not then possess the capacity to spread our culture around the globe, as we do now, but we will certainly be able to pass our renewed cultural heritage on to our own descendants. And that much is the eternal duty of all peoples, under all circumstances.

 

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