Mark Steyn

Steyn on Culture

The Gelded Age

ImageAll this week we're marking the tenth anniversary of my book America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It. You can find the first part of this series here, the second part here, and the third here. A decade ago, the book opened big and hit the New York Times Top Ten bestsellers, and Number One in Canada. It was never Harry Potter boffo, but it kept selling year on year, and picking up new fans en route, some from the most unlikely places. Step forward, Richard Dreyfuss, star of Jaws, Mr Holland's Opus and (one of my favorites) American Graffiti:

Mark Steyn, a writer with an irritating case of the smart-alecs, has written a book I urge you read called America Alone. Just the first few chapters are a geo-political wake-up call, and he is not someone I agree with very much. But he quotes bin Laden: "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse." And he quotes Donald Rumsfeld: "If we know anything it is that weakness is provocative."

We are on a clock we don't see or comprehend. We will not survive this century unless civic virtue is revived. We can discuss its origins all day—if we have the right to speak at all, and aren't dead under jihad.

That's an unusually robust formulation from today's Hollywood. I will leave it to Mr Dreyfuss to expand on what he means by "civic virtue". For my part, I explain in America Alone that what's needed is more civilizational or cultural confidence:

This book isn't an argument for more war, more bombing, more killing, but for more will. In a culturally confident age, the British in India were faced with the practice of "suttee" – the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. General Sir Charles Napier was impeccably multicultural:

'You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows.You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.'

India today is better off without suttee. If you don't agree with that, if you think that's just dead-white-male Eurocentrism, fine. But I don't think you really do believe that. Non-judgmental multiculturalism is an obvious fraud, and was subliminally accepted on that basis. After all, most adherents to the idea that all cultures are equal don't want to live in anything but an advanced western society. Multiculturalism means your kid has to learn some wretched tribal dirge for the school holiday concert instead of getting to sing "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" or that your holistic masseuse uses techniques developed from Native American spirituality, but not that you or anyone you care about should have to live in an African or Native American society. It's a quintessential piece of progressive humbug.

Or as a reader emailed earlier today:


I've felt for a long time that while we put other cultures continually under the spotlight such as Islamic ones, we tend to take our own one for granted and give it little thought. Like the fish swimming in the lake not really aware of the water around him until someone drains the lake. Our Western culture is unique and unprecedented and even somewhat of an outlier amongst all others. The strange irony is that people amongst us who continually do it down seem to take for granted that it is indestructible.

John Lord

Just so. As I continue in the book:

But, if you think you genuinely believe that suttee is just an example of the rich vibrant tapestry of indigenous cultures, you ought to consider what your pleasant suburb would be like if 25, 30, 48 per cent of the people around you really believed in it, too. Multiculturalism was conceived by the western elites not to celebrate all cultures but to deny their own: it is, thus, the real suicide bomb.

The rest of us – the ones who think you can make judgments about competing cultures, on liberty, religious freedom, the rule of law – need to recover the cultural cool that General Napier demonstrated.

Instead, as his first reaction to the controversy over those Danish cartoons, the EU's Justice and Security Commissioner, Franco Frattini, said that Europe would set up a "media code" to encourage "prudence" in the way they cover, ah, certain sensitive subjects. As Signor Frattini explained it to The Daily Telegraph, "The press will give the Muslim world the message: We are aware of the consequences of exercising the right of free expression... We can and we are ready to self-regulate that right."

"Prudence"? "Self-regulate our free expression"? No, I'm afraid that's just giving the Muslim world the message: You've won, I surrender, please stop kicking me.

But they never do. Because, to use the Arabic proverb with which Robert Ferrigno opens his novel Prayers For The Assassin, "A falling camel attracts many knives." In Denmark and France, the Netherlands and Britain, Islam senses the camel is falling and this is no time to stop knifing him.

One of the book's sections is called "The Gelded Age": I use the term in two senses, to refer not only to western peoples' disinclination to breed but also to their broader emasculation and docility. "The Gelded Age" was also the headline The Claremont Review of Books chose for their own essay on the book. The reviewer was my old Spectator comrade Theodore Dalrymple, and it was a somewhat mixed notice:

Steyn's jokes are often brilliant, not only because they are verbally inventive, but because they make a serious point. (Not all quite hit the mark, but that is because he makes so many.) Quoting the Imam al-Qaradawi, for example, to the effect that "Israelis might have nuclear bombs but we have the children bomb and these bombs must continue until liberation," Steyn comments, "Thank heaven for little girls; they blow up in a most delightful way." This captures perfectly—much better than any mere fulmination could—the depraved moral frivolity of the imam's statement.

Steyn's brilliance as a columnist, however, does not transfer perfectly to book length: America Alone is slightly disorganized and jumps from one subject to another, without an underlying structure. The argument of his book shines through, nevertheless, and can be simply put. It is that, because of unprecedented low birth rates of the native populations, and because of the presence of ever larger numbers of Muslim immigrants with very high birth rates, Western Europe is being rapidly Islamized, and many countries will have Muslim majorities in the not very distant future. The low birth rates of its native populations are caused, ultimately, by the welfare state. And the laughably weak pieties of multiculturalism render the native population incapable of resisting Islamization, without being able to engender any loyalty on the part of Muslim immigrants.

I wish Dr Dalrymple were right about jokes. Whether "brilliant" or not, they are a more fraught subject than they were a decade ago - as we'll come back to. The good doctor also disagreed with me about the comparative strength of a resurgent Islam:

Steyn is right that the main struggle is one of ideas. Unfortunately, political correctness, which is to thought what sentimentality is to compassion, means that the intelligentsia of the West has disarmed itself in advance of any possible struggle. But I think Steyn is mistaken, or at least fails to make a proper distinction, when he says that Islam is ideologically strong and confident. Shrillness and intolerance are not signs of strength, but of weakness; fundamentalism is a response to an awareness that, if the methods of intellectual inquiry that were used to challenge Christianity were permitted in the Muslim world, Islam would soon fall apart. But if Islam fell apart in the Islamic world, what source of self-respect would be left to the population? Their backwardness and mental impoverishment would then be exposed in all nakedness.

The ideological weakness of Islam was exposed in France, when two satirical papers there, Charlie Hebdo and Le Canard enchaîné, published cartoons after the Danish crisis that were infinitely more disrespectful of Islam and Muslims (and funnier) than the Danish cartoons had ever been. But apart from a failed attempt by a Muslim organization to get them banned by the French courts, they aroused no response: because, of course, the editors had shown that they were not going to be intimidated, and that there was more mockery where the cartoons came from. And there was no possible rejoinder to it. This is precisely why President Bush's response to the Danish cartoon crisis was not only foolish, but contemptible, and actually of far greater importance in the long run than his Iraq policy.

Dr Dalrymple is correct on President Bush's and other leaders' response to the Danish cartoons, but wrong on Charlie Hebdo: "There was no possible rejoinder to it." Oh, yes, there was. I spoke in Copenhagen on the fifth anniversary of the Danish cartoons: since then most of those I shared the stage with have been shot at or otherwise forced out of public life. When I returned to Copenhagen for the tenth anniversary, not only would the original publication not reprint its cartoons but those of us who spoke in the Danish parliament that day could not even secure a restaurant booking afterwards - because it's apparently dangerous not just to draw the cartoons but to be seen serving crappy pasta dishes to persons known to support the right of cartoonists to draw what they like. Richard Dreyfuss is right to wonder in this new future "if we have the right to speak at all": This decade has seen a remorseless retreat for freedom of expression.

Dr Dalrymple may well be right that Islam's intolerance is a sign of underlying insecurity. But he was a prison doctor for long enough to know that insecurity and violence often go hand in hand. As I wrote in my book Lights Out: Islam, Free Speech and the Twilight of the West:

As Tasnim Aslam of the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad helpfully clarified, 'Anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence.' So don't say we're violent or we'll kill you. As I wrote in National Review at the time, quod erat demonstrandum.

But that's a debating society line. Islam isn't interested in winning the debate, it's interested in winning the real fight ' the clash of civilizations, the war, society, culture, the whole magilla. That's why it doesn't care about the inherent contradictions of the argument: in the Middle East early in 2002, I lost count of the number of Muslims I met who believed simultaneously (a) that 9/11 was pulled off by the Mossad and (b) that it was a great victory for Islam. Likewise, it's no stretch to feel affronted at the implication that you're violently irrational and to threaten to murder anyone who says so. Western societies value logic because we value talk, and talks, and talking, on and on and on: that's pretty much all we do, to the point where, faced with any challenge from Darfur to the Iranian nuclear program, our objective is to reduce the issue to just something else to talk about interminably. But, if you don't prize debate and you merely want to win, getting hung up on logic is only going to get in your way. Take the most devastating rapier wit you know ' Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward ' and put him on a late-night subway train up against a psycho with a baseball bat. The withering putdown, the devastating aphorism will avail him nought.

The quality of your argument is only important if you want to win by persuasion.

If you'd rather just kill your opponents, it's irrelevant.

~All this anniversary week, we've been reprising Michelle Malkin's ten-year-old interview with me re America Alone. Here's the final instalment:

If you enjoyed the above conversation with Michelle, do check out of Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

~For a musical accompaniment to our anniversary observances, don't forget to swing by our Song of the Week department.

If you haven't read America Alone during its first ten years, well, you're missing a treat. It's still in print in hardback and paperback, and personally autographed copies are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.

from America Alone: The End Of The World As We Know It, October 13, 2016


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