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I always wondered how a devout Jew reacted after God had sent ancient Israel a prophet, say Jeremiah, to warn His chosen people of pending disaster unless the country quickly repented and changed its ways. I imagine the sensation is at least somewhat similar to reading Mark Steyn’s After America. For, like an Old Testament prophet sent to warn a people of their forthcoming destruction, Steyn sounds the doomsday alarm: America is a declining superpower and will soon fall hard from its perch of leadership over the rest of the world.
In his last major book, America Alone, Mark Steyn posited that Western civilization in Europe was in the throes of death, and that it would be up to America to carry the torch. “A warning,” Steyn says near the beginning of After America, “that proved so influential that America decided to sign up for the same program but supersized. Heigh-ho.”
Now, Steyn warns, America is quickly following its European colleagues into perpetual decline and, unless the country acts quickly and decisively, will soon find itself in a significantly weakened position in a dangerous post-American world. Steyn makes it clear he doesn’t enjoy being a doomsday prophet and finds no joy or satisfaction in his message:
Nobody writes a doomsday tome because they want it to come true. From an author’s point-of-view, the apocalypse is not helpful: the bookstores get looted and the collapse of the banking system makes it harder to cash the royalty check.
Western civilization, Steyn writes, “is a synthesis – a multicultural synthesis, if you like: Athenian democracy, Roman law, the Hebrew Bible, dispersed by London to every corner of the globe.” In many ways, America is the culmination of this glorious heritage. Unfortunately, America now more closely resembles the newer, degenerated versions of these once-great geopolitical states (Rome, Athens, Britain and Jerusalem), than their celebrated pasts, which so mightily contributed to the founding of our country.
The New Rome
“Long before they slump into poverty,” Steyn writes, “great powers succumb to a poverty of ambition.” Visit Italy today and one can browse the city streets and tour the remnants of Rome’s storied past. Yet it has been nearly two thousand years since Rome mattered in a fundamental way. Like Rome, Steyn argues, America is living off of the memories of its past achievements while unable to currently muster the ability to accomplish much of anything. As Steyn puts it, “America has a money-is-no-object government with a lot of money but no great objects.”
This is because, Steyn explains, “the bigger government gets, the less it does.” Say what you will about the relative success or failure of Hoover’s and Roosevelt’s policies during the Great Depression, but the Hoover Dam was a monumental feat that used renewable energy and prompted the growth of an entire region of the country. It was also completed two years ahead of schedule! Now, Steyn laments, government is more apt to release a study saying the Hoover Dam is non-compliant with an obscure environmental regulation and close it down than it is to build a new one! Steyn concludes this is just part of progressives’ overall war on progress. Indeed, Steyn says, just as the “late Roman Empire was no longer an aqueduct-building culture, we are no longer a dam-building one.” And that’s a damming indictment on modern day America!
Another example: Forty years ago NASA put the first man on the moon. Now, after scrapping the shuttle program, NASA can’t even put a man in space. But don’t worry, that’s not NASA’s concern anymore as NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained in an al-Jazeera interview. Bolden stated that one of the primary goals given to America’s space agency by President Obama was finding a way to “reach out to the Muslim world.” Using his trademark wit, Steyn writes:
Islam: The final frontier! To boldly go where no diversity outreach consultant has gone before! What’s “foremost” for NASA is to make Muslims “feel good” about their contribution to science. Why, as recently as the early ninth century Muhammad al-Kwarizmi invented the first universal horary quadrant!
During the Great Depression, the Empire State Building, then the world’s tallest building, was built in eighteen months because, as Steyn puts it, “the head of General Motors wanted to show the head of Chrysler that he could build something that went higher than the Chrysler Building.” Now? There’s a gaping hole and a mere skeleton of a new construction project at Ground Zero ten years and $7 billion after 9/11. Meanwhile other countries have been quite busy:
In the decade after 9/11, China (which America still thinks of as a cheap assembly plant for your local Krappimart) built the Three Gorges Dam, the largest electricity-generating plant in the world. Dubai, a mere sub-jurisdiction of the United Arabs Emirate, put up the world’s tallest building and built a Busby Berkeley geometric kaleidoscope of offshore artificial islands. Brazil, an emerging economic power, began diverting the Sao Francisco River to create some 400 miles of canals to irrigate its parched northeast.
Contrasting these nations’ recent feats to ours, it seems pretty obvious which culture is declining and which are rising. “A wealthy nation”, Steyn ominously concludes, “living on the accumulated cultural capital of a glorious past can dodge its rendezvous with fate, but only for so long.”
The New Athens
A little more than a year ago Greeks took to the street to riot after the government was forced to consider “strict” austerity measures as it neared total bankruptcy and a bailout by the European Union. The mob, consisting mostly of civil workers, burned down a bank killing three of its employees that were trapped inside. The rioters refused to let the employees out or rescue workers in to save the victims. Steyn writes:
Unlovely as they are, the Greek rioters are the logical end point of the advanced social democratic state: not an oppressed underclass, but a spoiled overclass, rioting in defense of its privileges and insisting on more subsidy, more benefits, more featherbedding, more government.
Steyn states what everyone knows but is afraid to say: The welfare state of Europe and, to a slightly lesser degree, America, is simply unsustainable. “When you’re spending four trillion dollars but only raising two trillion in revenue (the Democrat model),” Steyn argues, “you’ve no intention of paying it off, and the rest of the world knows it.” The Obama administration, upon taking office, took the average Bush deficit from 2001-2008 and doubled it – all the way to 2020.
America’s debt has other consequences besides just the obvious ones. In 2010, half of our debt was owned by foreigners, and most of that was held by the Chinese. Steyn continues (emphasis mine):
What does that mean? In 2010, the U.S. spent about $663 billion on its military, China about $78 billion. If the People’s Republic carries on buying American debt at the rate it has in recent times, then within a few years U.S. interest payments on that debt will be covering the entire cost of the Chinese armed forces.
Yikes! And all that, Steyn mentions, while China is undergoing, according to alarming Pentagon reports, a “massive military build-up.” In other words, we are paying what might be our most dangerous enemy to build-up and maintain it’s military. Can someone say insane?
Yet the economic argument is only the first, and simplest, argument against the Europeanization of America. The second is subtler. “Advanced social democracies don’t need a value-added tax,” Steyn writes, “they need a value-added life.” Channeling his earlier work, America Alone, Steyn once again notes Europe’s plunging birth rates and its declining native populations. For Europeans, a state welfare-coddled existence has made them stop from even caring about the future. Indeed, their state-funded lifestyles have seemingly robbed the very meaning from life:
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…Europe’s economic crisis is a mere symptom of its existential crisis: What is life for? What gives it meaning? Post-Christian, post-nationalist, post-modern Europe has no answer to that question, and so it has 30-year-old students and 50-year-old retirees, and wonders why the small band of workers in between them can’t make the math add up. Yet it’s not about the arithmetic, but about instilling in people for whom life is a diversion a sense of purpose larger than themselves: What’s it all about, Alfie?
The New Britain
“When a society loses its memory,” asserts Steyn, “it descends inevitably into dementia.” Steyn states the British were arguably “the greatest force for good” in the last century and, as much as the world can say it functions, “it’s due largely to the Britannic influence.” Of this there can be no argument. The English made law, democracy and capitalism “permanent features of the landscape” around most of the world.
For all this inheritance, Britain does not have much to show for it today. Due to an unhealthy entitlement mentality stemming from a dependence on government and the gospel of multiculturalism, many young Britons are cut off from their cultural identity. The numbers are startling:
After empire, Britain turned inward: between 1951 and 1997 the proportion of government expenditure on defense fell from 24 percent to 7, while the proportion on health and welfare rose from 22 percent to 53. And that’s before New Labour came along to widen the gap.
It gets worse. Forty percent of British citizens now receive government handouts. Twenty percent of British children are raised in homes in which no adult works. Worst of all, “just under 900,000 have been off sick for over a decade, claiming ‘sick benefits,’ week in, week out for ten years and counting.” Steyn continues:
What happens when, as a matter of state policy, you debauch your human capital? The United Kingdom has the highest drug use in Europe, the highest incidence of sexually transmitted disease, the highest number of single mothers, the highest abortion rate; marriage is all but defunct except for toffs, upscale gays, and Muslims.
No, I don’t know what “toffs” means either, but these numbers are certainly dismal. Absent their own identity, the British youth are left seeking on their own for meaning in life:
If you cut off two generations of students from their cultural inheritance, why be surprised that legions of British Muslims sign up for the Taliban? These are young men who went to school in Luton and West Bromich and learned nothing of their country of nominal citizenship other than that it’s responsible for racism, imperialism, colonialism, and all the other bad-isms of the world. If that’s all you knew of Britain, why would you feel any allegiance to Queen and country?
Following in the footsteps of Britain, Americans’ dependence on government handouts grows by the day and a generation of Americans is quickly losing their sense of identity. America is famously a “proposition nation” as Steyn calls it, a country “defined not by blood but by an idea.” That idea is freedom. Yet, what happens when America loses the commonality of that idea?
While freedom is being threatened by a variety of sources, one of the problems, Steyn points out, is that more and more laws and regulations are being enacted by unelected bureaucrats in safe government jobs and not by elected officials. In 2010, when liberals failed to pass a cap-and-trade bill in Congress, they blithely brushed off the defeat and suggested the EPA could enact the law all by itself. Steyn asks, “Where do you go to vote out the EPA?” Steyn concludes these alphabet bureaucracies have caused us to devolve “from republican self-government to a micro-regulated nursery.”
Steyn uses a shocking anecdote to illustrate his point: In the spring of 2009, Pennsylvania’s state government began cracking down on the selling of illegal substances that had been going unchecked for decades. For just one dollar, many people were able to purchase small portions of this prohibited good. Indeed, St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church in Rochester, PA had been selling homemade pies every Friday at their weekly fish fry during Lent for decades. The perps were all elderly ladies who donated their time and expertise of baking goodies to their church to help raise money. Yet, as the state inspector explained, because the pies were not being baked in a state-inspected kitchen, the pies could not be sold for money. As an alternative, the inspector suggested, the ladies could each pay a fee to have the inspector certify their respective kitchens or come into the church’s certified kitchen to bake their goods. As 73-year old Louise Humpbert justly complained, that was just “ridiculous.”
It’s not just the elderly the state is going after. Seven-year-old Julie Murphy, from Portland, OR, was selling lemonade like any other industrious kid, when officers demanded to see her “temporary restaurant license.” The license costs $120 and, when Julie did not have it, the officers threatened her with a $500 fine. Julie cried. Steyn writes:
No matter how you slice it, this is tyranny…In a small but tangible way, a person who submits to a state pie regime is a subject, not a citizen…
In another example, California’s inspection goons determined a hardware store was in violation for providing coffee, free of charge, to its customers on Saturday mornings.
When the law says it’s illegal for a storekeeper to offer his customer a cup of coffee, you should be proud to be in non-compliance. Otherwise, what the hell did you guys bother holding a revolution for? Say what you like about George III, but he didn’t prosecute the Boston Tea Party for unlicensed handling of beverage ingredients in a public place.
Indeed, Steyn writes, freedom is at the heart of the modern day tea party movement too:
That’s why these protests are called Tea Parties – because the heart of the matter is the same question posed two and a half centuries ago: Are Americans subjects or citizens?
As America loses its unifying concept of freedom, including the principle of federalism, which allows local communities to live as they see fit, Steyn predicts states will start to seek secession from the union in hopes to survive. He writes, “Balkanization will cease to be a pejorative and become the least worst hope: united we’re done for, but divided a few corners of the map might stand a chance.”
The New Jerusalem
How will America soon resemble the Jerusalem of today? No matter how hard a post-modern, post-great-power tact Americans try to take we will not be able to retreat from the world’s problems. Indeed, in a post-American superpower world, Americans will find the danger even closer to home rather than half a world away.
In 2010 Zogby polled the “moderate” Arab world to see how Arabic opinion of America had changed after two years of Obama’s international apology tour. In 2008, 83% of Arabs had a “very” or “somewhat” negative view of America. In 2010, it was 85%. In other words, there was virtually no difference. Why?
Because sometimes who you are is more important than anything you do. America will discover, as Israel did, that a one-way urge for normaliut will lead to a more dangerous world. In the vacuum of U.S. retreat, anti-Americanism will nevertheless metastasize and crowd in from our borders.
America’s retreat from the world is already underway. China is now the biggest trading partner of emerging economic powerhouses like India and Brazil and is the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter. It should not surprise us, Steyn says, that “getting on with America matters less and less.” Looking down the road a bit, the picture gets even grimmer:
Picture the UN a few years down the road: for three of the Security Council’s permanent members (Britain, France, Russia), an accommodation with Islam will be a domestic political imperative, and getting along with China will be the overriding foreign priority….There will be no new world order, only a world with no order, in which pipsqueak failed states go nuclear while the planet’s wealthiest nations are unable to defend their borders and are forced to adjust to the post-American era as they can. Yet, in such a geopolitical scene, whatever survives of the United States will still be the most inviting target – first because it’s big; and second because, as Britain knows, the durbar moves on but the imperial resentments linger long after imperial grandeur.
At the end of the day, “Washington will be the new Jerusalem – a beleaguered citadel in a world that wants to kill it.”
The Glimmer of Hope
By the end of After America’s 400 pages of doom-and-gloom, Steyn’s message is pretty disheartening. While relaying the pessimistic gist of the book to some relatives, they wanted to know if Steyn believes there is any hope left for America. Yes…but just a glimmer. Crucial distinctions do remain between America, the land of the free, and the rest of the world.
In France, mobs rioted over modest proposals to raise the retirement age. In Britain, students rioted when small attempts were made to cut spending. Steyn continues:
Everywhere from Iceland to Bulgaria angry mobs besieged their parliaments demanding the same thing: Why didn’t you the government do more for me? America was the only nation in the developed world where millions of people took to the streets to tell the state: I can do just fine if you control-freak statists would shove your non-stimulating stimulus, your jobless jobs bill, and your multitrillion-dollar-porkathons, and just stay the hell out of my life and pocket.
Steyn concludes, “That’s the America that has a fighting chance.” In the final chapter, as a guideline to fighting Big Government’s encroachment upon our liberties, Steyn offers nine “D’s” America must do to turn around our ship: de-centralize, de-governmentalize, de-regulate, de-monopolize, de-complicate, de-credentialize, dis-entitle, de-normalize, and do.
For all the book’s negative subject matter, Steyn does a masterful job of using his wit and humor to keep the narrative flowing. Like a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down, his sharp humor makes the bad news a lot easier to take. As Ann Coulter says, “Only Mark Steyn can write about the decline of America and leave you laughing.”
The end result is a book that will have to be wrestled with by conservatives as we approach the 2012 elections. If some might underestimate the importance of the election, which finds America at a crucial crossroads, a read through these pages will quickly correct the problem. For, while Europe is already being hurled over the top of the waterfall of fiscal and cultural destruction, America can still paddle to the shore but only if we start paddling right now. Like ancient Israel after God sent Jeremiah, we cannot say we weren’t warned.