Posted: April 9, 2007
ichael Oakeshott once introduced Isaiah Berlin as the "Paganini of the lecture platform." Mark Steyn is the Paganini of the political column. Unlike Oakeshott, I mean no insult by my compliment. After all, Paganini really was a brilliant virtuoso, and he composed pieces that are still played after a lapse of nearly two centuries—far more than most of us ever achieve.
Paganini appeared all over Europe, but Steyn appears all over the world, from the Jerusalem Post to the Irish Times. He is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and National Review, a drama critic for the New Criterion, an obituarist for the Atlantic Monthly, and a book critic for Macleans. He has published three collections of his writing and a book about Broadway. But his fame rests squarely on his witty commentary on politics, and this is his long-awaited treatment of the subject.
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.
The United States alone has a favorable demographic trend (though only by comparison with Europe's, not by comparison with that of the Islamic world). It is also more self-confident ideologically, and therefore in a better position to resist Islamization. Nevertheless, complacency is not in order. There is a danger, and it is growing.
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Apocalyptic visions are, of course, much more interesting than more circumspect ones. A prediction that Germany's economy will probably grow by between 1.9 and 2.1% next year is not calculated to sell many newspapers. But apocalypses do occur, and the fact that the fall of the Roman Empire was predicted many times before it actually fell doesn't mean that it didn't fall.
At the beginning of his book, Steyn warns us that many of the predictions made by pundits in the recent past that caused the more susceptible of us to lose sleep, about such alleged problems as the cooling of the planet, the depletion of oil reserves, and overpopulation leading to chronic famine and mass death, now appear ridiculous to us. These predictions turned out to be wrong because those who made them failed to understand that a projection is different from a prediction. For instance, the rate at which a colony of a bacterium initially grows on a Petri dish might lead you to suppose that within a month the entire biosphere will consist of nothing but that kind of bacteria, and within a year the entire universe. Though accurate as a projection, as a prediction that would be ludicrous.
Is Steyn guilty of the same error? Projection may be risky, but at the moment it is all we have to guide us. The alarmist predictions of Islamization depend upon the supposition that the populations of Islamic origin in Western Europe will not change in their allegiance to Islam, and of course this is debatable. So far, at least, the trend seems to be entirely in the wrong direction: the North Africans who were brought in during the 1960s and '70s to man France's booming factories were largely quietist where their religion was concerned, content to practice it in private, while many of their children (or sons, to be precise) favor jihad, despite the fact that they have less strictly religious faith than their fathers and have assimilated to Western culture at least to the extent of having adopted the menacing dumb insolence of American ghetto-dwellers. Steyn is quite right to say that the worst of Islamic culture has been successfully combined with the worst of Western culture, in what is a multiculturalist equivalent of the Black Mass.
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Steyn misses a point or two, but then his book is not very long. The principal immediate attraction of Islam to young Muslims brought up in the West is actually the control and oppression of women. After all, if you can be sultan of your own home, you need hardly look elsewhere for a sense of achievement or importance; this is hard luck on the women, of course, but it does give a clue as to what les jeunes were fighting for during France's riots in autumn 2005. They wanted extra-territoriality, as it were, free from the incursions of the French state, so that in their slums they could continue their one economic activity, drug-dealing, and their domination of women without interruption.
In a very, indeed typically, short-sighted way, the French state missed a golden opportunity to introduce deep division into the areas where les jeunes rioted, by forcing insurance companies to pay for all the cars that were burnt there—though contractually they were not obliged to do so. This permitted the owners of the burnt-out cars to indulge in "understanding" and "sympathy" towards destroyers of their own property, whereas if they had been left to bear the losses themselves they might have felt rather less kindly disposed towards the young men so brave in their defense of male dominance.
French and British policy towards their large Muslim populations has been very different. There is apartheid in France: not official or legal, of course, but de facto. Whether it is better or worse to segregate, intentionally or not, your social problems in this way, as the French have done, or to disperse them everywhere so that nowhere is free of them, as the British have done, I leave to moral philosophers to decide.
When I was in France during the riots, the most striking thing was not the riots themselves; it was the complete calm, indeed serenity, of ordinary French citizens. Most of them, of course, had no more contact with the riots than they had had with the rioters beforehand. The commander of the CRS, the extremely tough and rightly feared riot police, issued a statement to the effect that the worse the situation got, the more "serene" were his men: a veiled threat that les jeuneswere French enough to understand and take seriously, which explains why no cars were burnt, and no riots occurred, in the centers of any major towns or cities.
The British system, of course, has been more laissez-faire in its economic aspects, though combined with enervating political correctness in its cultural ones, which means that in the areas in which Muslims congregate there are large numbers of small businesses, many of them very successful. This is not altogether comforting, however, because it is from this stratum of society—from the sons of the owners of these businesses, who are very far from economically deprived, and who have usually been to university—that some of the suicide bombers have been drawn.
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.
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On the matter of military intervention, the export of democracy, and Realpolitik, I also disagree with Steyn. He argues that what might be called the our-sonofabitch policy, of propping up leaders who are friendly towards us, or at least not a threat to us, is wrong because it is not sustainable in the long run. Thus, full elections à la the Netherlands are desirable in Egypt (to take an obvious example) because any democratically elected government is preferable to Mubarak. But politics is the art of the possible, and cultures, like individual human beings, are not blank slates upon which (in the words of that late humanitarian, Chairman Mao) the most beautiful characters can be written.
I recall visiting Moldavia and Transnistria at the time of the very nasty and bloody war between them, in which Transnistria claimed its independence from Moldavia. "Why don't you consider," asked a member of a Danish human rights organization, "the Faroe Islands model?" Yes, indeed. For that matter why doesn't Iraq consider the Faroe Islands model? I think the fundamental answer is that the Sunni are not Danes, and the Shia are not Faroe Islanders. If I am right, the idea of bringing democracy by military means cannot work unless there is some cultural basis for its introduction, as there clearly was in Germany, and as there was in India by the time the British left, 200 years after they arrived. The British did not impose the Westminster model on India—quite the reverse. The Indians adopted (and adapted) it for themselves, against the opposition of at least many of the British. Likewise with Israel.
It is of course always possible, with sufficient force, to change any country; but no country, howsoever weak it may be, can be changed as if it were putty in the hands of its conquerors. For the sake of humanity, I am glad that this is so: it means that there are inherent limits to power, and it is well to recognize them before, rather than after, embarking on adventures. And it is also worth remembering that one-man-one-vote democracy is perfectly compatible with the greatest crimes known to man.
With Steyn's analysis of the decline of cultural confidence in the West, particularly in Europe, I am in agreement. The welfare state has sapped all will to what is often mocked as la gloire; but without a notion of glory, without a notion that there is something in human life more worth striving for than universal central heating and television, no great thing is ever achieved. That is one of the reasons why the public architecture in Europe is now so awful: once you have lost the habits of taste, taste itself disappears even when money is available for its exercise.
This is a very urgent book, but I am unsure whether I want to be around to see whether Steyn's pessimism is entirely justified.