It seems appropriate to begin by citing a recent review of Mark Steyn's America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, which will no doubt serve as a token of what that intrepid and politically incorrect author can expect to meet in the book pages of most of our major dailies. Writing in The Globe and Mail, William Christian opines that America Alone "is quite possibly the most crass and vulgar book about the West's relationship with the Islamic world I have ever encountered." After summarising a part of Steyn's argument, albeit a major one, that Western Europe is rapidly undergoing demographic extinction and thus colluding with the triumphant resurgence of Islam through strategic immigration, Christian dismisses the book as just another of those "rants" tailored for the American conservative market and deplores the presumably "aggressive, intolerant and radical ideology" it represents.
Christian also takes offence at Steyn's refusal to distinguish between extremist and moderate Islam. It is, of course, the noble—and politically correct—thing to say that the enemy at the gates is not Islam as such, but fundamentalist, jihadi Islam, and that Steyn's blanket condemnation is an unpardonable and invidious distortion. But any scrupulous reading of the primary Islamic texts would suggest otherwise. Steyn's gist would appear to be that "moderate Islam" is either the vitamin supplement of Western Islamophiles who do not wish to falter in their advocacy for the faith, or the anaesthetic of practising Muslims who do not wish to acknowledge its real nature. As he reminds us, "all of the official schools of Islamic jurisprudence commend sharia and violent jihad. So a 'moderate Muslim' can find no formal authority to support his moderation." This is assuming that the notion "moderate Muslims" constitutes a viable category of social analysis in the first place.
Steyn has a number of potent allies to support his thesis, such as Sam Harris (The End of Faith), Ibn Warraq (Why I Am Not a Christian), Robert Spencer (Islam Unveiled), and most recently Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who in her incendiary The Caged Virgin asks: "What, then, can Westerners do? At an international level, leaders such as Blair and Bush must stop saying that Islam is being held hostage by a terrorist minority. They are wrong. Islam is being held hostage by itself." In this view, the term "Islamic fundamentalism" is a kind of tautology. Since Muslims believe the Koran is the literal word of Allah which pronounces on matters both sacred and profane and governs their conduct in the world, it follows that all genuine Muslims are by definition fundamentalists who, as Muslims, must consent to the indivisible unity of religion and politics. "Moderation" merely provides the framework within which the ostensibly "extreme" forms of Islam can prosper and, so to speak, receive scriptural asylum. For Steyn and his congeners, the distinction we like to make in the interests of political correctness between Islam and Islamism is a specious one.
Let us try to establish the context, the greater community of discourse, in which Steyn's deposition is rooted, as his is by no means a lonely voice crying in the wilderness. Prominent members of the family of ideas to which Steyn's work belongs would include Conor Cruise O'Brien's On the Eve of the Millennium, Pascal Bruckner's The Temptation of Innocence, Roger Scruton's The West and the Rest, Jean-François Revel's Anti-Americanism, David Pryce-Jones's The Closed Circle, Bat Ye'or's Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, Bruce Bawer's While Europe Slept, and Melanie Phillips's Londonistan, among others. It is not an especially large family, but, deriving ultimately from the great conservative patriarchs Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, with their emphasis on the need for strong communal feeling, the importance of tradition, and a robust civil society not subservient to the state, it is certainly one with an impressive pedigree. Those who are gearing up to attack Steyn for his message will, in fairness, have to widen their range of fire—and desecrate two graves into the bargain. America may be alone but Steyn, it seems, is in good company.
The core thesis of America Alone is straightforward. Steyn isolates three key factors that call into question the future of the developed world: demographic decline, the consequent unsustainability of the Western social-democratic state with its shrinking tax base and its expanding cohort of retirees, and civilisational exhaustion—our way of life will stale-date in the visible future as we grow increasingly incapable of coming to grips with our dilemma. To complicate matters further, the modern multicultural state "is too watery a concept to bind huge numbers of immigrants to the land of their nominal citizenship" or to withstand the "globalized patholog[y]" of pan-Islam. There is a high probability, he continues, that we are now at "the dawn of the new Dark Ages (if darkness can dawn): a planet on which much of the map is re-primitivized." The burgeoning Islamic immigrant population is gradually but inexorably embarking on a process of internal colonisation to replace the aging and diminishing European population with a new "demographic profile." Islam is once again young and vigorous; Eurabia is a geriatric nightmare. As Steyn puts it, "Pre-modern Islam beats post-modern Christianity."
That the argument has been made before does not weaken its relevance. Robert Kaplan has given us the epithet "re-primitivized man", a being with a medieval mindset who moves freely among us, using a cellphone, enjoying access to the Internet, exploiting the many possibilities of modern aviation and turning to advantage the lavish welfare subsidies and favoured treatment afforded by the social-democratic state. Oriana Fallaci has stressed that a civilisational war is being waged not only with guns and bombs, but with boats and babies. Claire Belinski writes in her dirge for a civilization, Menace in Europe, that another Great Plague is gutting the population as the reproductive replacement rate plunges dramatically below the magic number of 2.1. As both Berlinski and Steyn point out, the United States is the only Western democracy which has barely managed to maintain the reproductive ratio. I might mention in passing that there is another, Israel, which is doing even better at 2.6, so America is not entirely alone. But it is ironic to note that the demographic survival of the West appears to rest with the Great Satan and the Little Satan. According to Steyn, America's hope and potential is that it may avoid the fate of an imploding Europe, but only if it can resist the encroachment of the kind of swollen welfare systems we see in Europe and Canada, and if it can act aggressively to beard the lion of so-called radical Islam. Nevertheless, our demographic prospects place us in considerable peril. One recalls that Ottoman thinker Said Nursi prophesied nearly a century ago in his famous Damascus Sermon that "Europe and America are pregnant with Islam. One day they will give birth to an Islamic state."
What Steyn has done is taken these claims and contentions, buttressed them with an array of accurate statistics alarming in their import, and tracked their logic to an inescapable conclusion, particularly with respect to Europe. At the same time, he clothes his polemic in that deflationary style, that syndicated wit—some would say flippancy—we have come to associate with his contestations, which takes nothing away from the fact that Steyn writes as a man with a staunch political conscience and equally as an exponent of common sense. All this is in the nature of satire—"he may be the most interesting satirist now writing in English,"says Victor Hanson Davis. Plainly, whether as a satirist or as a political philosopher, Steyn gives good read; his verbal friskiness only accentuates the sobriety of his themes and makes the depression that his insights induce at least partially bearable. Indeed, nobody writes quite like Steyn: the brash self-confidence, the styptic irony, the lacerating quips, asides, and anecdotes, the unflinching engagement with the reality principle, the spry vernacular, all working together to skewer the pretentiousness of the academic Left and the saccharine pieties of the liberal intelligentsia. One gets the impression that Steyn is just too nimble and bright for the majority of his detractors—and they are many—who sound increasingly emphysemic striving to keep up with his rhetorical pace. Nor, in my estimation, are they able to counter the brunt of his argument with a credible counteranalysis.
Steyn's inquiry into an overbureaucratised, highly centralised, social-welfare society, a society dedicated "to the belief that life is about sleeping in," is unrelenting. What he labels "Euro-statism", the disease from which the advanced nations suffer, involves promoting the secondary impulses—government health care and day care, paternity leave, gay marriage, cradle-to-grave welfare—over the primary ones: national defense, self-reliance, family and reproductive activity. This is what he calls the paradox of social democracy, which turns out to be anti-social. For modern social-democratic states "are so corrosive of their citizens' will and so enervating in elevating secondary priorities over primary ones that most of them would not survive even without the Islamists." These countries don't need enemies, given the depletion in their reserves of civic resolution, reproductive vitality, intergenerational solidarity, the feeling of national cohesion, and custodial responsibility for the cultural, economic, and political future. (As he intimates, the political climate will change drastically long before before meteorology brings down the curtain.)
"Secondary-impulse states can be very agreeable," he concedes, for "who wouldn't want to live in a world where the burning political issues are government-subsidized day care, the celebration of one's sexual appetites"—generally non-puerperal, naturally—"and whether mandatory paid vacations should be six or eight weeks? But they're agreeable only for the generation or two that they last." We do not seem to realise that "for good or ill it's the primal impulses that count." By expropriating many of the basic "functions of adulthood," the welfare state has proceeded to neuter its citizens, creating an inverted pyramid or Ponzi scheme in which fewer children support more and more oldsters while simultaneously sapping their will to confront an implacable adversary. In the face of the onslaught of Islamic terrorism operating in tandem with Islamic immigration, we are losing our last line of defense: "the free-born citizen whose responsibilities are not subcontracted to the government."
Even America, Steyn worries, is not exempt from the subversive temptation to capitulate. "The self-imposed constraints of this war—legalistic, multilateral, politically correct—are clearer every day" in the chastening spectacle of "a hyperpower reluctant to sell its indisputably successful inheritance to the rest of the world." This is not a question of sectoral disputes between rival cultural and religious factions or political parties, but rather of a war of attrition waged by a determined foe against feckless societies wedded to a policy of appeasement and flirting with the fantasy of harmonious coexistence. For the former, it is their century of truth; for the latter, facts suck.
"Meanwhile, we fight the symptoms—the terror plots—but not the cause: the ideology." America possesses the military clout to prevail on the battlefield and is not always shy of using it, but if it fails to carry the war into the judicial, diplomatic, economic, and informational fronts where the adversary has mobilised his most effective forces, it will be game over. Steyn phrases the American quandary in his characteristically tannic manner: "The choice for the United States is between those who believe America can take the lead in shaping the times and those who think the most powerful nation in human history can simply climb in the Suburban and go to the mall for its entire period of dominance." As for the Euro-Canadian polity—nations that cannot muster the energy even to reproduce themselves and that are preoccupied mainly with securing not their borders but their benefits—it is already game over. Unless, that is, they can accept the unpalatable fact that they are their own worst enemies, labour to restore confidence in a genealogical future, and reduce their bloated welfare economies to empower the loyal, self-reliant, and productive individual rather than parasitic interest groups of whatever stripe who profit from our lethargy. Regrettably, the chances of this happening are practically nil.
Steyn's brief would obviously be rejected by the dirigiste Left as a heartless starve-the-beast policy. But it would more likely revive the human, as Charles Murray has contended in his recent In Our Hands, a tributary source of Steyn's thinking on the subject. The central argument of America Alone, elaborated in remorseless detail over 200-plus pages, runs against the current and will prove anathema to the concessionary thinkers of the soi-disant "liberal" West. We live in a time in which everything is fraught with danger, especially clear speech, which has the resented end of perforating the make-believe world we persist in inhabiting. As I have mentioned, Steyn deploys a direct, barbed, and acerbic language which provokes discomfort as it punctures the cherished clichés and rosy scenarios by which we run our lives, and therefore the truths he articulates must be dismissed by our teeming cadres of intellectual softies as mere "rant", as "crass and vulgar." In effect, he seems increasingly to be regarded by the punditry of the Left as some sort of Dr. FrankenSteyn, assembling his monstrous progeny in the garish laboratory of a deranged mind. But in attempting to marginalise him, they insulate themselves against the power of his critical analysis of the contemporary nanny state and the stark predicament of post-Enlightenment modernity.
Toward the end of the book Steyn formulates the credo which has dominated his thinking since 9/11: "anything that shifts power from the individual judgment of the free citizen to government is a bad thing." Or in the words of Todd Beamer, "Let's roll!" It's hard to quarrel with that. It was, Steyn points out, the independent-minded passengers of Flight 93 who reacted courageously and purposefully to the terrorist hijacking, precisely what a "torpid bureaucratic culture" was unable to do as the crisis took its course and continues to impinge in a multitude of different ways upon our civic existence. Among the most urgent tasks facing us today is "restoring the balance between the state and the citizen." Improbable as it may sound, the regulatory apparatus must contract so that the population may expand and it must cease in its "attempts to supplant human judgment with government management" so that the individual may flourish. For the decadent benevolism of the modern state deprives the individual of his autonomy and thereby infantilises him, reducing him to a supine appendage on a vast administrative organism. If we do not recover our backbone as responsible citizens, we will find ourselves living in an invertebrate world that is no match for a supple and aggressive antagonist who has our demise at heart.
I conclude with a recommendation. If you were to buy only two books this year, get two copies of America Alone: one for your own edification as well as entertainment—for Steyn is side-splitting uproarious even as he unfolds the tragedy of a doomed and blinkered "world as we know it," a world up for grabs—and one for the person you care most about. You will be making a valuable gift. •
David Solway's The Big Lie: Reflections on Terror, Anti-Semitism and Identity will appear in early 2007.