Interview: Mark Steyn on After America (Transcript Added)
Armageddon, now in handy, portable, MP3 form.
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. But Cassandra’s warnings were cursed to go unheeded, and so it seems are mine. Last time ’round, I wrote that Europe was facing a largely self-inflicted perfect storm that threatened the very existence of some of the oldest nation-states in the world. My warning proved so influential that America decided to sign up for the same program but supersized. Heigh-ho.
As I said to Mark at the top of our 20 minute interview this morning, I received a copy of his book from his publicist on Wednesday, the Dow Jones dropped 512 points on Thursday, and S&P shorted America's credit rating on Friday.
Now that's a publicity campaign.
Mark discusses what H.G. Wells' Victorian-era Time Traveler would think about life amongst the "Eloi" of the 21st century. He offers his take on Bloomberg.com's presumably unintentionally hilarious headline yesterday, "Geithner Says European Nations Must Get ‘Fiscal House’ in Order." And he'll answer the question that's been on Thomas Friedman's mind in recent weeks -- "Can Greeks Become Germans?"
All this and much more of the most fun you'll have contemplating the Spenglerian collapse of a nation near you. (And watch this space for a transcript of the interview, hopefully online tomorrow. UPDATE: Transcript added here.)
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Update (8/9/11): Transcript of interview begins on next page.
MR. DRISCOLL: Hi, this is Ed Driscoll for PJMedia.com, and we're talking with Mark Steyn of National Review in the States, Macleans Magazine in Canada, frequent guest host for Rush Limbaugh, author of the New York Times bestselling 2006 book America Alone, and author of the brand new book, After America: Get Ready for Armageddon, now out at Amazon.com and your local bookstore, if you still have a local bookstore.
And Mark, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.
MR. STEYN: My pleasure. And I think there are still a couple of local bookstores. I like the way Borders decided to close down rather than be faced with the indignity of stocking my book. Who can blame them?
MR. DRISCOLL: Well, Mark, your book arrived from your publicist on Wednesday. The next day the stock market dropped 512 points. The following day, America's credit rating gets devalued by Standard & Poor's. Now, that's some serious publicity. How did you manage to pull that off?
MR. STEYN: Yeah, that is an ace publicist, to be able to arrange, on the weekend before launch, a 500 point drop in the stock market and the downgrade to AA status. You know, I mean, that's the -- that's the difference between a skilled publicist just one of these inept types.
MR. DRISCOLL: And I swear, when I was at the gym on Friday night, on the TV monitors above the treadmill, on one monitor they had the 2002 Hollywood remake of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and on the other, CNN -- a CNN roundtable panel blaming S&P, the Tea Party and everybody but President Obama for ruining America's credit rating.
MR. STEYN: Right, right.
MR. DRISCOLL: In After America, Wells' futuristic race of “Eloi” play a prominent role. And in your book, who are the twenty-first century Eloi?
MR. STEYN: Yeah, I think -- I think it's interesting that -- that Wells -- because when you're writing about a futuristic -- even just futuristic by kind of mid-decade, which is really what After America is, because I don't think we're talking about the twenty-second century or even mid-century. I think we're talking about 2015, by the time all this stuff starts to kick in.
But just to get a kind of feel of things, I went back and reread the big futuristic dystopian stuff, Orwell and Huxley, because these guys were pretty -- they all saw elements that came to pass.
But the book that really tickled my fancy on that was H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, where he -- his Victorian gentleman climbs on a time machine and propels himself forward 800,000 years, when mankind has divided into two species, this kind of soft, pampered, smooth, vegetarian elite, and then these dark, feral, unseen, Morlocks. And I think Wells was brilliant. The only thing he got wrong that it wasn't 800,000 years in the future, it was basically the best part of a century in the future.
Because I think if you look at the kind of people who've run America into the ground and run most of the Western world into the ground, they are a soft, pampered, for want of a better word, metrosexual elite, who, like the Eloi, have lost all contact with the idea of how stuff is made, how stuff gets done, how things happen.
And this -- in your great State of California, these people who somehow expect to continue to enjoy an advanced Western lifestyle, while voting to ban everything from the irrigation canals for their beloved arugula, to any new dam construction to deliver water to their homes, these people, like the Eloi, have lost all connection to how stuff gets made.
I love that line that Wells uses, which I quote in After America, "Futile prettiness". Wells compares them to the sort of cattle lowing in the field and says, "Like the cattle, they knew no enemies, and like the cattle their end was the same." And I think the Eloi and their sort of -- our American Eloi and their appalling pampered complacency have done terrible things to this country.
MR. DRISCOLL: In The Time Machine the Eloi were transformed futuristic humans. And similarly, you have a chapter in After America that's best summed up by a question that Thomas Friedman recently asked in a New York Times headline: Can Greeks become Germans?
MR. STEYN: Yeah, that was Thomas Friedman's question: Can Greeks become Germans? I think the problem is, is that sufficient numbers of Germans have become Greeks, and sufficient numbers of Americans have also gone down that path.
I think -- I think Thomas Friedman almost gets to something there. And it's fascinating to me, by the way, because he's the big globalization guru who thinks -- who, for twenty years now, has been peddling a view of man as homo-economicus, that essentially, you know, if some guy in a -- if you put a factory in the jungles of New Guinea, and fill it full of guys with grass skirts, then they start to look at things in the way that a mill worker in nineteenth century Massachusetts would.
And what that headline, "Can Greeks become Germans" tells us, is what Angela Merkel and German taxpayers well understand, is that the problem in Greece is not the Greek economy. The problem is the Greek people. And culture trumps economics. Culture trumps economics every time.
And that's why the productive class in America, the people who go out to work every day, who want to build a business, they don't have -- they don't want to do it through a get-rich scheme. They want to do it through going to work. They want to do it by making or selling a good product that people genuinely want.
And the government and the unproductive class, the government class and the dependent class, throw these huge obstacles in their path. And so -- and so essentially, you have a productive class reeling under a backbreaking burden imposed on them by the government class and the dependency class. And eventually you get -- reach the Greeks situation, where there's simply -- the other side is just too big and is too crushing. And like the Ancient Mariner, you're staggering around with this huge great dead albatross of government around your neck, and you can never straighten up from it.
MR. DRISCOLL: Well, speaking of Europe and the intersection of socialism and demography, what did you make of the headline that appeared yesterday at Bloomberg.com: "Timothy Geithner says European nations must get ‘fiscal house’ in order"?
MR. STEYN: Well, you know, their house is -- I think their house is in less worse order, as it were, than Timothy Geithner's. So he certainly shouldn't be throwing stones. But you get -- you get to some basic arithmetic problems here, that the -- why are the Germans -- I mention this at one point in the book -- why are the Germans holding a trillion dollars -- German state banks, the Landesbank, and holding a trillion dollars' worth of subprime crud from the United States? Because of German demography.
German banks didn't have enough young people to lend money to, which is what banks do. I mean, banks are there, in which old people with capital stick their money in banks, and the bankers lend it to young people with ideas.
When you have not enough young people, then the banks need to start lending money further and further afield to places they don't really fully understand. So the poor old German Landesbanken have got a trillion dollars' worth of this subprime mumbo-jumbo from the United States, because of -- because of Germany's demographic crisis.
So these factors -- this is why all this idea of it being cyclical, that we were told in 2008, this isn't a cyclical issue. This isn't a cyclical downturn. This is a big structural problem for the whole of the Western world.
MR. DRISCOLL: I think you mentioned in After America, the U.S. obsession with diversity.
MR. STEYN: Yeah.
MR. DRISCOLL: Howell Raines, who was then the editor of the New York Times famously said that his hiring campaign, "has made our staff better and more importantly more diverse." And NASA is more obsessed with feminism and Muslim outreach than actually sending astronauts into space. And as you write in the book, “this is your brain on political correctness.” How do we get to this point, and where do we go from here?
MR. STEYN: Yeah, because I think, by the -- I said that for some reason, the U.S. Navy's newsletter started turning up in my inbox one morning. I don't know how I got on the mailing list. And I was like all thrilled about this, because I'm a big fan of the U.S. military, and they're appallingly covered by the New York Times and the Boston Globe and the L.A. Times. They don't have -- and I thought it was going to be full of daring -- tales of daring do against Somali -- underreported tales -- cutting Somali pirates down to size off the Horn of Africa.
And instead it's all, you know, senior Navy leader receives Black Engineer of the Year Award; Naval history website highlight's Women's History Month; so-and-so receives diversity leadership award. And we all thought -- Tom Wolfe -- I had the pleasure of having a drink with Tom Wolfe in a rather pleasant bar in New York a few months ago. And he was talking about when he wrote his novel -- great novel on the American college campus. And he sat in and he went and visited a lot of American colleges. And he said that as far as he could see, you know, American college students just sat silently through all this diversity and political correctness, rolling their eyes, until they graduated and they could forget all about it.
And I would love to believe that is so. But when you have the United States Navy peddling all this diversity blather, when the head of the United States Army says, after some crazy Jihadist has killed fourteen people at Fort Hood, that as tragic as this was, if the army's diversity were to suffer, that would be an even greater tragedy. Diversity is not a word anyone -- anyone -- outside the academy or the pansified media should be using with a straight face. And when you've got senior members of the United States military using it, you're probably in terminal trouble.
MR. DRISCOLL: In your chapter on England, you wrote, "When a society loses its memory, it descends inevitably into dementia." So how's the mental health of the West holding up these days?
MR. STEYN: Yeah. I -- I find -- I find this fascinating. I think I said it in that section on the depraved state of Britannia, in reference to, I think, an Empire Ball that somebody was going to hold at Cambridge University. And so-called anti-fascist groups objected because of the British empire's association with slavery.
Well, the British empire's association with slavery is that it abolished it. Till the British empire came along, slavery was a fact of life in every corner of this planet. It was like the air that we breathe. People find this hard to imagine now. But it was shared across all cultures, everywhere on the planet, that some human beings had the right to keep other human beings as slaves.
It was as natural a feature of life as the sky and the ground and the sea. And then the British empire came along, and William Wilberforce and the Royal Navy got to work and abolished it.
And the idea that Britain is now a country of such stunted stupidity that it doesn't even understand that, that it is so mired in self-loathing that it dishonors its own inheritance in that way -- and we know at a certain level, I think, that this is bogus, that for a lot of -- if you take academics over a certain age, you know, I don't know, fifties, sixties, the older college professors now, most of them have no desire to live anywhere other than an advanced Western society. When they're peddling their stuff on college campuses, in a sense, they understand, you know, if you're going -- if you want to peddle diversity, if you want to peddle multiculturalism, this is a uni-cultural phenomenon; you can only do it in a wealthy Western society.
You can only, in fact, disdain your own inheritance, in a wealthy Western society. If you're at Harvard or Yale, you can grow very rich saying what a stinking hellhole the United States of America is. But at heart, those people don't want to live anywhere but an advanced Western society.
And I think the idea that you can just kind of demolish your entire inheritance and it will still be an advanced Western society, is at best, an open question. And some of these -- some parts of the Western world, are beginning to pass the point of no return on this, I think.
MR. DRISCOLL: Time magazine ended 2008 by Photoshopping incoming President Barack Obama into the second coming of FDR, even letting him keep FDR's jaunty cigarette holder. Newsweek began the following year by declaring that "We are all socialists now." Recently, my former colleague at Pajamas Media, Richard Miniter, declared in Forbes that, "Obama is not the new FDR but the new Gorbachev, a man forced to preside over the demise of a political system he desperately wants to save."
Any bets as to how that's going to play out?
MR. STEYN: Yeah, I think that's -- I think that would be very sad if it were true. And in fact, I put him -- I'm not even sure I would give Obama that much credit. When somebody does things -- has a consistent pattern of behavior, I think it's too easy to attribute it to incompetence or stupidity; and that you have to say, in the end, this is what he wants. This is the America he wants.
He's a grubby Chicago ward heeler. So he has the worst aspects. He's a strange combination, Obama. He has all the worst delusions of the American faculty lounge, combined with the grubby political thuggery of old-school political machines. So if you combine University of Chicago general aesthetic with Democratic Party of Chicago political muscle, you get a very unattractive combination.
And I think he did think that he was going to be the -- a transformative president. The assumption of all his early speeches when he'd be -- you know, when somebody was talking -- that Summit of the Americas, or whatever it was, and somebody was talking about the Bay of Pigs, and he said, oh, you know, I was three months old then, give me a break.
It's like he takes a Pol Pot view on this, that this is year zero. January 2009 is year zero in American history. And so I don't -- I think in a sense, it's giving him too much credit to portray him as a kind of inept Gorbachev figure, the man who reformed his country out of existence, because I think in a sense, Obama is not that -- Gorbachev, a certain level, was a profoundly stupid man and an even more stupid man today, by the way. And I don't think -- I think it's giving -- I think it's taking too benign a view of Barack Obama, even to credit him with that.
MR. DRISCOLL: And, Mark, last questions. We're just about a month away from the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Where does America stand? Does it have a future? And what should the people who buy your book do to help strengthen its future?
MR. STEYN: Well, I think it's very sad this approach to the anniversary of 9/11. An early chapter in my book talks about the building site that is still the World Trade Center. The Empire State Building was put up in eighteen months during a depression. We can't replace the World Trade Center in a decade.
So 9/11 was something that Al-Qaeda did to us. 9/11 was something that America's enemies did to us. The ten year hole in the ground, we did to ourselves. And that is the monument to American sclerosis that I worry about; that we were not able to muster the will.
You remember -- I'm sure you got it, because you were on the Internet back in those days as I was -- we were all getting tons of emails of cartoons showing -- showing the World Trade Center being built as a sort of set of knuckles with the central finger extending itself --
MR. DRISCOLL: Um-hum.
MR. STEYN: -- up into the sky, as the super-tall World Trade [Center] -- flipping the bird -- flipping the finger to Al-Qaeda and all those naysayers. And in the end, we didn't do that. What a great cartoon.
And people eventually stopped e-mailing it around, because after two, three, four months, three, four, five, six years, it's not funny anymore. Why can't the superpower put up a building? Because in the end, it's all about the zoning board and the regulations and getting it past the planning committee. And I think this -- I think this is what's so difficult.
In a sense, Obama galvanized the issue, because simply by being such a divisive figure and so unlike any other American president before him in his political disposition, he, in a sense, put a hard face on American sclerosis. Otherwise, I think, we would have just sort of declined into arthritis.
The great thing about him is that he attempted to accelerate American decline and spurred the Tea Party in response. And that's the one hope for America, that there are still enough Americans who say, you know, to hell with you. We are not going to decay. We are not going to decline. We are not going to seize up. But we are going to -- we are going to reverse this.
You don't have a movement like that in Iceland. You don't have a movement like that in Bulgaria. You don't have a movement like that in Greece or Portugal. We still have a movement like that in the United States. And that's the best hope for the future.
MR. DRISCOLL: We've been talking with Mark Steyn, the author of the brand new book After America. It's published by Regnery, and available from Amazon.com, your local bookseller, and at Mark's website, Steynonline.com, where you can buy a copy autographed by Mark Steyn.
And Mark, thanks for stopping by today.
MR. STEYN: Thanks a lot, Ed. Always a pleasure.
(End of audio)
Transcription by Penina Wolicki