Saturday, November 05, 2011

Review of Mark Steyn's After America

After America: Get Ready for Armageddon
by Mark Steyn
424 pages, $29.95 (print)/$9.58 (digital)
Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2011

Mark Steyn’s After America is a factual and witty stroll down America’s decline and what it means for life in the future--a decline that started decades ago and keeps accelerating.

To highlight his points Steyn uses a supposed time traveler’s view of the difference of America in 1890, 1950 and 2010 as well as the difference between the life of the futuristic eloi and morlocks described by H. G. Wells in The Time Machine.

On some differences between 1890 and 1950:
"Why, the poor gentleman of 1890 would be astonished. His old home is full of mechanical contraptions. There is a huge machine in the corner of the kitchen, full of food and keeping the milk fresh and cold! There is another shiny device whirring away and seemingly washing milady’s bloomers with no human assistance whatsoever! Even more amazingly, there is a full orchestra playing somewhere within his very house. No, wait it’s coming from a tiny box on the countertop!

"The music is briefly disturbed by a low rumble from the front yard, and our time-traveler glances through the window: a metal conveyance is coming up the street at an incredible speed–-with not a horse in sight. It’s enclosed with doors and windows, like a house on wheels, and it turns into the yard, and the doors open all at once, and two grown-ups and four children all get out–-just like that, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world! He notices there is snow on the ground, and yet the house is toasty warm, even though no fire is lit and there appears to be no stove." (pp. 25-26)
Steyn goes on to describe the telephone and airplanes.

Now onward sixty years to 2010.
“. . . [When] he dismounts he wonders if he’s made a mistake. Because, aside from a few design adjustments, everything looks pretty much as it did in 1950: the layout of the kitchen, the washer, the telephone. . . . Oh, wait. It’s got buttons instead of a dial. And the station wagon in the front yard has dropped the woody look and seems boxier than it did. And the folks getting out seem . . . larger, and dressed like overgrown children.

“And the refrigerator has a magnet on it holding up an endless list from a municipal agency detailing what trash you have to put in which colored boxes on what collection days.

“But other than that, and few cosmetic changes, he might as well have stayed in 1950.” (p. 26)
Steyn does note that the one exception is the computer, but what about other major areas of life?

Steyn asks: When was the last big medical breakthrough? (polio vaccine 1955; insulin 1920s; penicillin, tuberculosis, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough vaccines 1920s). Cancer and Alzheimer's? All races and no cure.
“In the last decade of the twentieth century, what? A vaccine for Hepatitis A, and Viagra. Good for erectile dysfunction, but what about inventile dysfunction?”
In the 1920's insulin went from concept to use in two years. Today
“the U.S. Food and Drug Administration now adds half a decade to the process by which a treatment makes it to market, and they’re getting slower. Between 1996 and 1999, the FDA approved 157 new drugs. Between 2006 and 2009, the approvals fell by half–-to 74.” (p. 28)
The reason? Inhibiting statism with its monopoly on allowing and regulating in almost every area of life.

Statism has created two Americas.
“. . . [I]n one America, those who subscribe to the ruling ideology can access a world of tenured security lubricated by government and without creating a dime of wealth for the overall economy; in the other America, millions of people go to work every day to try to support their families and build up businesses and improve themselves, and the harder they work the more they’re penalized to support the government class in its privileges.” (p. 69)
Steyn piles example upon example of the infantilization of Americans via government regulations with the resulting lack of thinking, invention, production and power. The end result of statism can be seen in the deterioration, looming bankruptcy and decline in population of European states that have followed the nanny state approach.

So, what does the future look like for the world with America’s decline? It will be sicker (p. 281), poorer (p. 283), more Muslim (p. 291), less Jewish, gay, and with fewer feminists (p. 298), less diverse (p. 302), more dangerous, violent, and genocidal (p. 304, 310), reprimitivizing (p. 312). Life after America's decline will be a life much nastier, more brutish, and short than that to which we have become accustomed.

Steyn ties this plummet in life environment to Friedrich Nietzsche’s insight about what “God is dead.” means for society.
“Many westerners were familiar with Nietzsche’s accurate foretelling of the twentieth century as an age of ‘wars such as have never happened on earth.’ This was a remarkable prediction to make from the Europe of the 1880s, a time of peace and prosperity. But too many forget the context in which the philosopher reached his conclusion–-that ‘God is dead.’ Nietzsche was an atheist but he was not simply proclaiming his own contempt for faith, as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and other bestselling atheists would do in our own century. ‘God is dead’ was not a statement of personal belief, but a news headline–-in the author’s words, a ‘tremendous event.’ If, as he saw it, educated people had ceased to believe in the divine, that entailed certain consequences. For God–-or at any rate the Judeo-Christian God whose demise he was reporting–-had had a civilizing effect during his (evolutionarily speaking) brief reign. Without God, Nietzsche wondered, without ‘any cardinal distinction between man and animal,’ what constraints are there? In the ‘arena of the future,’ the world would be divided into ‘brotherhoods with the aim of the robbery and exploitation of non-brothers.’ . . .

“We know he called the twentieth century right. So what did he have to say about the twenty-first? He foresaw a time even worse than the ‘wars such as have never happened,’ wars that were after all still fought according to the remnants, the ‘mere pittance’ of the late God’s moral codes. But after that, what? The next century–-our century–-would see ‘the total eclipse of all values.’ Man would attempt a ‘re-evalutaion,’ as the West surely did through multiculturalisms, sexual liberation, eco-fetishization, and various other fancies. But you cannot have an effective moral code, Nietsche pointed out, without a God who says ‘Thou shalt not.’” (pp. 321-322)
In the epilogue Mark Steyn gives a few hints for hope: de-centralize (p. 333), de-governmentalize (p. 335), de-regulate (p. 336), de-monopolize (p. 337), de-complicate (p. 339), de-credentialize (p. 339), dis-entitle (p. 340), de-normalize (p. 341) and “do” (p. 342).

Let me close with something Steyn says about “do”. We need more tinkerers.
“Messing about with stuff–-taking it apart, figuring out how it worked, putting it together again with some modification of your own. What boys (and a few girls) used to do in the garage or the basement before the Internet was invented. . . . Tinkerers built America. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, all were tinkerers in their childhood. Everything from the airplane to the computer started in somebody’s garage. . . . The great scientific thinkers of eighteenth-century England couldn’t have been less interested in cotton spinning and weaving. Why would you be? If was left to a bloke on the shop floor who happened to glance at a one-thread wheel that had toppled over and noticed that both the wheel and the spindle were still turning. So James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny . . . . John Ratzenberger likes to paraphrase a Stanford University study: ‘Engineers who are great in physics and calculus but can’t think in new ways about old objects are doomed to think in old ways about new objects.’ That’s the lesson of the spinning jenny: an old object fell over and someone looked at it in a new way.” (p. 344)
After America is the kind of book that helps the reader look at an old thing, life as we live it, in a new way. It's a "must read".


Ten Mile Island said...

Smooth curves.

The adoption of science by the political class is an interesting development. The Progressive Movement from the early 20-th, late 19-th centuries, attempted to adopt scientific methods to solve perceived problems of then, modern society.

The adoption of science took place, however, with a popular view as to what science would mean, when applied to any particular problem, rather than that to which science was, which was the investigation of theorem, in the hope of discovering that which was provable, or unprovable.

Since math is hard, the idea of using any kind of discernible method of disproving the postulate has disappeared. I've seen, as well as you must have seen, the most ridiculous positions of belief, based upon studies which show that in statistical samples, 51 percent of respondents have said "x" as did 49 percent having said "y," and so "x" is the probable value of f(whatever).

Fifty-one is bigger than forty-nine. Case closed.

Sharp turning points tend to exhibit response to exogenous shifts. Externally imposed constraints. The question being begged is, "What possible external constraints could be affecting the smooth curve of our society?" And,where does the power come from to impose such externalities?

T. D. said...

TMI, exactly right. Science doesn't deal in morality and values. Majorities don't deal in science. The corruption of both leads to Nietzsche's vision where there is no morality.

How to import morality? It can be done partially by autocratic government scaring people into reluctant obedience. But, in the end history shows only one successful model: individuals willingly submitting to moral codes based on authority outside human rule or natural processes--divine authority.