It is rare for a book release, no matter how timely, to coincide with breaking news. In the case of Mark Steyn’s After America the alignment was downright spooky. As louts, brats and the non-thinkers who wish merely to be part of a “moment” terrorized the citizenry and burned down London neighborhoods, across the pond one could enter a bookstore, lift Steyn’s latest from a shelf and read:
The United Kingdom seems to be evolving from a nanny state into a kind of giant remedial institution for elderly juvenile delinquents. At bus stops in London, there are posters warning, “DON’T TAKE IT OUT ON US.” At the Underground station, you see the slogan, “IF YOU ABUSE OUR STAFF, LONDON SUFFERS” . . . I found this one of the bleakest comments on modern Britain: all the award-winning wit and style of the London advertising world deployed in service of a devastating acknowledgment of civic decay.
Pondering the fact that in Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of Northern England the state accounts for up to 78 percent of the economy, Steyn wonders, “why wouldn’t you take it out on the state?”
The chapter may be specific to the United Kingdom, but Steyn is very clear: what is a daily reality in Britain will soon be America’s reality, too, unless the country reverses its embrace of the social and economic policies that are bankrupting Europe and bringing its society to its collective knees.
It’s not like we cannot see this for ourselves. As we view security videos of “flash mobs”—unconcerned about either safety or prosecution—descending en masse upon a convenience stores and fast-food outlets and helping themselves to whatever they like, a future of anarchy is not too difficult to imagine. Already, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis are imposing or attempting to enforce curfews for young people who have figured out that if they co-ordinate their activities and don’t linger, their sheer numbers are enough to empower a petty criminality that will go unprosecuted. From there, a Molotov cocktail through a window is not such a great leap.
But Steyn is not writing solely about the social unrest and the hooliganism that so often comes with economic distress. After America warns that an over-regulated, bureaucracy-laden society, dissuaded from conceiving and achieving great things because too much has come between an idea and its execution, is a society dumbing down and numbing-up, growing not just stagnant, but inert, like Chesterton’s “dead thing” that “can go with the stream,” while “only a living thing can go against it.”
I thought of Chesterton a great deal while reading After America. Steyn quotes de Tocqueville liberally throughout the book and makes great, relevant references to H. G. Wells’ Eloi and Morlock populations, but in reading about the sort of creeping bureaucratic minutia that is shutting down childhood lemonade stands, depriving church groups of homemade pie and hardware store customers of complimentary cups of coffee, it was Chesterton’s warning I remembered. “When you break the big laws,” he wrote, “you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.”
And it’s the small laws, more than flash mobs or even terrorist threats, that will put the chokehold to the United States. It is the intrusion of governmental nitpickers into neighborly kindnesses—the punishment of the instinctive small generosities that have always defined American openness—that will eventually isolate us from each other, and from our understanding of ourselves, until we are just a nation of dead things, carried down the burbling river, or caught within the stagnant pools.
Steyn closes After America with a stout-hearted call to “De-complicate; De-credentialize; De-normalize; De-monopolize.” Good suggestions, all meant to de-lay de-volution in order to buy time for those still fighting the current, but the “after” American moment is nigh; the days of our future “past” are falling hard, and Steyn appears to know it.
It has only been a few years since Madeleine Albright proclaimed America “the indispensable nation,” but in very short order our influence has nose-dived precipitously. Though it may have been as much myth as reality, the idea that one could rise by one’s own lights was the distinctive mark of an exceptional America. We dared to think that one might pay one’s taxes, obey sensible “big” laws and be left alone to tinker in a basement, climb a ladder or rake and burn one’s own autumn leaves (actions all under siege, per Steyn’s citations) without fear of a clipboard and a fine and a voucher for a mandatory re-education class meant to certify one’s most benign moments.
With that freedom came the sort of can-do audacity that, in the mid-twentieth century, managed to pull a whole world out of war and then raise a tide of such prosperity that it lifted many boats.
Of course, that same bold exceptionalism developed The Marshall Plan, which in turn enabled the swift rise of nanny-statism and a culture of materialist excess, both of which have helped to shrivel the human soul, so there is an irony to all of this. But the fact is, if America is in decline—and eventually all governments, all societies do decline because they, like flash mobs, are the stuff of a moment, and not of eternity—her last gasps will not come at the hands of terrorism, but by her own acquiescence to the small laws; the Taliban already acknowledges that “Americans have all the watches, but we’ve got all the time,” and patience is all they need. Demographically, extreme Islamists know they will have decades of settling into and remaking Europe to attend to, while they wait for America to finish wheezing.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
Dispensible and "Disregardable"
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