Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book Review: After America: Get Ready for Armageddon

I've done my level best to avoid watching the Republican presidential debates, mostly because it's more than one year until the election, and because I don't believe my life as an American should be so politicized that I need to pay attention to an election more than a year away. But I do still read the news, and I do listen to the radio. And yes, I listen to talk radio. That includes Rush Limbaugh and his occaional stand-ins when he takes a day off. One of them--perhaps the smartest and most entertaining of the lot--is Mark Steyn. Steyn has written a couple of books now, and I've read America Alone and now, After America. While Steyn has a distinctive edge to him, he is undoubtedly a keen observer of the American scene, and his opinions are not mere boosterism or hype (as opposed to, say, Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck).

So what does Mr. Steyn have to say, in his snarky and urbane sort of way? After 349 pages of often-painful reading, there's no way around it: he believes this nation is in terrible trouble. This book reads rather like a conservative's jeremiad for the United States. A jeremiad, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is taken after the prophet Jeremiah, whose book in the Bible is a long recitation of the sins of the nation of Israel and what evils will befall them unless they mend their sinful ways. Well, Israel did not reform, and all that Jeremiah foretold came to pass, which was a bit of a painful "I told you so." Which might explain why jeremiads are not particularly popular.

And this was a hard read. Steyn goes after everything from political correctness to government overspending to our nation's cultural rot, and then projects forward to the implications of our current actions. The implications are not pretty, nor will some folks who hold with our current culture or set of behavior accept them, but they are reasonable. I was about 35 pages into this book, and Steyn had me convinced that we were screwed, and I thought, "My God, what more could he find to say?" The answer was: quite a lot.

He makes comparisons between present-day America and ancient Athens, Rome, Jerusalem, and more recent Imperial Britain, showing how a failure in one place/time/nation could be repeated here. One thing he does do, however, is remind his readers of the virtues that were to be found in each of those civilizations. For instance, the more socially sensitive of our time might deride the British Empire as some sort of heartless, racist enterprise, but overlook the efforts it made to spread Western notions of law, justice, and equality under the law around the world, or how it was the primary force behind eliminating slavery and piracy around the world. Steyn also notes how America, at its height of influence in 1950, held most of the financial and military cards in the world, and yet held no interest in acquiring territory or becoming some sort of dominating hegemon--we were trying to strengthen our allies so they could stand up for themselves.

That said, for the most part, Steyn's book is terribly depressing to read. I doubt I will do so again, unless it is to focus on its epilogue, "The Hope of Audacity" (a deliberate flip of President Obama's book title, The Audacity of Hope), which offers the only chunks of optimism in an otherwise pessimistic book. I suppose, as with Jeremiah, Steyn's point is to scare his readers into realizing the seriousness of their situation and to act on the fear of what might be in order to stop it. Perhaps Steyn succeeds too well. The picture of the future he paints is not a pretty one, and seems all but inevitable if you accept his premises. If we're facing existential problems in this nation, what, then, can one person do? I'm not certain that a call to reinvigorate America's founding principles is sufficient to overcome all the problems Steyn lays before us. However, the alternative is to do nothing, and I think the Tea Party and (yes, I'll say it) the "Occupy" movements are signs that America is not willing to give up it essential nature without a fight.

You might read Steyn's book and get depressed. You might read it and get righteously angry. You might read it and think that the man is a damned fool. However, I am convinced that if you do read it, you will come away from it wanting to take action. And if enough individuals read it and do take action, however chaotic or contradictory, I think that would satisfy the author.

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