Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Adam Steyn: America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It (review)

Author: Mark Steyn:
Title: America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It
Publication: Washington: Regnery, 2006 / rev. 2008, ISBN 978-1-59698-527-8 in paperback, 224 pages indexed with 46 roman numeral pages of Introduction (2008, new) and Prologue)

First, a note about the publisher, Regnery. I remember this company well from the 1990s, when I was researching my own book. In the Clinton years, they would come out with hard-hitting titles, making the “conservative cause” sound funny. Conservatives usually have more humor than liberals, don’t they. The Wikipedia article does mention that Regnery has some controversy with its authors.

The book has excited a lot of controversy, to the point that the author provided an extended new Introduction, and that the publisher claims (even with an illustration of the paperback version cover) that the book will soon be banned in Canada (as politically inflammatory “Islamaphobia”), where the author is from. I had pre-ordered this book around New Years Day and it arrived recently.

That is certainly true of this book, which has plenty of colorful metaphors, such as on p 187 when (in analyzing 9/11) he writes that an airline cabin in Massachusetts in “cloud-cuckoo land.”

The book combines the arguments of two other controversial opuses: Philip Longman’s “The Empty Cradle” (Basic, 2004), about falling birthrates in the West, and Bruce Bawer’s “While Europe Slept" (Doubleday, 2006).

Back in February 2008, I had written a post (here) on an article in The Nation by Kathryn Joyce on the call for “the ‘Right’ Babies, or (to put it crudely), “more white babies,” and a new evangelical film by Richard Stout “Demographic Winter: The Decline of the American Family,” here. Joyce has indicated that this is a very old argument, with certain emotional racist overtones.

Steyn, however, has nuanced his points. America, he says, is in relatively good shape. Its fertility rate is about at replacement. Canada is worse off, and Europe is in real trouble, with some countries having barely more than one child per family. So, one sees the “threat”: Muslims become more numerous, take over the Continent politically, and impose sharia and their own strict moral standards. He even, tongue in cheek, warns that the gay bars in Amsterdam have to move to San Francisco. The assault in Amsterdam on former Washington Blade Editor Chris Crain is mentioned. Later, a couple of his speculations in this area get a bit horrific.

In the United States, lower income and particularly minority populations have more children than upper income “Europeans”, who still, as Longman points out, don’t replenish themselves. It’s dangerous, it seems, from a moral point of view, to “outsource” reproduction and parenting. Then why isn’t this as big a problem in the US? For one thing, despite all of the problems in the past (slavery and segregation) and despite the political controversy over illegal immigration, the United States has done a reasonable job of assimilating minorities, by taking civil rights laws seriously. It’s far from perfect, but it makes a big difference. Furthermore, in the United States, there is a long tradition of “moderate” Muslims from a number of countries, especially Pakistan, assimilating and working, often in information technology areas, raising their own families within their own culture but participating as consumers and workers in a straightforward manner. For much of the 1980s, my own boss (in Dallas) was from Pakistan. I never thought anything of it.

But there is something more going on. After all, European countries have even stronger human rights laws. Why don’t immigrant Muslims want to assimilate, and simply practice their own culture? Bruce Bawer had explained some of that: Muslim roots are much more tribal and patriarchal, and Muslims tend to maintain ties with blood families back home. (Although many Hispanics do so, too, here.)

Steyn talks about a tendency of Europeans, and to some extent upper class Americans, to focus on the experience of the present, and to disconnect themselves from a sense of responsibility to the future (they do have a sense of the past). Religious faith is pretty good at doing that, and that’s especially true of Islam and of conservative Christian faiths. Steyn maintains that the European welfare state tends to discourage people from maintaining a sense of personal filial responsibility. Perhaps Steyn would agree with the religious criticisms of "utilitarian" values (three reviews down, Jackson's "Personal Faith, Public Policy") even if he does not seem religious himself.

He makes mixed observations about America. As a super-power, it behaves in a relatively timid fashion (I would disagree, given the war in Iraq). But because there is relatively less dependence on entitlements (although there is a lot), there is more intra-family self-reliance, so there are more babies. He makes a lot of other odd observations to explain history. England became a superpower because it conquered infant mortality in the early 19th Century, he says. Actually, England had already been a superpower for centuries. But Mother Country has lost it, and America stands alone, likely to wind up the last major part of the world not dominated by an Islamic caliphate ("Eurabia"), for a while -- but vulnerable to terror.

Like Longman, he thinks that western countries (America included) need to make it economically much easier to have families and children. A person with five dependents, he says, should pay only a fifth of the taxes of a single person. (Sometimes that’s already true, and European countries seem to be lavishing generous family benefits these days, including paid family leave in the workplace, which the United States does not mandate, so he seems off base here.) But, it’s true, in practice, many families have a hard time coping with the competitive economic pressures on them, given health care, the mortgage mess, and everything else. Steyn argues that welfare programs actually weaken reproduction, by weakening the sense of filial obligation, loyalty, and interest that encourages families to battle for themselves as units and to survive external threats (here, radical Islam). He also argues that adolescence lasts too long. School schedules should be compressed so that young adults can get out and start their families in their early twenties, the prime years biologically for reproduction. I don’t think he’s too sympathetic with (“straight”) women who join the Army, get their medical school paid for, and spend years as military surgeons in Iraq before having kids.

Here is where it gets interesting, for me, at least. He sniggers a little bit about gays, but in the long run he probably doesn’t see gay non-procreation (that’s not always the case) as statistically significant. It’s heterosexual infertility that matters. Muslim religion, as we know, is usually vitriolic in its anti-gay stances and penalties.

Of course, for “people like me,” it seems to come down to a “moral” question. I am asked or made to sacrifice for those with families. It certainly sounds “anti-libertarian.” It’s possible to propose that, in a competitive world, that some adherence to biological loyalty is a moral requirement. Yet we all know that people are wired differently, particularly with respect to gender issues. Many people contribute a lot to society and culture without personally making babies, and there seems to be a question (often phrased in religions terms) in some people’s minds whether “we should let them” or demand some sort of filial competence from “people like me” as a pre-requisite to keep families as a whole from being disrupted by unwelcome competition from singles and the unattached. It’s always seemed that the whole “public morality” concept of prohibiting homosexuality (which I had to deal with during my own coming of age a few decades ago) was a convenient “irrational” social ruse to make “marginal” heterosexual men more comfortable with their own roles as “proletariat” fathers, to protect them from ideas that would make them uncomfortable with their own situation as heads of families or let them get disinterested in their own marriages. Indeed, then they would make more babies, in marriage.

Philip Longman has criticized modern individualists as too "preoccupied with themselves to want children." I don't know if that refers to women who have careers, to gays, or to people with Aspergers syndrome. Maybe all of the above. I have gotten used to the idea that psychological diversity is a good thing in the long run: many people will have successful families if they set themselves up as adults with the expressive lives they want before marrying and having children, even if that means that children come later, and that there are fewer children or sometimes no children. It's the way responsibilities and "burdens" are shared among people that becomes an issue. Yes, being a parent is difficult, and requires some social support. Some people are not "wired" to want the emotional complementarity of marriage and parenthood (especially fatherhood), and what their responsibilities should be (mine included, to those who do "choose" to have children) becomes a real "moral" issue that ought to be articulated and faced. For one thing, eldercare (of parents and sometimes other relatives) is a kind of filial responsibility that can be demanded of everyone; it is not chosen, and it is emotionally demanding. (Longman and Steyn are right that the longer lifespans with fewer children adds to the problem, but long life spans in good health would not be a problem.) Unfortunately, some people see childlessness itself as a form of self-deprecation that invites demands of sacrifice from others.

I see that Longman's book was discussed on this blog in March 2006 (see the Blogger archive links on the left) along with several other related books. George Gilder 's "Men and Marriage" was discussed in April 2006.

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