Mark Steyn doesn’t need me “reviewing” his book like he’s some nobody.
This isn’t just me being a suck because he quote me on page 186, either.
What I’d like to do is put After America in some kind of — ahem — historical context.
Many reviewers/fans are using variations on the “it’s the funniest depressing book ever!”
I can’t go along with that 100% without first revisiting Tom Wolfe’s Hooking Up, and I’m too lazy to walk over to the bookcase, but you get the picture:
After America is indeed laden with distressing statistics and facts about the economy, the state of American “education,” and the abject stupidity of various politicians, academics and media commentators.
At the end of each chapter, you may need to “go have a lie down,” as I seem to recall somebody saying on Twitter.
Indeed, after every section, you’re left with that bloated feeling you get after Thanksgiving dinner, except in your brain, and if Thanksgiving dinner was heaping plates of rotten turkey (the stats and facts) drizzled with whatever your favorite dessert is (Steyn’s virtuoso wit.)
Argh…How will your mind ever digest all this stuff? Hell, maybe this “going on living thing” isn’t really worth it anyhow…
One possible antidote is to think of After America as the latest (and certainly best written and most intellectually sound) example of a post-WW2 phenomenon one might call the “conservative jerimiad.”
In the early 1960s, pop history-polemics titles like Phyllis Schafly’s A Choice, Not an Echo, Barry Goldwater/Brent Bozell’s Conscience of a Conservative, and on a lower level of quality, None Dare Call It Treason and The Gravediggers, were also penned as warnings to Americans that their nation was in grave peril, both from without and from within.
All but Conscience… were (and still are) mocked as “conspiratorial,” and yeah, the belief that Eisenhower was more or less Soviet agent is pretty funny.
(Although today the laugh is, or should be, on generations of bien pensant critics: never mind Venona —Treason‘s contention that communists had taken over the NEA isn’t absurd at all once you’ve read David Horowitz’s autobiography…)
Obviously, in terms of sheer unadulterated quality, soundness of information and authorial talent, After America is to all these other books what a gold-plated La Pavoni is to a box of those blue enamel camping coffee pots with the white speckles.
After America has the added advantage of not falling into the tempting “conspiracy” trap, because is was written in 2011 and not 1964.
The conspiratorial mindset was the easy, default worldview of those long ago authors. Without access to all the unclassified information we have today, and our unprecedented ability to harvest and process data, the belief in organized conspiracies simply made more sense from inside their Cold War, low tech Plato’s Cave than the real life explanation: that of — as Bernie Godlberg explains in Bias — thousands of self-selecting, inter-mating, like minded people who don’t have to “conspire” to do anything. They simply agree with each other, so even at a distance, their “independent” individual actions all work together to accomplish progressive goals.
However, let’s look at the impact these old timey, depressing, heavily footnoted, end-of-the-world jeremiads had on the body politic.
Each sold millions of copies (or, more accurately, were usually self-published then printed in the millions; wealthy supporters bought these books by the hundred-fold then handed them out free to ladies’ auxiliaries and Chambers of Commerce.)
These books were the Glenn Beck TV shows of their time. (In fact, if you strip out the way-too-many glowing references to J. Edgar Hoover, Treason reads like a transcript from Beck’s old Fox program.)
In the Eisenhower/Kennedy era, there was no alternative media or even talk radio as we understand it. No one else was “connecting the dots” for worried conservatives who knew something… weird was happening to America but couldn’t gather and digest all the evidence.
Make no mistake: these old books are depressing and overwhelming. Unless we act NOW, we’re informed, we are doomed. And if every American is compromised by communism and corruption — even the Armed Forces — maybe we should just kill ourselves.
However, readers in the 1960s also came away with a knowledge base and a working vocabulary. Remember: these books were read by groups of people. Somehow, this group dynamic turned despair into motivation. It also likely wore off some the rougher edges off folks who might have disintegrated into solitary crank-dom.
Yes, Goldwater’s campaign failed miserably. No, America still hasn’t accomplished some of the goals set out in these books decades ago (hint: closing down the Dept. of Education is NOT a new idea…)
But Schlafly’s anti-ERA success can be traced back directly to the ideological foundation laid by her book(s) and others. I’ll bet many unsung victories at the local state and level were also inspired by these jeremiads.
In terms of inspirational value, Mark Levin’s Liberty & Tyranny is the closest in spirit to these old titles (and again, the quality of scholarship and writing is exponentially superior.) Look at the lineups that awaited Levin at his book signings, and the sudden uptick you noticed in ordinary folks quoting Lincoln, the Constitution and the Founders. Luckily, today’s readers have a technological network/mass movement, the Tea Party, in which to channel their newfound enlightenment. Not so in the 60s and 70s, when one was desperately needed.
But yes, such a network exists today. The chances of someone reading After America and sliding into a hopeless torpor is pretty low for that reason, and also because, as everyone else has already told you, each of Steyn’s paragraphs is a little matrioshka doll of puns and triple entendres. As long as someone can still write like that and far more importantly, thousands of Americans can still understand such writing, there is a sliver of hope for the nation.
I do believe it is only a sliver, and remember: I survived the 70s, which were a dark, paneled rec room of a geo-political, cultural and economic America-wide nightmare. You guys were really, REALLY this close to imploding.
People say, “Then Reagan came along!!” But I’m not convinced you want or need a Reagan now. You should all be your own personal Ronald Reagan. Or Goldwater. Or Schlafly. That is the ONLY thing that will work this time. And you have technology at your disposal that none of these people had.
You also have Mark Steyn.
I hope you will arise from your post-reading recuperative naps to do more than just wait for his next book to show up so you can get all excited again. Getting all excited is fun. I’m excited too. It’s fun to think about Steyn coming to Toronto for a TV appearance and maybe even a public reading.
But don’t outsource all your outrage to him and Levin and a few other people.
Uncurl from that fetal position, After America readers.
I know it sucks, but your country needs you, and so does the rest of the world, whether they like it or not.