America Alone

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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I must be the last person on this website to get around to reading Mark Steyn’s America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It. My excuse is that I have been reading and admiring Steyn for a decade and so already possessed a pretty clear idea of what he would say in his book. Still … I’m sorry to have lingered so long.

You don’t need me to tell you that the book is marvelous: witty, shrewd, brave. The one-liners fly as swiftly as the sword thrusts in an Errol Flynn matinee, but far more cutting. It is indeed the only book about the end of the world that makes one laugh out loud.

Steyn describes the looming collapse of Western and especially European civilization before the onslaught of radical Islam, pressing the West from without in the form of terrorist jihad and from within in the form of immigration and higher birthrates. And I’m delighted to see that the book is finding its audience. I spotted a copy on the reading desk of a high German diplomatic official just the other day.

But wait, you may wonder: Why do I care whether any German, however official, reads the book or not? The book argues that demography is destiny – and that due to demographic trends, Europe is finished. Let them read what they like, what difference does it make?

Indeed, you have to wonder: Why did Steyn bother to write his book at all? If all is to work out as fate has ordained, why undertake the tedious work of writing to deliver warnings of danger ahead?

The answer I think is contained in the question. Like many great determinists, starting with the most famous of them all, Karl Marx, Steyn continues to harbor a quiet inner contradictory belief that human action matters a great deal.

Steyn is offering predictions in the spirit of Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future, not of things that must be, but of things that may be. And every one of his witticisms, every one of his frightening observations behind the headlines, is intended – not to dull his readers into submission to awful fate – but to rouse them.

Demography isn’t destiny, not really – or rather, not simply.

1) As statisticians say, a trend is a trend until it bends. If you could predict the future based on projecting forward data points from the past then we all would be getting ready to retire on our huge windfalls from those tech stocks we bought in 1999. Steyn acknowledges this at the front of his book, but he does not heed his own warning. He argues instead that the demographic future has arrived already: Every European who will be 25 in the year 2025 is already born after all. There’s some truth to that, but place a big asterisk behind it.

Demographic trends have a surprising way of reversing themselves with amazing rapidity. Nobody foresaw the baby boom in 1938. And yet only eight years later, birth rates surged all through the developed world, in devastated Germany and Japan as well as in victorious Britain and America. OK, there was a big war in between. But s late as 1966, most forecasters thought the baby boom would continue indefinitely. (That’s one reason that Lyndon Johnson was able to persuade the Senate that Medicare could be easily financed.) Six years later, birth rates were plunging.

I for one would not bet the mortgage money that Europe’s low birth rates of today will continue for very much longer. Nor would I place much confidence in the continuance of high birth rates among European immigrant populations.

Human reproduction is very influenced by economic incentives, and in Europe today those incentives discourage child-bearing among the educated and encourage it among the least skilled. (For the unskilled immigrant an extra child means extra money from the government; for the middle class family, an extra child means extra expense in a society where the breadwinners must struggle to earn an additional $2 for every $1 they are allowed to keep.)

But what if those incentives change? I think we’d all be surprised at how rapidly behavior changed in response. Think of welfare reform in the United States. Welfare rolls began to shrink even before the welfare laws were changed, as welfare recipients realized: “Oh, they’re serious this time. I guess I’d better get a job.” Europeans are no less amenable to new realities than the American underclass.

2) More fundamentally, I think we need to be very wary of assuming that every Muslim is a radical Muslim; that every immigrant to Europe must be an enemy to the existing European order.

Steyn quotes an alarming survey that finds that 80% of British Muslims regard themselves as Muslims first, and British second. You can read the survey for yourself here , and if you do, you’ll notice something interesting: one European Muslim community stands out as much more integrated than all the others – and that is the largest one, France’s.

France’s Muslims are almost exactly evenly divided between those who see themselves as Muslims first and those who see themselves as French first. French Muslims are more pro-American than any other European Muslim group surveyed, 48% of them having a positive view of the United States. (That is significantly more positive than the view expressed by all Spaniards, Christian and Muslim.) Three-quarters of French Muslims say they want to adopt French customs, not be a distinct society. And more than 60% of them say that the West is a better place than their home country for women.

To be sure, France is also the land of burning cars and of Islamically inspired antisemitic violence. French Jews are emigrating; British Jews are not. But if you are looking at the trends, these positive trends are part of the story too.

Birth rates are a crucial part of course of the story of our times. But they are very far from the whole of it. I have the honor to be quoted in Steyn’s book, talking about the contemporary British genius for self-disparagement. I am glad of that quote, for it sums up much of my reaction to this whole problem. I don’t see a future in which human beings mechanically respond to impersonal sociodemographic trends. I see a future driven by human choice.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the country with the least radicalized Muslim population, France, is also the country with the clearest idea of its own national identity and the strongest insistence that all who are born on the national territory must identify with the nation. If that spirit were broader and stronger in Europe, Europeans would find it easier to curtail immigration and to assimilate those immigrants whom they decide to accept.

And you know what? I personally suspect that this is what Mark Steyn really believes too. He wrote his book to sound an alarm, not to toll the funeral bell.

For Steyn, a very cultured man, must surely understand that the scenario raised by his title – “America Alone” – is an impossible one. America is not a civilization of its own; it is a culture, society, and nation within a larger Western civilization. America’s fate is bound up with Europe’s – that ‘s why Americans went to war in 1917 and 1941 and (I think history will ultimately decide) why they were surprised into war in 2001. If Europe is doomed, so is America – and if America is determined and destined to flourish, as Steyn and I both believe, it will haul Europe to safety too.

This book, so seemingly gloomy in message, so merry in tone, is in fact part of the saving process: a call to arms that inspires resistance and survival. So let us hail Mark’s intellectual and literary achievement – and let us all be inspired by him to prove his thesis wrong.

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