I love books, always have. For most of my life I was a frequent patron of the local library. But some years ago, I started buying the books that I read – mostly from Amazon, but other online sites as well, e.g., the Conservative Book Club. In the last year, however, I have experienced various difficulties in the process: books sent to the wrong address, wrong book sent to the right address, or no book sent at all. Now I am a fairly tech savvy guy: cut my computing teeth on Unix systems in the 80s and 90s, have a laptop, use an iPhone, set up a wireless home environment. So I figured that I would try an e-reader. I bought the Nook instead of the Kindle or iPad because of cost, size and the fact that the Nook is touch-screen (like my iPhone) and the Kindle is not. This week I downloaded my first Nook book, Mark Steyn’s After America: Get Ready for Armageddon.
In his blockbuster predecessor, America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, Steyn warned that Western Civilization, as embodied in the ancient countries of Europe, was in its death throes. He speculated about the nature of the world, and especially of our country, when America remained the last outpost of that glorious tradition. In the new book, Steyn says that we needn’t worry about being the last man standing. He argues that in the last decade, and especially since the advent of the Prophet Obama, we have caught up to Europe on the death march and that, unless present trends are sharply and quickly reversed, the US, like the European countries, will soon cease to exist as a free society. Armageddon will be upon the world.
I’m only about a third of the way through the book. It is a fascinating, if exceedingly depressing, read. I recommend it highly. If only the Prophet would read it. But to return to the e-theme of this piece, I want to explore a claim that Steyn makes. To bolster his argument, in fact to demonstrate that the decay of Western Civilization has been going on for a lot longer than we realize, Steyn posits a time traveler from 1890 who makes two stops at 60-year intervals – in 1950 and today. Upon his first stop, the traveler finds that the world has changed far beyond anything he could have conceived in 1890. The automobile and airplane have been invented and are in widespread use. Indoor plumbing is ubiquitous. Radio, TV and movies provide spectacular entertainment. Washing machines, dishwashers and refrigerators transform the meaning of what it means to be a housewife. Miracle drugs like penicillin and insulin have been discovered and previously fatal diseases like diabetes, diphtheria and tuberculosis have been tamed. People routinely communicate across great and small distances by telephone. Homes are both heated and cooled by central systems that seem to require no maintenance. By any measure, the advancements of the 60 year period are spectacular. But, Steyn continues, the traveler gets back in the time machine
And when he dismounts [in 2011] he wonders if he’s made a mistake. Because, aside from a few design adjustments, everything looks pretty much as it did in 1950: the layout of the kitchen, the washer, the telephone…Oh wait. It’s got buttons instead of a dial. And the station wagon in the front yard has dropped the woody look and seems boxier than it did. And the folks getting out seem … larger, and dressed like overgrown children. But other than that, and a few cosmetic changes, he might as well have stayed in 1950.
There is a great deal of truth in Steyn’s analysis. But I think that he underestimates two points and misses a third. The two points are computers and space travel. To be fair, Steyn does acknowledge computing as the one great leap forward in the last 60 years. But he downplays the advance by emphasizing the frivolous and wasteful use of the technology (primarily for individual entertainment) as its main consequence. I think that is unfair as the advent of ubiquitous, high-speed computing has also revolutionized society in countless ways: from manufacturing to sales to advertising, from design of vehicles to military hardware, from social networking to education, not to mention the personal work environment of virtually all Americans.
On the second point, Steyn also acknowledges the phenomenal achievement of sending men to the moon. But then he “proves his point” by remarking that in the last 40 years, we have not followed through on the achievement, much less matched it by any accomplishment in space that is remotely comparable to a moon shot. This illustrates the third point, which he misses – namely, the uneven march of human progress. Human advancement and achievement is not a linear process. Even during the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, the great achievements sometimes came in bunches with fallow periods in between. Are we in a fallow period or are we well along on the irreversible, slippery slope to death and decay? Steyn clearly thinks it is the latter. On the other hand, I have some hope that, even if Europe is doomed, the American people are resilient enough to right the ship.