Can It Be This Bad? Two Apocalyptic Visions

A book review and comparison of two passionately written dark visions of America’s future.

I just read two books that paint an incredibly dreary portrait of American political/cultural life and what it portends for the future. The books are After America: Get Ready for Armageddon by Mark Steyn and Don’t Let the Kids Drink the Kool-Aid: Confronting the Left’s Assault on Our Families, Faith, and Freedom by Marybeth Hicks. Although the point of view and assessments of both authors are quite similar, the main topics and scope of the books differ.

Steyn paints the political and cultural landscape of the US with a very broad brush. His thesis is that through a process of expanding government, loss of faith in our historic traditions, and economic irresponsibility, the United States has bankrupted itself, passed the unpayable bill to its children and grandchildren, forsaken the culture that enabled it to be a unique bastion of liberty in the world and propelled itself down an irreversible path to disintegration and tyranny. Steyn places America among the great civilizations (Athens, Rome, England) that dominated the world, but eventually succumbed – more to internal rot than foreign invasion. He offers a brutal depiction of the multicultural, statist, humanistic policies that he believes are destroying the nation.

Steyn writes with verve and passion. Even though his message is bleak almost without relief, his pages are nevertheless filled with extraordinary humor and wit. Here is a sample:

At the 2009 Copenhagen summit, America (broke, bankrupt, drowning in debt) offered to pay for China (the country in whose debt we are drowning) to lower its carbon footprint. As Jonah Goldberg said to me on FOX News that week, that’s like paying your loan shark to winterize his home…The bailout and stimulus and the budget and trillion dollar deficits are not merely massive transfers from the most dynamic and productive sector to the least dynamic and productive. When governments annex a huge chunk of the economy, they also annex a huge chunk of individual liberty. You fundamentally change the relationship between the citizen and the state into something closer to that of junkie and pusher – and you make it very difficult to ever change back. In the end, it’s not about the money, but about something more fundamental. Yes, you can tax people to the hilt and give them “free” health care and “free” homes and “free” food. But in so doing you turn them into, if (not yet) slaves, then pets. And that’s the nub of it: Big Government leads to small liberty, and to small men. If a 26-year-old is a child, as President Obama says; if a 50-year-old hairdresser can retire and live at the state’s expense for over half her adult life, as the Government of Greece says, then you are no longer free…Freedom is messy. In free societies, people will fall through the cracks – drink too much, eat too much, buy unaffordable homes, fail to make prudent provision for health care, and much else. But the price of being relieved of all those tiresome choices by a benign paternal government is far too high. Big Government is the small option: it’s the guarantee of smaller freedom, smaller homes, smaller cars, smaller opportunities, smaller lives.

Steyn’s book is a sequel to his blockbuster hit, America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It. In that book, Steyn argued that Europe had voluntarily chosen the path of cultural and demographic suicide. He pointed out that: the Continent’s low birth rate guaranteed a precipitous decline in the native population; therefore, in order to support the elaborate welfare states that they had created, the Europeans were importing, but not assimilating, vast numbers of indigestible and irredentist Muslims; they had completely lost faith in their historic culture – feeling that it was somehow to blame for two devastating world wars; they had so emasculated themselves militarily to the extent that the only power they could project was soft – and the latter was not proving terribly persuasive to those who threatened them on their eastern and southern flanks. Their churches were empty; their ring fingers unadorned; their wombs barren; their economies stagnant with permanent high unemployment; and their self-confidence nil. In short, they manifested the death throes of a dying civilization.

In the new book, Steyn concludes that, alas, rather than watch the death of our European cousins, the US has decided to join them. The people of America, under both Bush and Obama, abetted by the media and the educational establishment, have adopted precisely the flawed policies of our European brethren and we have caught up to them with amazing speed.

It makes for a depressing (even if occasionally humorous) read. It is clear that Steyn believes that our goose is cooked; game over. And yet, despite himself, Steyn could not resist putting in a somewhat hopeful few paragraphs at the end – entitled “Live Free or Die.” Here is part of it:

I’m [i.e., Steyn is] an immigrant to this great land. For fellows like me, this is where the bus terminates. There’s nowhere else to go. Everywhere else tried this, and it’s killed them. There’s nothing new about Obama-era “hope” and “change.” For some of us, it’s the land where we grew up: government hospitals, government automobiles, been there, done that. This isn’t a bright new future, it’s a straight-to-video disco-zombie sequel…I [live] in New Hampshire, where “Live free or die” appears on our license plates…But it’s harder to maintain “Live free or die!” spirit when you’re facing not an immediate crisis but just a slow, unceasing ratchet effect. Which is, in stable societies unthreatened by revolution or war within their borders, how liberty falls, traded away to the state incrementally, painlessly, all but imperceptibly. “Live free or die!” sounds like a battle cry: we’ll win this thing or die trying, die an honorable death. But in fact it’s something far less dramatic. It’s a bald statement of the reality of our lives in the prosperous West. You can live as free men, but, if you choose not to, your society will surely die…Americans face a choice: you can rediscover the animating principles of the American idea – of limited government, a self-reliant citizenry, and the opportunities to exploit your talent to the fullest – or you can join most of the rest of the western world in terminal decline. To rekindle the spark of liberty once it dies is very difficult. The inertia, the ennui, the fatalism is even more pathetic than the demographic decline and fiscal profligacy of the social democratic state, and, because it’s subtler and less tangible, even harder to rally against…And a final word to “the children”: do you want to get suckered like your big brothers and sisters? Those saps who spent 2008 standing behind the Obamessiah swaying and chanting, “We are the dawning of the Hopeychange” like brainwashed cult extras? Sooner or later you guys have to crawl out from under the social engineering…This will be the great battle of the next generation – to reclaim your birthright from those who spent it. If you don’t, the entire global order will teeter and fall. But, if you do, you will have won a great victory…This is a battle for the American idea, and it’s an epic one, but – to reprise the lamest of lame-o lines – you can do anything you want to do. So do it.

Hicks’ book is much narrower in scope than Steyn’s. She addresses almost exclusively the state of American public education – primarily at the K-12 level. She contends that the enterprise has been thoroughly captured by the Left and that our children are being fed a virulent diet of multiculturalism, environmental quackery, distorted American history, glorification of the secular and marginalization of religion, cultural garbage and a progressive agenda so radical that it undermines parents’ ability to impart their own values to their children.

Ms. Hicks does not have the literary style of Mr. Steyn. But she tops him in one respect – research. Her claims are bolstered by an impressive array of statistics, document references and anecdotes and stories that lay bare the extent to which our school systems have been radicalized. And she too writes with passion:

Now for the bad news. Not only is the Left succeeding in instilling anti-capitalism, moral relativism, radical environmentalism, and anti-American multiculturalism in our young people. They’re also fostering a dangerous sense of entitlement and dependency in the next generation. Worst of all, they’re doing it by turning the federal government into a behemoth bureaucracy financed by borrowing from the very generation they seek to indoctrinate.

Like Steyn’s book, it is a big downer. Although, like Steyn, she ends on a positive note:

Nothing indicts us as a generation of adults more than the unbelief of our children. That our youth are doubtful of God means they have been abandoned – not by God but by those whose obligation is to lead them to his service. In a country where nothing is sacred and everything is fodder for the amusement of cynics, and where reverence has long since been replaced by political correctness, we must return God to the public square and to the hearts and minds of our children. By instilling simple respect for the faithfulness that inspired our founding, we can recapture the reverence that caused our nation to be. From reverence comes blessedness, and the enduring promise that is America.

Taken together, these books present strong evidence of a society in decay. For nearly three hundred years, the character of the American people was largely unchanged. To sum it up briefly, it was comprised of: an unshakable devotion to individual liberty and responsibility; faith in family as the bedrock of society, with decreasing dependence, as you go up the chain, on community, the state and federal governments; belief in the uniqueness and excellence of the American experiment in self-governance, with governmental powers restricted to only those granted by the people; equality before the law and impartial justice; private property as sacred and reliance on a free market economy.

But beginning with the so-called Progressive Era, those ideas were increasingly replaced by: a commitment to equality, fairness and order before liberty; an overwhelming dependence on government – especially, the federal government – for assistance in virtually every aspect of human life; doubt in the value of the founding ideals of America and shame at her mistakes; affirmative action and special favors for “disadvantaged” groups and massive government control of the economy.

Steyn thinks we are so far down the road as to be doomed. Hicks is filled with dismay, but not despair – she has not given up hope for a course correction. Some days I’m with Steyn; other days, I’m like Hicks. Once before I had grave doubts about the future of America – in the late 70s when the Soviets were on the march, the economy was stuck in the doldrums and my elders accorded far too much deference to young, radical jerks who believed they had the answers. Ronald Reagan turned it around. Well, partly. Now, in some ways, we are worse off than 30-35 years ago. The Islamists don’t pose as big a threat as the Soviets did – or do they? But we are broke. The government is some weird combination of dysfunctional, corrupt and intrusive. Our children have been co-opted. And blindness runs rampant in the land. How else to explain the election of an obscure, inexperienced, incompetent, radical leftist, charlatan to the presidency? Is there another Ronald Reagan out there? We desperately need the services of a great leader with the vision to restore the country. Or must salvation come from within? Is the TEA Party movement vibrant enough and broad enough to lead a restoration? As at the founding of our nation, I believe we need both great and enlightened leadership as well as the involved passion and energy of the people themselves.
This review also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative at: