Monday, March 26, 2007

Mark Steyn makes baby Jesus cry

This article (via The London and New York Correspondence) is a fine example of why Steyn is just so infuriating. The subordinating of historical truth to modern day politics and bulldozing of subtlety in favour of a simple with or against us calculus makes me embarassed to be a conservative. Steyn regularly exhibits Coulteresque idiocy but seems to get away with it in a way she does not thanks to being a better writer.

I'll leave out the article's initial "when I was talking to the President the other day" spiel.

"You don't have to read far into Roberts' volume to appreciate why it resonates with this particular Commander-in-Chief. On page six, we find another head of government of a global superpower, the third Marquess of Salisbury. Speaking at the dawn of the 20th century, Britain's Prime Minister remarks:

England is, I believe, the only country in which, during a great war, eminent men write and speak as if they belonged to the enemy.

Indeed. And, as Roberts adds, "In fact, the phenomenon was to recur throughout the English-speaking peoples over the coming decades, and in some engagements - such as at Suez and in Vietnam - opposition from a vociferous domestic minority was to doom their enterprises far more than foreign opponents.""

Steyn leaves any conclusions from this implicit. However, the conclusions he wants to draw are pretty clear. Domestic opposition is dangerous. This is highly questionable, that opposition was only really successful in Vietnam thanks to the lack of military success. The US didn't leave Vietnam quickly and committed huge force. The enterprise was doomed thanks to a failure of this committment to secure victory and domestic opposition was more a symptom than a cause of military failure.

Even if it is true that minority opposition can, through their words alone, harm the war effort that may be best ignored. Would it have been worth the price of silencing political expression to secure victory in Vietnam? That is a big question and one Steyn, of course, does not feel it important to discuss. After all, if Salisbury was talking about domestic opposition to the Boer War then it is possible that opposition to his war was in the right, we were doing some seriously unpleasant things at the time. Perhaps it was better that domestic opposition doom Vietnam quickly rather than slow military attrition doom it more slowly. I won't presume to answer the question of which side was right in these debates but freedom for minority opposition is important because being a majority is no guarantee of being correct.

"He's certainly right about Vietnam, but my eyebrow arches skyward when it comes to Suez. It was surely neither domestic opposition nor Egyptian enemies that doomed the enterprise, but explicit and fierce American hostility to British action. Short-sighted hostility, one might argue, that led in part to the creation of the fetidly "stable" Middle East that plagues the world today. But that's one of the pleasures of Roberts' book: muscular polemical prose that cheerfully invites an argument about something or other on almost every page. It is, of course, a sequel - to Churchill's History Of The English-Speaking Peoples, whose four volumes concluded in the year 1900. Roberts feels, reasonably enough, that it's a shame to end the story without an account of the Anglosphere century."

Note that it wasn't only Britain who suffered from American hostility to Suez. France did as well. In France the political reaction was far stronger and analagous to the Australian response to Gallipoli with the United States playing the role of the British Empire. It killed French trust in American leadership.

Which raises the question of what he means by "the English-speaking peoples". I have both the London and New York editions of this book. The British jacket bears four flags - the Union Jack, the Stars and Stripes, the Southern Cross and the Maple Leaf (surely it should have been the Red Ensign). By contrast, the American jacket replaces that coalition of the willing with a scene of post-war jubilation in Times Square, and the only flag to be seen is that of Old Glory. Roberts' New York publishers would appear not to be entirely on board with his view of the great anglophone family and, at least for promotional purposes, prefer traditional notions of American exceptionalism. The author, on the other hand, subscribes to something closer to the Churchillian idea of a Britannic family with America as the prodigal son, but a son nevertheless and the greatest of all:

Just as we do not today differentiate between the Roman Republic and the imperial period of the Julio-Claudians when we think of the Roman Empire, so in the future no-one will bother to make a distinction between the British Empire-led and the American Republic-led periods of English-speaking dominance between the late-eighteenth and the twenty-first centuries. It will be recognised that in the majestic sweep of history they had so much in common - and enough that separated them from everyone else - that they ought to be regarded as a single historical entity, which only scholars and pedants will try to describe separately.

This section is interesting and plausible. There is a huge amount in common between the two great Anglophone powers and studying how the two compare and relate to one another would be an interesting project. Indeed, that comparison is a major focus of Niall Ferguson's, far more interesting, work. However, instead of trying to think through the implications Steyn prefers using it as a stick to beat the Continentals.

"If you step back, this seems obvious. Of the three great global conflicts of the 20th century - the First, Second and Cold Wars - who called it right every time? Germany: one out of three. Italy: two out of three. France: well, let's not even go there. For a perfect hat trick, there are only those nations on the front of Roberts' London edition."

Well, France did 'call it right every time'. It was defeated in the Second World War but the Wehrmacht were not a trifling enemy. It's commitment to the Cold War was limited by the fall out from Suez which the French took very seriously, a fair reaction. Its commitment to the First World War can hardly be questioned.

America may have called the First World War right but only right at the end and after the major costs of victory had already been paid. It warrants two and a half out of three at best. The real world just isn't as simple as Steyn would like it.

"There is a distinction between the "English-speaking peoples" and the rest of "the west", and at key moments in human history that distinction has proved critical. Europe has given us plenty of nice paintings and agreeable symphonies, French wine and Italian actresses and whatnot,"

If this were really nothing more than a harmless joke then I'd leave it alone but it isn't. It's a bizarre contempt for the cultural and scientific achievements of the rest of the West.

"but, for all our fetishization of multiculturalism, you can't help noticing that when it comes to the notion of a political west - a sustained commitment to individual liberty - the historical record looks a lot more unicultural and indeed (given that three of the four nations on that cover share the same head of state) uniregal. Roberts provides a good summation:

Although they are ancient states, many of the constitutions of European countries are very young indeed, far younger than those of Britain's constitutional monarchy (1688-9), America's democracy (1776), Canada's responsible government (1848) or even Australia's Federation (1900). By contrast, the French Constitution establishing its Fifth Republic was only promulgated in 1958, Germany's Basic Law was passed in 1949... Italy's was adopted in 1949... and Portugal's became law in 1976...

Or, as I like to say, the US Constitution is not only older than the French, German, Italian and Spanish constitutions, it's older than all of them put together. The entire political class of Portugal, Spain and Greece spent their childhoods living under dictatorships. So did Jacques Chirac and Angela Merkel. We forget how rare in this world is sustained peaceful constitutional evolution and, to be honest, it's kinda hard to remember when the principal political party of our own demented Dominion peddles non-stop Canada Day smiley-face banalities about how "we are such a young country" (Paul Martin) - which, aside from being obvious tripe, gives us the faintly creepy air of a professional virgin. "The English-speaking peoples did not invent the ideas that nonetheless made them great," concedes Roberts. "The Romans invented the concept of Law, the Greeks one-freeman-one-vote democracy, the Dutch modern capitalism..." But it is the English world that has managed to make these blessings seemingly permanent features of the landscape."

He spends a long time on this as if it has some significance but never spells it out. Perhaps it is a sign that the more liberal approach to state building that characterises the English-speaking world is inherently more stable. Perhaps it is a testament to the power of geographical security. Steyn seems to prefer leaving his analysis at a vague "we're better people". He doesn't even address the question of whether constitutional stability is a good thing. This is pure, brute rhetoric concealing the substituting of prejudice for genuine thinking.

"As Roberts sees it, the story of the 20th century is one of anglophone democracies defending the planet against what he calls four assaults: "The First Assault: Prussian Militarism 1914-17", "The Second Assault: Fascist Aggression 1931-39", "The Third Assault: Soviet Communism 1945-49" and "The Fourth Assault: Islamicist Terrorism and its De Facto Allies". In between come periods of complacency ("The Wasted Breathing Space: 1990-11 September 2001") and loss of faith ("The Long, Dismal, Drawling Tides: The 1970s"), but in the end the good guys always step up to the plate."

The French did far more to defeat Prussian Militarism than the Americans, the Soviet Union did most of the fighting against Fascist Aggression and Steyn acknowledged in his section on Suez that myopia may have led the Americans to make a mess of the Middle East and contribute to the Islamicist problem. Might the actual history of the twentieth century be a bit more subtle than 'anglosphere defends everyone against tyranny and oppression'?

"Our cousins across the ocean marked the dawn of the 9/11 era by selling off the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The whole lot, gone."

Okay, the New Zealand Air Force was never up to much. Running an airforce has huge fixed costs which would seem to make it a poor choice for a small country which does not need one for its own defence. It seems quite sensible that New Zealand focus on providing troops to a general Anzac alliance. This gives them far more capacity to project power and assist the Australians as a regional peacekeeper than spending on expensive but still sub-standard jets.

"Britain itself seems unable to rouse itself from a fatalistic three-legged danse macabre with Europe and its Islamifying cities that may yet mire it in the Continental pathologies it managed to avoid in the 20th century.

"Ah, the Anglosphere," Australia's Alexander Downer, my favourite foreign minister, said to me last year, when the subject of Canadian troops in Afghanistan came up. "There are really only five of us." But, in their present political sensibilities, Canada is semi-French, Britain is semi-European, and New Zealand is semi-bananas. The next volume of this story will be an interesting read."

One could extend this. Australia is a regional power (look at its tiny contribution in Afghanistan and Iraq despite having been such a supporter of both wars) in a region with a number of countries, India, China and a more forceful Japan, which seem likely to render it irrelevant pretty soon. The US has proven itself utterly incompetent in managing the results of its foreign policy interventions without European help. If it keeps making a hash of things it will soon choose a return to fearful isolation.

Of course, neither of these results is preordained but neither are the fates Steyn projects for the rest of the Anglosphere and Continental Europe. It is possible to write off any country you choose to with a touch of rhetorical overexaggeration of their problems. It is more interesting and more helpful to think seriously about how these countries might avoid this fate. They probably have a better chance if they work together rather than succumb to the temptation to snipe and bicker that has defined Steyn's career.

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