Mark Steyn is a phenomenon of English-language journalism, a writer unlike any other, a commentator with a luxuriously original spirit.
In the journalism of Canada, America, Britain and several other countries, he follows his own rules and makes his own noise, as most National Post readers know by now. He’s often seen as a conservative political writer, a self-described “right-wing bastard,” but he’s just as fascinated by cultural and social affairs. His new book of collected writings from recent decades, The [Un]documented Mark Steyn: Don’t Say You Weren’t Warned (Regnery), emphasizes the cultural side.
Steyn began in Canada, spent long enough in Britain to let English journalism seep into his style, and now spends much of his time in the U.S. His careful observation of American life has brought him to a grim (for a conservative) conclusion: “You can’t have a conservative government in a liberal culture.”
Schools in the U.S. are liberal and churches are liberal, he argues. The hip, groovy elite is liberal. Makers of movies and pop songs are liberal. Liberalism fills the air; it is the climate.
Culture trumps politics, and in his view the US proves it. “Liberals expend tremendous effort changing the culture. Conservatives expend tremendous effort changing elected officials every other November — and then are surprised that it doesn’t make much difference.”
As a result, conservatives are always trying to catch up, “twisting themselves into pretzels to explain why gay marriage is really conservative after all, or why 30 million unskilled immigrants are ‘natural allies’ of the Republican Party.”
His book takes us through folk songs and pop songs, Viagra, the Rushdie fatwa, Monica Lewinsky’s famous dress, Starbucks and many another cultural or politically cultural sensation.
He’s a virtuoso of the unexpected connection, the comparison that makes us see something freshly. When he considers Viagra on the one hand and cosmetic surgery on the other, he finds himself “Contemplating a society in which artificially aroused men pursue ever more artificially enhanced women.” Something (the culture, probably) has caused us to complicate unnecessarily the nature of sexual desire.
Steyn has a way of taking people seriously even when their opinions are fatuous — especially opinions on culture, which has a way of encouraging foolishness in just about everyone. When he shows no interest in Starbucks, a friend suggests he doesn’t understand coffee culture.
“What culture?” asks Steyn. “The coffee houses of 17th-century England were hives of business. They spawned the Stock Exchange and Lloyd’s of London. The coffee houses of 18th-century Paris were hives of ideas: Voltaire, Rousseau and the gang met to thrash out the Enlightenment.” What have the coffee houses of 21st-century America spawned? “The gingerbread eggnog machiato and an accompanying CD compilation.”
Political correctness is not unknown to Steyn but he apparently hopes it will go away. He’s not afraid to be flagrantly disrespectful, even to the poor and allegedly downtrodden, if the occasion demands it. A few hours after Margaret Thatcher’s death he noted that “the snarling deadbeats of the British underclass were gleefully rampaging through the streets” with a banner that announced “THE BITCH IS DEAD.” Today, Steyn acknowledges, the Thatcher era may look like a magnificent but temporary interlude in Britain’s dissolution, but that’s no reason to apply gentlemanly prose to those who hate the memory of a magnificent accomplishment.
He’s a tough and uncompromising critic of everybody from political leaders to folk singers. He thinks the invention of the “faux-folk song” helped infantilize American culture. The folk songs are “nursery-school jingles, which is why they’re so insidious.” In another mood Steyn includes a marvellous magazine piece, “Moon River and Me,” a subtle evocation of the power of popular song and the best appreciation of Johnny Mercer’s great lyrics that I’ve ever read.
When growing anti-Semitism in the Arab states is the subject (as it often is these days) Steyn expresses his sympathy through a sharp and utterly unsentimental example. He mentions that in the 1920s a Jew was finance minister of Egypt. That man’s descendants now live in France — not just because a Jew in Egypt can no longer be finance minister but because “a Jew in Egypt can no longer be.”
When people praise H.L. Mencken, they often say we need someone like him in our time. Steyn is far from an echo of Mencken — for one thing, he has none of the ugly prejudices. But he’s the only writer today who sometimes brings the best of Mencken to mind.