Nigel Farage (L) and Mark Steyn
I was one of the lucky attendees last Friday at the Munk Debate in Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall. The motion before the house concerned refugee policy: “Be it resolved: Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” On the pro side: Louise Arbour, former UN Human Rights commissioner and historian Simon Schama; on the con side journalist Mark Steyn and Britain’s UKIP party leader Nigel Farage.
The Munk tradition is to poll the audience before and after the debate. On this occasion, the audience was, as one might expect with a Toronto audience, heavily salted with elite liberal culturati, and the first poll was 77 per cent for the motion, 23 per cent con. After the debate, the pro vote was 55 per cent and the con 45 per cent, a huge shift in opinion, and therefore a handy win for the cons.
I’m not going to recap the whole debate, as you can watch it online. Summarizing Arbour and Schama: imagine all the kumbaya bromides Justin Trudeau would nod and smile to, and that’s the gist of what they said. I prefer to elaborate on what I consider to have been the tipping point favouring the con side, because it illuminated an important attitudinal gap between progressives and conservatives with regard to our culture.
In his opening statement, Steyn reviewed the present tumultuous situation in Europe. He made it clear that the majority of people streaming into and across the continent are not traditional refugees at all, but male economic migrants, mostly not from war-torn Syria. He, and later Farage, painted a grim picture of the impact that culturally sanctioned aggression is having on communities exposed to critical numbers of migrants, particularly on women and young girls — Steyn cited actual disturbing cases — who are bearing the brunt of the radiating anarchic dynamic inherent in the circumstances.
To some audience members (not to me, but for example to my furiously tweeting companion, a young colleague who happens to bear the same last name as me), Steyn dwelt excessively on the sexual crimes we’ve all read about in Cologne, Hamburg, Malmö and elsewhere. So it apparently seemed to Arbour and Schama, because they mocked Steyn for it in their rebuttals. Arbour sneered at both Steyn and Farage as “newborn feminists” (she got a laugh), while Schama disgraced himself with “I’m just struck by how obsessed with sex these two guys are, actually. It’s a bit sad, really.” (That got a very big laugh.) I took one look at Steyn’s glowering face after that remark — Schama will regret having said it to his dying day, I know it — and I kind of felt sorry for those two liberals, because I knew what was coming.
Steyn slowly rose and riposted, in a tone of withering contempt, “I wasn’t going to do funny stuff. I was going to be deadly serious. (But) I’m slightly amazed at Simon’s ability to get big laughs on gang rape.” Vigorous applause. He went on, “Mme Arbour scoffs at the ‘newfound feminists.’ I’m not much of a feminist, but I draw the line at a three year old … and a seven year old getting raped.” Vigorous applause.
I think that was the moment those of the audience who did change their minds got it. The pro side was happy to talk about “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” because they’re abstract images, which liberals like. The words were fresh and meaningful then, but today merely a nostalgic homage to a 19th century immigration adventure with no deep similarities to today’s situation. They’re feel-good words but that shouldn’t make the poet who wrote them in 1883 the author of global refugee legislation in 2016. When Arbour and Schama didn’t like the opposition’s message — no images, just descriptions they interpreted as racist — they chose to shoot the messenger with ridicule, a debating error and an intellectually dishonest strategy.
A civilized culture, which takes centuries of painstaking collaborative work to create, can be easily destroyed, and quickly. This is a reality conservatives understand, but liberals, consumed by guilt for past collective sins, and morally disarmed before the Other, choose to ignore. The Munk debate illuminated this important distinction, and for a change, realism won.