February 18, 2002

or why I'm not the anti-American

Mark Steyn is a right wing Canadian journalist, which is interesting enough in itself, but not the reason we're going to spend a little time with him. He's also Conrad Black's bestest friend in the whole wide world, which is reasonable enough as Lord Black likes selling newspapers, and Mr. Steyn is a very talented journalist. The only thing indeed that any other conservative could take exception to about this pair, is that when these patriots of the press pump out their, well, patriotism, for which country do they do so?

Let's take a very quick run through Mark Steyn's output in Britain, just this year – the titles in which he appears are our eurosceptic finest, and the pearls of Lord Black's Hollinger empire: The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, and The Spectator.

06/01/02 saw the readers of the Telegraph treated to an article fairly enough headlined: 'I Think You'll Turn Chicken'. This took the British people to task for the failure to be enthusiastic enough for the American war against terrorism. Indeed, so contemptible are we, that even our liberal fop of a Prime Minister, 'took the rhetorical lead, and his people's reaction has been at best indifferent.' Indeed:

I spent Christmas reading Lawrence James' riveting Warrior Race: A History of the British at War, to which the present Blairite play-war is a forlorn coda. Britain couldn't fight the Falklands War now. Every year, it falls further behind the US technologically. And impotence leads to decadence. You see it most clearly in what to Americans seems the curious lack of outrage over the numbers of British Muslims who turn up on Osama's side every other day. Over here, they argue whether Tali-Boy John Walker should be executed for treason, jailed for life or tossed to the Afghans. By comparison, British public opinion seems cheerily relaxed about Richard Reid and his incendiary footwear [...] Even if Mr. Blair's on board for Iraq, how about the rest of you?

12/01/02 in The Spectator, has us being told that, 'Dubya stands for wisdom'. Not an argument I'd necessarily disagree with that violently myself, but a right wing Brit could have a go at the following pensée:

Why does Pakistan exist? It exists because of a terrible failure of will on the part of the British. Indeed, all the problems Tony Blair has been swanking about Asia anxious to mediate on are the fault of his predecessors and, come to that, his party. There wouldn't be two nuclear powers if there weren't two powers in the first place. If Lord Mountbatten had held out against partition for another year, Jinnah would have been dead and who knows how much steam the Muslim League could have mustered? Conversely, the only reason India and Pakistan are squabbling over Kashmir is because Britain, having decided on partition, then, typically, screwed over the maharajahs and nawabs of the Princely states [...] However you look at it, the creation of Pakistan was a mess: even the ISI was a British invention. More importantly, in accepting Jinnah's rejection of modern, pluralist, secular, democratic India, Mountbatten and co. implicitly sanctioned Pakistan's development as the precise negative of its neighbour: backward, narrow, fundamentalist, dictatorial. If that's what centuries of expertise in the region produces, then I'll take a know-nothing like Bush any day.

19/01/02 was an opportunity, in the Telegraph, for Mr. Steyn to express his sorrow that Stephen Glover – The Spectator's media correspondent – was 'gullible' enough to give credence to any notion that the civilian death toll in Afghanistan would, by war's end, turn out to be higher than that suffered in America.

20/01/02 had The Sunday Telegraph commissioning from Mr. Steyn his take on Dubya's first year in office. These achievements included that:

The UN, EU and even Nato and the "Special Relationship" have been irrelevant to US prosecution of the war: if "multilateralism" means the third-rank powers (the second tier is entirely empty) have something to bring to the table, fine; if it's just a means of constraining America, the President doesn't want to know.

26/01/02 provided the readers of The Spectator with a little spanking: 'How ridiculous can you guys get: The passionate ignorance of Britain's anti-Americans is giving everyone in the US a good laugh'. Actually, it's a little bit too shrill to be a truly relaxed spanking, but still:

So what exactly is it that Britain brings to the table today? The RAF did nothing in Afghanistan. The Gurkhas sat out the war in Oman. In the end, the only non-American contribution was a few brave British and Australian SAS men fighting alongside US Special Forces. We honour them for their service and their courage. But they weren't strictly necessary, and in return the Pentagon had to put up with not just that idiot speech from Admiral Boyce but a lot of anonymous MoD pillocks sneering to the Daily Mail about how Washington should let our chaps handle the show because frankly these Yank special forces have always been an absolute shower and should just stay out of the way. Do you realise how pitiful this sounds?

And in case anyone suspects of me of being unfair, that perhaps Mark Steyn has taken some sort of new year's resolution to engage in ever more tinny and ersatz American patriotism, his last two columns of 2001, for The Spectator, went under the entirely descriptive titles of: 'The grapes of wrath: Only the US is morally equipped to meet the new challenges', and, 'War between America and Europe: It's the freedom-loving Israel and the US v. the anti-democratic EU' (and on that last score, although I think the UK should leave the EU this instant, I really can't recommend Paul Clark enough).

So, what's the interest in this? All pretty familiar stuff: slightly insecure, over-the-top Ameriophilia, leavened with a healthy quality of abuse for the rest of the world, or at least that portion of it not equally convinced of America's virtue. The reason it has whatever interest it has is that, this is what the most conservative newspapers in Britain serve up to their readers as right wing fare. Notions of an 'Anglosphere' or being a '51st state' hardly begin to capture the degree of political and intellectual dependence entailed thereby: try present day Puerto Rico, or The Philippines a century ago. Any argument addressed in terms of the national interest that places those of another nation before our own should be laughed out of town, yet it's not. Why is this?

Let's go back to the beginning, and consider who we have writing, and for whom. As has often been said, 'freedom of the press is really freedom for [insert name of press baron of the day]' – in the case of Hollinger titles, this quite reasonably translates into freedom for Conrad Black to read as much Mark Steyn as he likes.

Two years ago, Mr. Steyn got a bit upset over some dispute over rank and status, and huffed. His cinema reviews vanished from The Spectator, and the two Telegraphs were deprived of his quirky renderings of American politics. All of this was settled, and he stumbled out backwards into the light, clad in the vestment's of the 'Telegraph Group's Senior North American Correspondent'. Unwisely this demonstration that Mr. Steyn was to be appeased, even by Hollinger editors, has led him into fields where his genuine talents are absent.

In small ways this means that when doing the standard schtick of explaining some transatlantic happening by framing it with some pop-cult reference, he now gets all his British ones wrong. A decade ago, and more, Mr. Steyn was in and out of the UK all the time. Indeed he used to present an excellent BBC Radio 4 programme called, 'Postcard from Gotham', before they sadly sacked him (and he, to his credit, has refused thereafter to have anything to do with this Moloch of a broadcaster). Now, whenever he has to make the similes that this sort of thing depends upon, he reaches for TV shows that last aired the far side of '91. His other great problem comes from an excess of courage. Prior to the 2000 general election in the States, Mr. Steyn clearly thought that the result was going to be a popular victory, in terms of votes cast, for Dubya, and an electoral college victory for Mr. Gore. This point was made with his trademark vigour and did little to reinforce his credentials as a US political pundit.

Where Mark Steyn is without peer is in the work, still on offer, he did first, and best: straight cultural commentary. In the excellent New Criterion (easily the best magazine published in English), Mr. Steyn does sterling work as their theatre critic. For examples of his strength in depth here, I'd suggest (and unfortunately, none of these are online) reading the following: 'The Entertainment State' (September 98); 'Canada: awash in hyphenation' (September 97); and 'Present-tense culture' (April 97). What all of these have in common, and I think it's very relevant to the tone in which Mr. Steyn shares his thought on foreign policy with us, is an acute awareness of the distinct lack of perfection to be found on offer in present day America.

The man who evidently finds this all so congenial is the equally civilised Conrad Black. Lord Black of Crossharbour, when tussling with his editors, is in the habit of writing them 'letters for publication', which, whatever else you might think of it, is an undeniably stylish gesture. He also puts his money where his mouth is, supporting Britain's most credible foreign policy think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and in Washington being a principal patron of The National Interest. He suffered a bit of setback when he had to let go, for some corporate-cum-financial reasons way over my head, of The National Post: his brave effort at giving the people of Canada a conservative alternative to the Globe and Mailthe latter title being well led by former Express editor Richard Addis, if still no more agreeable in its establishmentarian liberalism.

The Spectator embodies the desirable approach Conrad Black takes to press baronage, in that, for all the anti-British spleen Mark Steyn can give vent to, it's only, as they say at all the best university English departments, a point of view. There are plenty of available alternatives. Former Tory MP, Matthew Parris, has spent 2002 providing them with pieces along the lines of: 'I did not say that the bombing would fail; I do say that it will end in tears'; 'In the end it will be America vs. the Rest of the World. Whose side will you be on?'; and, 'The US has been in the right for much of the past 50 years. That does not mean that she is right now'. As that last one suggests, he's got a little distance to go before he comes over completely to the dark side of the force (which, as well all know, is shown by those tattoos we at all bear, proclaiming: 'Cold War – load of bollocks, mate'), but it shows, with the ever-excellent John Laughland to the fore here, that not everyone on the British right is a stooge of Langley.

And, for what it's worth, the letters page of The Spectator positively crawls with Amerosceptics. Mr. Keown-Boyd of Thornbury sagely observes that, 'the special relationship has always been [for Americans] a fine thing, so long as the Brits do as they are told'; Alan Gibson from Cambridgeshire asks, pace Steyn, 'If US policy really is "kill Americans, and you're dead meat", perhaps someone will explain how this policy is supposed to deter a suicide bomber'; and from Totnes in Devon, Michael Harrington writes: 'When Britain backs America, all we can expect in return is good-natured contempt. If we, or any among us, venture to criticise, we can expect contempt mixed with abuse in return. Our present relationship with America is morally unhealthy and should be changed [...] we do not need to suck up to the Americans any more'. One could argue as to whether we ever had to, but that's for another piece.

Ultimately the problem with Mark Steyn, and his ilk (and remember, this is purely a political problem – in spheres other than foreign policy, the likes of Lord Black and Mr. Steyn are thoroughly good eggs, much to be admired) lies in passages such as the following:

As the American century ends, we should pause to consider: ours [sic] has been the most continuously successful nation not just because it's the most inventive, but also because it's the most continuous. No Fifth Republics or Third Reichs here, only the same old federation the Founding Fathers had. The countries of Europe remake their governments every 20 years because they've been conspicuous failures. Consequently, they're obsessed with big ideas, the grand scheme. "Without our traditions," says Tevye, "our life would be as shaky as a Fiddler on the roof!" But today's real rooftop Fiddlers are the Europeans – fiddling here, rewriting this, abolishing that, until they wind up with the sort of wacky notions – Communism, Nazism, European Union – that can only take off in an anti-traditional culture where everything's up for grabs.

Most obviously, that 'ours' is simply insane: Mark Steyn is a Canadian, and if that's troubling for him, he can get in touch with the INS and attempt to do something about it. Far more important than the desire of America's foreign friends, nay lovers, like Conrad and Mark to subsume, or even deny, the interests of their own countries in favour of those of America, is that they get America's so terribly wrong.

Furthermore, were I an American, I wouldn't want as my guide anyone who didn't scream still at:

  • the confederation [at most] of 1783 being superseded by the centralising 1787 constitution & union

  • the profound shift (all the way from Article 12 to Article 19 of the Constitution) to ever direct and broadly-based democracy (which the better Founding Fathers would have hated)

  • the civil war and Lincolnian tyranny, being followed, in short order, by the constitutional delights of reconstruction

  • FDR's stacking, if not, outright dismissal of the Supreme Court, and everything that constitutionally contriving the New Deal required

  • and, in Mr. Steyn's own time, Vietnam does stand out as the worst and more visible case of the unconstitutional power of the Executive to wage de facto foreign wars.

In truth, my interest in whether Americans will turn out to be able to adhere to their paper constitution, pretty much stops from the moment Joseph Galloway set sail for exile, but at least I know that the America Mark Steyn is asking us to love, is hardly that which would appeal to those who created the United States in the first place.

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis. He has also recently taken some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration.

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