The Long View 2006-01-03: The Perennial Stones; the Implosion of the NYT; A Critique of Steyn

John felt in 2006 that new ownership was needed for the New York Times. In 2008, Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico, and occasionally the world, bought an 8% stake, later increased to 17.4%, making him the largest shareholder at present of the most influential newspaper in the United States.

Since synchronicity is a thing, here is Ross Douthat ranting against Mark Steyn, and other demographic doomsayers:

John Reilly occasionally linked to Steyn, and I have myself, but neither John nor I are convinced that Steyn's take on Western exhaustion is quite right. Far too many inconvenient facts get ignored.

As for me, I prefer to just have more kids than most educated Westerners think is reasonable or sane. Light a candle, rather than curse the darkness.

The Perennial Stones; the Implosion of the NYT; A Critique of Steyn


Here is the scariest piece of news from the last year:

THE ROLLING STONES have smashed US touring records - their 2005 BIGGER BANG circuit of North America is the most successful US concert tour of all time, according to concert website Pollstar.

The Rolling Stones are still touring? The Rolling Stones are making money? The Rolling Stones are still alive? When I was in high school I thought of the Stones as an old band.

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Is the New York Times about to implode? Here is what its own "public editor" (a sort of ombudsman for readers) has to say about the fishy timing and motivation of the NSA story:

Behind the Eavesdropping Story, a Loud Silence: For the first time since I became public editor, the executive editor and the publisher have declined to respond to my requests for information about news-related decision-making. My queries concerned the timing of the exclusive Dec. 16 article about President Bush's secret decision in the months after 9/11 to authorize the warrantless eavesdropping on Americans in the United States. ..The most obvious and troublesome omission in the explanation was the failure to address whether The Times knew about the eavesdropping operation before the Nov. 2, 2004, presidential election. That point was hard to ignore when the explanation in the article referred rather vaguely to having "delayed publication for a year." To me, this language means the article was fully confirmed and ready to publish a year ago - after perhaps weeks of reporting on the initial tip - and then was delayed.

Again, my own explanation for this is that the Times management judged that the story would have embarrassed the Kerry campaign had the story been published during the 2004 election, because Senator Kerry would have had to make a public assessment of the necessity and legality of the surveillance program. The public editor notes that the chief the explanation the Times itself has offered is inadequate:

...One is that Times editors said they discovered there was more concern inside the government about the eavesdropping than they had initially been told. Mr. Keller's prepared statements said that "a year ago," officials "assured senior editors of The Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions." So the paper "agreed not to publish at that time" and continued reporting. But in the months that followed, Mr. Keller said, "we developed a fuller picture of the concerns and misgivings that had been expressed during the life of the program" and "it became clear those questions loomed larger within the government than we had previously understood."

This is what is known as an argument against the text. The story the Times actually ran was not about a disagreement within the Bush Administration about the legality of the program. In any case, the point is irrelevant: Even if every lawyer in the federal bureaucracy believed that the NSA program was legal, the Times would certainly have sought independent legal opinion. In fact, that's what the Times did, but it does not seem to have like the answers it got. The Times has covered the legal question primarily through innuendo.

If The New York Times is to be saved as a national institution, its ownership must pass into other hands.

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Mark Steyn in The New Criterion has favored the world this January with a compendium of dark surmise entitled It's the Demography, Stupid:

For thirty years, we’ve had endless wake-up calls for things that aren’t worth waking up for. But for the very real, remorseless shifts in our society—the ones truly jeopardizing our future—we’re sound asleep...Much of what we loosely call the western world will survive this century, and much of it will effectively disappear within our lifetimes, including many if not most western European countries. There’ll probably still be a geographical area on the map marked as Italy or the Netherlands— probably—just as in Istanbul there’s still a building called St. Sophia’s Cathedral. But it’s not a cathedral; it’s merely a designation for a piece of real estate....

Steyn notes things like the irrationality of hysteria about deforestation in countries that are in fact getting woodsier every year. He suggests that Western societies really should be focusing on the fact that their terminal demographics means that the Islamist enterprise could in fact succeed:

If this were like World War I with those fellows in one trench and us in ours facing them over some boggy piece of terrain, it would be over very quickly. Which the smarter Islamists have figured out. They know they can never win on the battlefield, but they figure there’s an excellent chance they can drag things out until western civilization collapses in on itself and Islam inherits by default. That’s what the war’s about: our lack of civilizational confidence. As a famous Arnold Toynbee quote puts it: “Civilizations die from suicide, not murder”—as can be seen throughout much of “the western world” right now. The progressive agenda —lavish social welfare, abortion, secularism, multiculturalism—is collectively the real suicide bomb.

We may note that Pope Benedict XVI recently also quoted Toynbee. I suggested a few years ago that Toynbee was about due for a revival. I said that in connection with a prediction of a return of historical optimism, and I see no reason to change that opinion: simply posing the question of macrohistorical teleology invokes resources for hope that postmodern historical theory was designed to suppress.

Meanwhile, though, we should consider that the proposal to make demographics a political issue may be a category mistake. It smacks of Bertholt Brecht's dictum that when a government loses the confidence of the people then the government must immediately elect a new people. Governments have found that it is notoriously difficult to buy babies, in the sense of subsidizing a rise in the fertility rate. Of course, most of the world has had some form of an anti-natalist demographic policy for the past half century, either overt as in China or covert, as in most Western countries. I wonder, though, whether all this has been a case of the phenomenal tail imagining that it wags the noumenal dog. Policy follows life.

Be that as it may, Steyn suggests that the inability of Western (and Japanese) publics to focus on issues of survival derives from the infantalization of the citizenry by their government:

But the problem now goes way beyond the ruling establishment. The annexation by government of most of the key responsibilities of life—child-raising, taking care of your elderly parents—has profoundly changed the relationship between the citizen and the state. At some point—I would say socialized health care is a good marker—you cross a line...A government big enough to give you everything you want still isn’t big enough to get you to give anything back....

This is not obvious. For one thing, the United States had an infantalized welfare class until the 1990s, a group with a notoriously high birthrate. Another point: health care has changed category. It used to be the sort of thing that individuals could and probably should have provided for themselves. Today, in developed countries, the infrastructure and costs of medical care are so great that just about no one can really buy it for themselves, or indeed pay for their own insurance.

In any case, Steyn suggests a provocative explanation for why US and EU attitudes toward the welfare state are so different, and so, according to his theory, why the US birthrate remains at about the replacement level:

This isn’t a deep-rooted cultural difference between the Old World and the New. It dates back all the way to, oh, the 1970s. If one wanted to allocate blame, one could argue that it’s a product of the U.S. military presence, the American security guarantee that liberated European budgets: instead of having to spend money on guns, they could concentrate on butter, and buttering up the voters.

To that, one might ask why Russia has among the worst demographics in the world, though it spent a far higher percentage of its national product on the military than the United States spent for its own defense. Steyn might argue that Communist social policy infantalized the people. Maybe, but that undermines the argument that the West is, in effect, choking on luxury

Finally, we should reconsider the meaning of this observation:

The default mode of our elites is that anything that happens—from terrorism to tsunamis—can be understood only as deriving from the perniciousness of western civilization. As Jean-François Revel wrote, “Clearly, a civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself.”

Maybe so, but this is a function less of despair than of the strain of restless dissatisfaction that runs right through Western history. Multicult, as Steyn observes, was essentially a device to absolve students of the need to learn about other cultures. Instead, it offered a screen between the student and the world on which a cartoon was printed that used exotic motifs to express political platitudes. In fact, when progressive Westerners cannot avoid encountering a genuine foreign culture, they are more likely than conservatives to want to rip it up and reconfigure it. Such encounters are becoming harder to avoid.

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Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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