Sunday, January 15, 2006

Breed, damn you! Breed!
a look at Mark Steyn's essay
on the fall of the West

[NB: Mark Steyn's bio can be found here.]

Mark Steyn, columnist extraordinaire, recently wrote a long essay on the decline and fall of Western civilization titled "It's the Demography, Stupid." The essay was very interesting; some paragraphs elicited immediate agreement, while others of Steyn's claims struck me as, to put it mildly, in need of further support. Then there's the matter of Steyn's basic thesis, which, if I'm reading him right, is that Western culture currently lacks robustness in two crucial areas: (1) self-confidence and (2) the will to breed. While the thesis itself may have merit, Steyn seems to imply that the answer to the West's problems lies in making more Western babies. Imply is the operative word here: Steyn makes clear from the first paragraph that he feels Western civilization is already on the way out. This puts his essay in the paradoxical position of being, simultaneously, an alarmist tract and a eulogy.

I'd like to divide my ruminations into four parts. First, I want to summarize Steyn's argument (comments are always welcome; I'm open to the idea that I may have missed his point). Second, I want to cover the important areas where Steyn and I agree. Third, I want to review my disagreements with Steyn, which include a fundamental disagreement with Steyn's implied solution to the West's problem. Finally, I will append my own concluding remarks.


Steyn's essay begins this way:

Much of what we loosely call the Western world will not survive this century, and much of it will effectively disappear within our lifetimes, including many if not most Western European countries.

He sees no hope that we will be able to rescue all of the West, either:

The challenge for those who reckon Western civilization is on balance better than the alternatives is to figure out a way to save at least some parts of the West.

So Steyn claims that some of the West may be salvageable. Which parts? As the essay continues, it becomes clear that Steyn sees America as the final repository of Western culture, with Europe having transformed into Eurabia within two or three generations.

Steyn claims that much of the West is worried about the wrong things-- problems he labels "secondary impulses" of society, such as government health care, government day care, and government paternity leave. These impulses, essentially fruits of the Nanny State, are in contrast to the "primary impulses," where attention should, by all rights, be focused: national defense, family, faith, "and, most of all, reproductive activity-- 'Go forth and multiply.'"

Steyn makes an interesting assertion: "The design flaw of the secular-democratic state is that it requires a religious-society birthrate to sustain it." Failing this, manpower needs to be imported:

Indeed, in its reliance on immigration to ensure its future, the European Union has adopted a 21st-century variation on the strategy of the Shakers, who were forbidden from reproducing and thus could increase their numbers only by conversion. The problem is that secondary-impulse societies mistake their weaknesses for strengths-- or, at any rate, virtues-- and that's why they're proving so feeble at dealing with a primal force like Islam.

Steyn argues that Islamism has figured out what terrorists like the IRA and ETA know: the enemy is vastly superior, but lacks the will to carry on the fight. Steyn also invokes the "Islam's bloody borders" argument, and notes that it is "our lack of civilizational confidence" that will doom us in the end as we succumb to modern temptations of the "progressive agenda," such as "lavish social welfare, abortion, secularism, multiculturalism." Steyn takes time to focus on the inherent fallacy of multiculturalism: the tolerant, relativistic acceptance of intolerant absolutism in our midst.

Steyn returns to the theme that the West is worried about the wrong things. He cites Jared Diamond's book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, as a major example of our current self-delusion. In the book, says Steyn, Diamond claims that a society collapses because "it chops down its trees." But dire predictions about the environment and the exhausting of our natural resources simply have not come true, despite years of constant doomsaying.

In the meantime, no one wants to focus on problems like governmental largesse:

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, and it's very hard then to persuade a citizenry enjoying that much government largesse to cross back. In National Review recently, I took issue with that line Gerald Ford always uses to ingratiate himself with conservative audiences: "A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have." Actually, you run into trouble long before that point: A government big enough to give you everything you want still isn't big enough to get you to give anything back. That's what the French and German political classes are discovering.

It's not natural resources, then, that are the problem. Steyn sees people as "the one truly indispensable resource, without which none of the others matter." For Steyn, civilizational guilt has got to go.

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-Francois Revel wrote, "Clearly, a civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself."

Steyn sums up this section of his essay thus:

Well, here's my prediction for 2032: unless we change our ways the world faces a future... where the environment will look pretty darn good. If you're a tree or a rock, you'll be living in clover. It's the Italians and the Swedes who'll be facing extinction and the loss of their natural habitat.


That's the way to look at Islamism: We fret about McDonald's and Disney, but the big globalization success story is the way the Saudis have taken what was 80 years ago a severe but obscure and unimportant strain of Islam practiced by Bedouins of no fixed abode and successfully exported it to the heart of Copenhagen, Rotterdam, Manchester, Buffalo . . .

The next section of Steyn's essay focuses on the consequences of falling fertility rates. He notes that it's the primarily Muslim countries that are showing the most robust birthrates, while the Western countries vary from barely maintaining current population levels to what Steyn calls a "death spiral." One result of this is that these societies will be getting older, but will not be taken care of by the next generation, because the next generation won't be there. This brings Steyn back to the contention he made earlier in his essay, that many Western countries are therefore relying on immigration to solve the worker shortage problem.

Steyn accuses the Europeans in particular of being essentially lazy, spoiled, and dependent on a history of American generosity, a stance with disastrous consequences for Europe:

If you look at European election results-- most recently in Germany-- it's hard not to conclude that, while voters are unhappy with their political establishments, they're unhappy mainly because they resent being asked to reconsider their government benefits and, no matter how unaffordable they may be a generation down the road, they have no intention of seriously reconsidering them.


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.... The "free world," as the Americans called it, was a free ride for everyone else. And having been absolved from the primal responsibilities of nationhood, it's hardly surprising that European nations have little wish to reshoulder them. In essence, the lavish levels of public health care on the Continent are subsidized by the American taxpayer. And this long-term softening of large sections of the West makes them ill-suited to resisting a primal force like Islam.

In the meantime, Western birthrates are declining while birthrates in other countries, including and especially in the Muslim world, are very much on the rise. With an increasing number of Muslims immigrating to Western countries, where they often do not assimilate but instead prefer to live under Shari'a (Muslim jurisprudence), this will mean the Islamification of much of the West. Steyn has connected several separate trends and found that they all point to this conclusion.

We are lulled by a sense of "permanence," as Steyn puts it: "Permanence is the illusion of every age," but it is religious cultures that tend to think long-term whereas secular materialist culture, which sees the now as "all there is," is prone to be less focused on the major trends and its own future.

Steyn makes a dire prediction for Europe:

It seems more likely that within the next couple of European election cycles, the internal contradictions of the EU will manifest themselves in the usual way, and that by 2010 we'll be watching burning buildings, street riots and assassinations on American network news every night. Even if they avoid that, the idea of a childless Europe ever rivaling America militarily or economically is laughable. Sometime this century there will be 500 million Americans, and what's left in Europe will either be very old or very Muslim. Japan faces the same problem: Its population is already in absolute decline, the first gentle slope of a death spiral it will be unlikely ever to climb out of. Will Japan be an economic powerhouse if it's populated by Koreans and Filipinos? Very possibly. Will Germany if it's populated by Algerians? That's a trickier proposition.

Best-case scenario? The Continent winds up as Vienna with Swedish tax rates.

Worst-case scenario: Sharia, circa 2040; semi-Sharia, a lot sooner-- and we're already seeing a drift in that direction.

Toward the end of his essay, Steyn focuses on political ideology, and wonders why the Left isn't more concerned about current trends:

Why then, if your big thing is feminism or abortion or gay marriage, are you so certain that the cult of tolerance will prevail once the biggest demographic in your society is cheerfully intolerant? Who, after all, are going to be the first victims of the West's collapsed birthrates?

Steyn does not see the liberal move toward greater reproductive rights for women as positive:

By prioritizing a "woman's right to choose," Western women are delivering their societies into the hands of fellows far more patriarchal than a 1950s sitcom dad. If any of those women marching for their "reproductive rights" still have babies, they might like to ponder demographic realities: A little girl born today will be unlikely, at the age of 40, to be free to prance around demonstrations in Eurabian Paris or Amsterdam chanting "Hands off my bush!"

Steyn also notes that one reason why the Left seems unable to discuss this subject is its political correctness:

The refined antennae of Western liberals mean that whenever one raises the question of whether there will be any Italians living in the geographical zone marked as Italy a generation or three hence, they cry, "Racism!" To fret about what proportion of the population is "white" is grotesque and inappropriate.

Steyn responds to this:

But it's not about race, it's about culture. If 100% of your population believes in liberal pluralist democracy, it doesn't matter whether 70% of them are "white" or only 5% are. But if one part of your population believes in liberal pluralist democracy and the other doesn't, then it becomes a matter of great importance whether the part that does is 90% of the population or only 60%, 50%, 45%.

...[I]nnumerable "progressives" have routinely asserted that there's no evidence Muslims want liberty and, indeed, that Islam is incompatible with democracy. If that's true, it's a problem not for the Middle East today but for Europe the day after tomorrow. According to a poll taken in 2004, over 60% of British Muslims want to live under Shariah--in the United Kingdom. If a population "at odds with the modern world" is the fastest-breeding group on the planet-- if there are more Muslim nations, more fundamentalist Muslims within those nations, more and more Muslims within non-Muslim nations, and more and more Muslims represented in more and more transnational institutions-- how safe a bet is the survival of the "modern world"?

Steyn concludes his essay:

"What do you leave behind?" asked Tony Blair. There will only be very few and very old ethnic Germans and French and Italians by the midpoint of this century. What will they leave behind? Territories that happen to bear their names and keep up some of the old buildings? Or will the dying European races understand that the only legacy that matters is whether the peoples who will live in those lands after them are reconciled to pluralist, liberal democracy? It's the demography, stupid. And, if they can't muster the will to change course, then "What do you leave behind?" is the only question that matters.


In an essay resplendent with eros and thanatos imagery (note the repeated use of expressions like "primal force" and "death spiral"), Mark Steyn paints a bleak picture of the near future, and suggests that many of us will actually live to see it-- to witness its awful birthpangs on our TVs and cell phone screens, if you will. In making such a prediction, Steyn is putting his money on the table. He even provides a year-- 2010-- in which we should be vigilant and start watching the news for images of those coming assassinations and riots.

I agree with the urgent tone of Steyn's piece, as well as with his Toynbeenian contention that civilizational collapse tends to start from within. I think that Steyn's observations about birthrates in the West and in the Muslim world are largely factual (though he should have provided sources for some of his stats); people from different parts of the political spectrum have come to roughly the same conclusion.

That the Muslim demographic is an ever-enlarging slice of the pie graph in Western countries is impossible to dispute: people know we have it good in the West, but they tend to want the freedom without the attendant cultural responsibility. A signal example of that is the desire of many Muslims to live under Shari'a law while in the West. This is, from the Muslim point of view, something of an inversion of how Christian dhimmi used to live in Muslim countries: Christians in those countries were free (to some extent) to practice their religion and live according to their own laws, but there was never any doubt that their existence was dependent on their adherence to the greater Muslim law.

Steyn's frustration over European indolence is a frustration I share, though my own focus is more on Continental Europe than on the UK (Steyn makes an example of the UK at several points in his piece). France is, to my mind, the great bellwether in all this. With a Muslim population currently at about 10% of the total population, and with non-Muslim birthrates in shallow decline, France is facing the demographic issue up close and personally. France also has a decades-long tradition of secularism, which is bringing it into conflict with the Muslims in its midst. Along with this is the perennial Jewish question: antisemitic violence, usually perpetrated by Muslims, occurs fairly routinely in France, with some French Jews opting to leave the country when the situation has become intolerable for them. This antisemitism, arguably imported from North Africa, nevertheless dovetails insidiously with Western Europe's own long history of antsemitic persecution.

Steyn's connection of Europe's aging population with the question of governmental largesse and immigration is intriguing to me. It makes sense, though I can't say I've researched the question. I also think Steyn is right to point out to liberal feminists that Western patriarchalism doesn't hold a candle to Muslim patriarchalism, though in my own mind I tease out the implications of this fact differently from Steyn, and will discuss this below.

Steyn implies that the West is at war, and I too take this as an article of faith. It was one of the things that turned me off about John Kerry and his ilk: the inability to move from a "police action" mode of thinking to a "wartime" mode. While there are undoubtedly police-like tasks (arrests, investigations) to be performed in this conflict, it should be obvious to all concerned that what happened on September 11, 2001 was not the equivalent of a carbombing in Northern Ireland or a bus bombing in Jerusalem: the years of preparation and the ideology that drove those people (none of whom was poor) to kill almost 3000 Americans all add up to war.

At the same time, as someone who was against the Iraq war, I cannot say that I agree this is primarily a military conflict. It's a war, to be sure, but ultimately it's a war of the mind-- something I've contended on this blog for a long time. In the end, we cannot be pacifistic, but we also cannot realistically expect to kill our way to victory. In the meantime, Steyn is right to think this is a war in the conventional sense of the term, to the extent that certain elements on the Muslim side-- i.e., the ones who routinely make the news-- see it that way. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Islam versus the West. I agree that those elements want us dead, and they must be fought.

Steyn's focus, however, is less on Islamic terror and more on the West's "lack of civilizational confidence." I agree here as well: we've sunk into a morass of guilt that cripples our ability to be critical. Contrary to Jesus' contention that only the sinless should be permitted to cast stones, I believe we all have the right to our own views. Sinful though the West might be-- and it has much to answer for-- it nevertheless has the right to judge other cultures, to praise them for certain aspects, and to find them wanting in others.

And we don't have to look far for moral high ground. The West has a long history; there is much to be proud of, to remember and preserve for posterity. For these and other reasons, the West should hold its head high. Not arrogantly, mind you, but with the pride that comes of long experience and hard-earned wisdom. Of course the West is still learning from its mistakes: how can it not? But we have done a better job than many other civilizations at both preserving those mistakes in history books and museums-- for the purpose of examination, not repetition-- and moving beyond those mistakes to something better. What some Western postmodern intellectuals have derided as "the myth of progress" is one of the West's most cherished virtues.

Steyn is also right to focus on unjustifiable Muslim sensitivity. Playing the victim card is laughable, especially when the more violent elements in the Muslim world are not poor, not oppressed, and not stupid. While we in the West are right when we worry about the return of McCarthyism, or the return of Japanese internment camps, or the rise of a new kind of racism or ethnic conflict, it is incumbent on the Muslim community to realize that, as long as their more moderate elements ("moderate" in the modern Western sense, not the current Muslim sense) do nothing to quell the violent impulses of their religion's "fringe," there is little reason for non-Muslims to feel much sympathy for Islam in general.

Steyn's take on multiculturalism is also right on the money. The vapid delusion that all cultures are somehow equal is just as much folly as the attempt at saying one's own culture is objectively better than all others. The actual situation is more in line with Nicholas Rescher's and S. Mark Heim's orientational pluralism, I think: we each judge right and wrong through the filter of our own personal and collective perspective.

There is no shame in doing this: having a perspective is ontologically inevitable. Orientational pluralism doesn't support the idea that any one culture is objectively better or worse than any other, but unlike multiculturalism (which is essentially cultural relativism), it is not prescriptive: an orientational pluralist is free to proclaim the primacy of his own culture in the knowledge that others will do the same. On the practical level, this means that I, as an American, am free to make judgements about what I consider to be backward or unethical or otherwise unsatisfactory-- in other cultures or even my own culture. An Arab Muslim is free to do the same, not because it is somehow his right, but because this is how things are. This is better than cultural relativism because it assigns no shame to the act of judgement.

In all, I think Steyn makes many good points. The situation is indeed urgent, and demography is something the West needs to focus on. Europe in particular will need to take care, because it stands at the foot of a Muslim tidal wave.

But while Steyn and I are on the same page about some matters, we are wildly divergent on others.


Steyn strikes me as far too dismissive about environmental issues. While it's one thing to say that the doomsayers have been wrong before, it's another thing to say, as Steyn does, that the environment is going to be just dandy years from now. Does he have research to back this up? I'm not a doomsayer myself, but I am a bit worried that Steyn is being glib.

Closely linked to the environmental issue is the question of fossil fuels and our dependence on them. It's not merely the West, of course: Asia is enormously dependent on oil, and so are other continents. I've read plenty of conservative sites that claim we are nowhere near finding viable alternatives to fossil fuels. I respect those arguments, which are often very pragmatic in nature. But I also think that people have long proved themselves to be limitlessly creative, and the finding or making of viable fuel alternatives is more a matter of will than anything else.

Conservatives point out that rich Muslim nations are rich no thanks to their own sociocultural merits, but thanks to the oil reserves they happen to live on-- reserves they knew nothing about originally. Granted. But resentment over who sits on the oil will not provide an answer to the alternative fuel question, and I think it's urgent that we apply our vast scientific and intellectual resources-- very much a product of our culture-- to figuring out how not to be beholden to the oil sheiks.

I also think Steyn's prediction for 2010 is far too alarmist. While I can't rule such a scenario out-- especially after the recent violence in France-- I don't see Europe collapsing so quickly. Europeans have come out of a long, bloody history, but Europe is also the source of the values we in North America hold dear. Though it may not seem obvious to North American conservatives who never travel, those values do live on in Europe. I trust that Europeans will wake up to the difficulties they face. They're tough and smart. Steyn is right to see warning signs in Europe; he's right to be alarmed; however, I disagree that the situation is as hopeless as he makes it out to be.

Then there's the question of feminism and patriarchy. Steyn might have been right to caution feminists about the severity of Muslim patriarchy, which feminists' blind pluralism might inadvertently allow into their midst, but Steyn's claim that the fight for reproductive rights is a tool for eventual Muslim victory strikes me as simply ridiculous. No: what will seal our fate will be our inability to inject first- and second-generation Muslim immigrants with some version of good old arrogant American assimilationism. Assimilationism is key: in America, like it or not, we feel that, if you've become an American citizen, then you're an American first and you'd better act like one. Your citizenship trumps your ethnicity. It will be argued that this isn't true pluralism. I argue that it is simply the social version of John Hick's brand of "convergent pluralism": we are all different, and we celebrate those differences, but we share the same basic common ground.

American assimilationism includes a great deal of secularism, something Islam desperately needs, but which it won't acquire without gentle forcefeeding. Christianity and other major world religions exist in America in an environment of assumed pluralism. As my former professor, Dr. Charles Jones of CUA, wrote:

...the [US] government largely leaves religious groups to their own devices and... no religion has sufficient power or authority to exercise coercion over any other. Religions can get together and dialogue because of specific social and historical conditions that make dialogue possible. Such conditions are present in contemporary U.S. society, but this is a recent and hard-won development.

Western society needs to rediscover its intolerance of intolerance: Steyn is right about that. But Islam is a meme, and memes reside in the mind. I don't advocate the destruction of Islam, but I do advocate gelding it. This can't be done by the sword: people tried that with Christianity, and what began as an ancient pile of martyrs' bones became an edifice of over two billion living Christian hearts. Contending with Islam will mean not merely formal dialogue, but also an injection of secularism, among other things. Islam needs to be helped into the modern age, and engaged at the level of the mind and heart.

Steyn's conservative hatred of the social aspects of the progressive agenda clouds his view of the Muslim threat to Western culture. While I agree with Steyn that overemphasis on governmental benefits is a huge problem in the West (I agree with classical conservatives that minimal government is better), Steyn's oppugning of gay rights and women's reproductive rights strikes me as irrelevant to the issue at hand. It does not logically follow that a woman who has the right to abort will always do so. I also have no clue why Steyn mentions gays at all in his essay. Perhaps he meant to tie gay marriage into the greater theme of societal collapse through nonreproductive pairings.

And therein lies my biggest disagreement with Steyn's piece. Steyn thinks the West will collapse because it's no longer producing enough babies. The implication seems to be that Westerners need to stop whining about abortion and just start popping out kids. This implies that Western kids have something inherently Western about them-- a claim Steyn is at pains to deny when he addresses critics who think he is being racist.

If, as Steyn insists, "the West" is essentially a culture, and not a race, then we once again return to the memetic battlefield. As Muslims wash onto Western shores, what memetic artillery (or, if you prefer less violent imagery, purification procedures) will we have in place to instill, as early as possible, the values we cherish? It's not a matter of pumping out babies. As Steyn implies elsewhere (and I wish he'd emphasized it more), it's about regaining confidence in the ideas that make us who we are-- regaining confidence in our culture, and then selling that culture, hard, to our adopted sons and daughters. By leaning on the baby production issue, Steyn loses focus on the essentials and does indeed risk charges of racism. We are, as I said, engaged in a war of ideas.


As a student of religion, I'm inclined to view the Muslim question as primarily religious. While few people I know in religious studies agree with me on this, one thing I'd love to see happen in all organized religions is a massive unplugging of the urge to missionize. Christianity is a missionary religion, as is Islam. Both, being so huge, find themselves competing for the faithful in essentially the same market. Buddhism, to a much lesser extent, is also a missionary religion, but the nature of Buddhism is, at least in modern times, such that its missionary approach is more of a "come and try" style than a "convert or die" stance.

Once a religious tradition becomes an institution, it is a living organism; all systematic, collective human endeavors show this trait. Like individual organisms, this corporate being has, as its primary goal, survival and reproduction. While this trait is neither good nor bad, it is usually ironic: this goal, survival and reproduction, often runs counter to the core values and concepts of the religion in its original state: values like self-sacrifice and humility; concepts like impermanence and the role of death in the making of new life.

One reason to be wary of institutional religion is that this aggregate creature often betrays no evidence that its original individual virtues have somehow become corporate ones. No religious institution I know of is actively planning its own demise. None acts selflessly-- or even particularly charitably, on the macro scale. They all follow their natural impulses to eat, mate, and kill, whether on the memetic level or on the physical one. A great service religion can perform for the world is to stop acting like immortal cancer cells and to regain a collective sense of mortality.*

Facing this paradox mindfully should be the task of the people of this millennium. It's a task far larger than the mere question of Islam's dominance or the West's decline; it's a task of a much greater scope than the mere question of religion. But we at the beginning of the 21st century have the opportunity to begin the task now, to move ourselves away from absolutist stances and seek paths of moderation. While I don't see humanity as ever arriving at something like Teilhard de Chardin's "omega point" (like Jean-François Revel, I'm no utopianist), there is no reason not to establish peaceful ideals and make the effort to move toward them. Mark Steyn seems to think that more Western babies are the answer. But if "the West" is fundamentally a state of mind, then there are already plenty of babies out there that have the potential to become Western. Marshalling a defense shouldn't involve rolling back the clock on women's and gay rights. One of the very values we're trying to defend is progress.

*I'm not arguing that all religions should disappear, or that the very idea of religion should be done away with or abandoned. For more on that discussion, see this post and the ensuing comments.



Kevin Kim said...


Great comment.

Orientational pluralism (OP) isn't "my idea"; I'm not a great fan of it. It's something originally propounded by the philosopher Nicholas Rescher, then seized upon by theologian S. Mark Heim, who based his entire theory/theology of religious pluralism on it (Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion, Orbis, 1995).

I agree with you that OP is problematic; in fact, early on in this blog's career, I offered a critique that was similar to what you wrote above. My feeling is that adherents of most religions will refuse to abide by OP because religious claims are, traditionally, normative and hegemonic. Heim's pluralism is an attempt at a "live and let live" solution, but if you seriously believe that the nature of reality is empty (for example), then it's not just "empty for me," but empty-- period. OP doesn't really get around this problem.

Then again, OP isn't supposed to: at heart, it's simply an acknowledgement that different perspectives lead to different commitments, and that this is only natural. And let's be frank: while groups can make claims that pretend to objectivity, they're not actually able to confirm the objective truth of those claims to the satisfaction of other groups.

[NB: I'm not talking about mathematical or scientifically verifiable claims, of course; I'm referring to religious truth claims and other "squishy" truth claims related to culture, etc.]

The point I was trying to make in my post, however, was more limited in scope: that there's no need for culture X to feel shame about having a specific point of view (because having a point of view is only natural), nor should it be shy about acting in a manner that's true to that point of view. Muslim culture certainly isn't shy about it, so why should the West be shy?

Perhaps I over-complicated matters by bringing OP into this at all. OP struck me as a good analogy... though of course, all analogies can be attacked (e.g., by the under-age girl problem). My basic argument was simply "Western cultural shame not needed"-- one major area where I do agree with Mark Steyn.


Anonymous said...

I think you are assuming assimiliation is possible. I think that would be possible in Anglo countries, which have a long tradition of accepting immigrants, but I don't see many European countries being able to deal with influxes of this size. Assimiliation also depends of the people moving into the west to cooperate. I don't see that occuring in Denmark, or the Netherlands. In fact, it seems that more than often, 2nd and third generation Arabs are less assimilated than their parents.

Kevin Kim said...


1. I'd prefer a name! I might have to bar anonymous comments from now on.

2. You may be right. But there are no easy solutions. In fact, ALL solutions appear too idealistic in the face of Steyn's crushing picture. But on the off-chance that Steyn was giving us a wake-up call, then I'd say, "Let's take him up on it!" and try to do something about it. Assimilationism might not be possible, but its possibility or impossibility depends on the mind.

It could well be that Europe-- the Western elements of it, anyway-- will wake up and react quickly to impending disaster. What I can't abide is sheer pessimism in the face of crisis. If Steyn is right, and he might be, then what are we gonna do about it? Just hunker down and ride the wave to extinction? I'd like a better answer than that.


Kevin Kim said...

I agree that Steyn's intentions probably aren't racist, but I disagree with your characterization of his argument. If what you say is true:

"...western men and women are far more likely to be successful in creating a bigger western populace by having and raising more kids to be western rather than trying to convert outside peoples to western ideas..." [emphasis added]

...then there was no reason at all for Steyn to have mentioned birthrates. If preaching the Western gospel more strongly were the only thing Steyn was saying, then, consistent with my "war of the mind" stance, I'd agree that that's the way to go.

But Steyn isn't only talking about Western self-confidence. The baby-popping issue figures large in his mind. Note that he very prominently claims that

"By prioritizing a "woman's right to choose," Western women are delivering their societies into the hands of fellows far more patriarchal than a 1950s sitcom dad."

I'm pretty sure that's not meant to be a metaphor. He's establishing a causal link between modern women's attitudes and rights and the takeover of the West by Muslims. He's not saying this is the only cause, to be sure, but reproductive issues are front and center in his argument. So I reject the idea that I've mischaracterized Steyn in this way. He's pretty clear that modern Western women-- and the culture that supports their choices-- are at least partly to blame for what's going to happen.

Nothing's being distorted here. Steyn sees falling birthrates in the West as problematic, which is why he uses dramatic terms like "death spiral" in reference to Europe. The distortion would be, I think, to ignore this part of his argument.


Kevin Kim said...


I've been puzzling over what exactly your disagreement with my post is. I never said Steyn was placing sole emphasis on birthrates, but it's obvious he thinks that birthrates (yes, coupled with a concerted effort to spread the Western meme by teaching it to one's children) in the West are a big problem-- to the extent that he is actually blaming women for not reproducing enough. In case it wasn't obvious before, this is the part of Steyn's case that sticks in my craw. Steyn knows the West values progress, and I think, as a Westerner, that one element of "progress" is the expansion of women's rights.

My fundamental position on Steyn is this: he's got almost everything right in his analysis, but in blaming modern Western women (and somehow throwing gays into the mix as well) as one of the causes of Western decline, he's made a huge mistake.

As I look at Steyn's argument, there seem to be two ways to interpret it:

A) Prescriptive approach: As a major part of his larger argument, Steyn seems to want to roll back the clock on women's rights and ask women to reproduce more. This is directly implied in the way he blames women for the lack of Western babies.

B) Descriptive approach: Steyn is merely establishing the causal link between women's rights, low birth rates, and the eventual dominance of Islam in the West in order to paint a picture of our coming collective demise.

I favor interpretation (A), based on my (admittedly limited) understanding of human psychology: Steyn is being alarmist in the hope that we'll do something about the situation-- otherwise, what's the point in crying our doom?

So, no-- I wasn't implying what you asked about. In fact, you and I seem largely in agreement and are quibbling over details. Earlier, it seemed to me that you were glossing over Steyn's concern with both Muslim and Western birthrates. In your latest comment, you seem to be pretty much on the same page I am: I agree that the birthrate issue is linked in Steyn's mind to the spread-the-Western-meme issue. I don't know whether this means you think I'm still mischaracterizing Steyn's argument; I don't think I am.

Steyn himself doesn't make things clear, however. This is why I wrote that his essay struck me as being, paradoxically, both an alarmist tract and a eulogy.

And here's something I regret not having written in the original post: Steyn strikes me as possibly playing the victim card, something not consistent with the classical conservative approach. "They're more numerous than we are; we're soft and weak; we're going down, folks, and there's little we can do about it." A sense of powerlessness and an overestimation of the strength of the Other are characteristics of the victim mentality. I hope this isn't what Steyn is doing, but I can't say for sure that he isn't. If interpretation (B) above is correct, then it's the victim card.

One could argue that Steyn's not playing the victim card-- instead, he's ruefully analyzing a problem, and doing so with a constructive purpose in mind. That would be consistent with my interpretation (A) above, the prescriptive approach. But Steyn's implied solution-- have more babies (and teach them the Western ways) is not one I agree with. You'll have greater success at pushing assimilationism (at least in America, where it's already a semi-given) than you will in convincing people to reproduce more. Think I'm wrong? Try commanding any modern Western woman to stop fussing over reproductive rights and to get busy arresting the "death spiral."

Switching gears...

I've been needling conservatives for a bit, so now let me needle the liberal relativists. First, relativism is a sham: no Western liberal is seriously relativistic when the chips are down. My experience in Korea has been that so-called "liberals" here complain about Korean culture with the same frequency and volume as conservatives-- and their complaints are about the same aspects of Korean society. Western liberals might pay lip service to cultural open-mindedness, but when faced with a plate of raw octopus, or when they get screwed over during contract negotiations, or when they have that sudden fight with their Korean girlfriend, the "liberal" label peels off many of these folks and they're all Western, baby. A lot of them don't even realize this is happening, which is simultaneously funny and sad.

Perhaps that's material for another post, eh?

As for the race issue-- yes, I think Steyn is correct to emphasize culture. But he does this poorly: when he laments what is about to happen, he paints the picture in baldly ethnic terms:

"'What do you leave behind?' asked Tony Blair. There will only be very few and very old ethnic Germans and French and Italians by the midpoint of this century."

A mere couple sentences after that, Steyn writes something I agree with:

"...will the dying European races understand that the only legacy that matters is whether the peoples who will live in those lands after them are reconciled to pluralist, liberal democracy? It's the demography, stupid. And, if they can't muster the will to change course, then 'What do you leave behind?' is the only question that matters."

I agree-- but Steyn, throughout his essay, isn't always clear what he means by "demography." As a matter of interpretive charity, I assume he means "cultural demography." This is supported by the undeniable fact that the West is, and always has been, multicultural. Steyn's wistfulness about "death spirals" and "dying races," though, bespeaks a slightly different concern. He should have taken more pains to make clear what "demography" he was talking about. In fact, he should have wasted less time on fluffy Cameron Diaz and spent more time offering brief but clear definitions of core terms like "Islam/Muslim," "West," and so on. As conservative scholar Bernard Lewis argues early on in his Islam and the West, these terms aren't easy to define and don't really represent a true dichotomy.

Jung, I have to thank you for inspiring me to write at length on this. We might not agree (though I'm still puzzling over what, exactly, our disagreement is), but disagreement is never a requirement for respect and appreciation.


Kevin Kim said...


"I think the main point of Steyn's essay is not that Western women in particular are to blame but that western society as a whole are focusing too much of their attention on what he thinks are secondary issues."

I agree. Steyn's focus isn't on women in particular; my only point is that this is a major part of his argument with which I disagree. He very clearly blames Western women for helping to deliver the West into the hands of the Muslims.

"Your preference of assimiliation over higher birthrates and its incumbent duty to acculturate the children is flawed in my and probably Steyn's view because once immigrants fully blend into the native western population, they will by definition adopt weak cultural beliefs and habits surrounding marriage, divorce, and of course the bearing of children."

I'd definitely have to see the data behind this assertion. Perhaps you're right, but the above contains too many "soft" terms in it-- e.g., "cultural beliefs." Some people say it's consistently American to be proud of both one's motherland and one's adoptive country. Others say differently: once you're in America, you need to learn to act like [a certain majority demographic], adopting their values and ways of thinking.

Another phrase you use, "fully blend," is good grist for discussion. At what point does one "pass for Western/American"?

My mother has been a naturalized American since the early 1970s. From a modern Korean standpoint, she's Americanized a lot. Her English is fluent, though heavily accented. But at heart, she still thinks and acts like a Korean. Does this weaken or strengthen the fabric of American society and culture? Mom professes love for America; being a child of the Korean War, she's often thankful for the bounty she's enjoyed. Is Mom "fully" American? "Fully" Western? These kinds of concepts are devilishly hard to define, measure, and assess.

And what would be the solution, then, if we can't place hope in assimilationism for immigrants? It won't simply be a matter of raising our kids in more overtly Western ways; the immigrants will still be arriving and it'll still be a numbers game. This is why I read Steyn as tacitly urging Western women to get back to producing babies.

Also, it sounds as though you're saying that successive waves of immigrants are polluting-- or at least diluting-- our culture. I'm tempted to agree, but I'd have to study the issues more before replying. "Pollution" and "dilution" would also require some sort of agreed-upon definition, otherwise we risk talking past each other.

But if you're right, and cultural pollution (my own phrase, not yours, and an almost Maoist phrase at that! I scare myself sometimes) is eroding Western culture, and immigration is a major source of this erosion (because immigrants bring cultural baggage), then it would seem the best course of action would be to renounce our embrace of immigrants, close off our huge borders, and return to some sort of isolationism, at least until our numbers have bulked up enough to weather any demographic storm.

The extreme solution isn't the only solution, of course: one could argue that simply decreasing the rate of immigration is enough, and we could start by getting very aggressive about illegal immigration. I'd be all for that.

Those kinds of measures do, however, carry unpredictable diplomatic repercussions. We see it here in Korea: after 9/11, life got more difficult for Western travelers when America tightened its own security and made procedures even more difficult for Koreans desirous of visas.

(Aside: Luckily, the visa issue may be changing soon. The US is likely to drop certain visa requirements for Koreans planning to visit the US short-term.)

Much to think about. Thanks again!