Documenting the Undocumented


The Undocumented Mark Steyn: Don’t Say You Weren’t Warned

If there’s one anecdote I can use to illustrate Mark Steyn’s writing style and worldview, there’s the sinking of the Costa Concordia back in 2012.  (The Italian cruise liner had ignominiously tipped over in shallow waters, after which the captain and crew fled, leaving passengers to trample over each other to claw their way out of the capsizing vessel.) Commentary columnist Abe Greenwald had written, “Is there any chance that Mark Steyn won’t use the Italian captain fleeing the sinking ship as the lead metaphor in a column on EU collapse?” In impeccable form, Steyn breezily noted that Greenwald wasn’t quite thinking big enough, that the disaster was a metaphor for “the fragility of civilization. Like every ship, the Concordia had its emergency procedures — the lifeboat drills that all crew and passengers are obliged to go through before sailing. As with the security theater at airports, the rituals give the illusion of security — and then, as the ship tips and the lights fail and the icy black water rushes in, we discover we’re on our own: from dancing and dining, showgirls and saunas, to the inky depths in a matter of moments.”

Steyn’s new book, The Undocumented Mark Steyn: Don’t Say You Weren’t Warned, marks a departure from the style of his two previous darkly humorous jeremiads, America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It and After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. Steyn, of course, remains somewhat pessimistic about demographic trends, political correctness, and the decline and fall of Western civilization, but his latest volume is of a different genre; it’s a collection of the last twenty years’ syndicated Steyn columns that captured their time’s Zeitgeist. “The old artistic trade-off — ‘Do you want it good or do you want it Friday?’ — doesn’t really apply to jobbing columnists: Your editors want it Friday. Good is an extra. But if you’re lucky, a few  of them hold up over the decades — not because you were aiming to say anything profound, but because in that snapshot of whatever was happening that particular Friday you alighted upon a small close-up that illuminates the big picture.”

One could look at some of the selected pieces as fulfilling Steyn’s role as something like an Old Testament prophet (though considerably less cheery) — a doleful bearded fellow going on about what’s wrong with the world while telling everyone to repent of their unfunded entitlement programs and decaying culture. His parables come from the signs of the age; in one piece, he excoriates the government’s absurd paradigm that led to the Immigration and Naturalization Service threatening to deport the widow of a 9/11 victim while maintaining a fast-track visa program for Saudis that had let some of the terrorists into the country on that fateful day. In other cases, the signs of the age are more literal; he used America’s “unending procession of bend signs, pedestrian-approaching signs, stop signs, stop-sign-ahead signs, stop-sign-ahead-signs-ahead-signs, pedestrian-approaching-a-stop-sign-signs, designated-scenic-view-ahead-signs, parking-restrictions-at-the-designated-scenic-view signs, etc.” as an indicator of the lapsing culture of liberty in this country, which increasingly distrusts its own citizens in the most mundane of tasks. “Underneath the attitudinal swagger [of the “Don’t Tread On Me,” “Live Free or Die” variety], Americans are – to a degree visiting Continentals often remark upon — an extremely compliant people. … On that two-lane blacktop, unlike the despised French surrender monkeys, Americans are not to be trusted to reach their own judgment on when it’s safe to pull out and leave Gran’ma eating dust. Odd.” Steyn also talks up the decline in our foreign policy, narrating how “for a brief period in the spring of 2003 we were the ‘strong horse’ and even a dainty little media gelding such as myself” was able to rent a car in Jordan and drive alone through Iraq and be treated tolerably by the locals, where today the border has been seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). “If you had asked me, in that cafe in Rutba eleven years ago … what utter defeat would look like in a single image, it would be hard to beat the scene that now greets you in the western desert: An Iraqi border post staffed by hardcore jihadists from an al-Qaeda spin-off. The details are choice — the black flag of al-Qaeda flies from buildings built by American taxpayers, they drive vehicles paid for by American taxpayers, they shoot aircraft out of the sky with Stinger missiles donated by American taxpayers — and thousands of their foot soldiers are nominally Britons, Frenchmen, Aussies, Canucks, Americans, and other western citizens for whom the open road in Iraq, decapitating as they go, is the greatest adventure of their lives.”

There are, of course, less overwrought pieces featured in the book, some of which don’t even feature civilizational collapse at all. One column from 2000 lampooned the spread of theme restaurants, satirically introducing “The NRA Sports Grille”:  “‘You know, this is rather good,’ I told Armand, thinking I might review the place for The National Post. ‘Has the chef been recommended by any magazines?’  ‘No, but several magazines have been recommended by the chef … For dessert, may I recommend the assault trifle?’” (There’s one for the Trial Lawyers Association as well, but Steyn wasn’t let in without a suit.)

Steyn also has a splendid knack for blending the topical — take his 2003 column, “When Harry Met Hillary,” which purportedly reviews Hillary Clinton’s Living History. Steyn skewers “J. K. Rodham” as “the world’s most widely unread author” who conjured up a book about a magical lad who saves the world from evil forces: Billy Clinter and the Philosophers Stoned, “in which young Billy … discovers his amazing ability to smoke but not inhale” and achieves the “awesome power to feel your pain with just one touch,” eventually escaping with “Hillary Granger” out of being the “Prisoner of Azkansas.” Another installment, Billy Clinter and the Chamber of Semen, features “Professor Starr [who] has in his laboratory a magic dress that could destroy all his and Hillary’s plans … This is all the fault of Moaning Monica, the intern who haunts the anteroom at Housewhites and has … the ability to look into the eye of the Basilisk, the world’s smallest snake, without being petrified … As the book ends, their old friend Albus Bumblegore fails to become Headmaster of Housewhites after insufficient chads are found in his sorting hat. … According to the pre-publicity, the latest book — Living History: The Heavily Discounted Bulk Order of the Phoenix — would see Hillary rise from the ashes yet again … and prepare to take Housewhites back from the evil usurper Lord W. Bush (as fans know the W stands for Woldemort, but by tradition the name is never said).”

The other pieces of the book is a risible romp through the last couple of decades, the prognostications of encroaching Islamic radicals and governmental red ink and the insightful takes on culture (take his obituary of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, or his “E Pluribus Composite,” which simultaneously roasted President Obama’s “Life of Julia” ad, his fabricated “composite girlfriend” from Dreams from My Father, and Elizabeth Warren’s one-thirty-secondth-Cherokee heritage in one piece). There isn’t much of a unifying theme to the book apart from that of the man himself — the conservative, self-described “nineteenth-century imperialist a hundred years past sell-by date” Canadian Rush Limbaugh Show guest host (the titular “Undocumented Anchorman”).  But then again, that should be enough reason to pick up a copy.