In connection with the newly expanded edition of his book, "Mark Steyn's Passing Parade," we sat down with the best-selling author and prolific columnist to discuss a wide variety of issues, ranging from climate change to Common Core, free speech to the fate of the Western world and more.
Below are 13 of the most compelling excerpts from our interview with Mr. Steyn, which tell the story of America's decline and fall, with some room for optimism at the end.
1. History, as reflected in the life of Otto von Habsburg, is cyclical
"What I like about [Habsburg's plight]...is that it kind of reminds us that in the span of one life, everything can change. You can see the rise and fall of Communism, you can have revolutions, you can have vast convulsions, all within one man’s life. And, if you’re like Otto von Habsburg, your very surname sort of mocks the idea of prosperity – you’re going around like the last sort of souvenir of an enterprise nobody else is interested in. I like things like that, because it’s a reminder that a guy can live three score and 10, maybe he’ll get an extra 10 or 15 years on top of it, but within 80 or 90 years empires rise and fall, all within the span of a single life."
2. Here's the evolution of America in five simple stages
"You know how the first generation are warriors, and then the second generation become farmers, and then the third generation become inventors and creators, and then by the fifth generation they’re diversity outreach consultants or whatever, which is the stage we’re pretty much at."
3. We may be at the point in the cycle of the West in which there will be no order in the world
"But that [the transition of power from Great Britain to America] was the – if you’re gonna go out of business as the global hegemon – passing it to your prodigal son that shares the same language, shares the same legal inheritance, shares the same views on liberty but has taken them in a slightly different direction or whatever, that’s the smoothest transition of global power in history. And the idea that it’s the same when the baton is passed – that London to Washington is the same as Washington to Beijing – is deeply disturbing...I think in the long run, I would say the danger is that we are moving into a world of no order, in which all the mischief makers whether you’re talking about Putin or the mullahs or the Chinese politburo will just have the run of the planet. And I think that’s a tragedy."
4. As for where we are today, this is our economy on progressivism
"too much of our human capital is diverted into at the low level, low-skill service jobs, and at the high level into things like the president and first lady did until 20 minutes before they became president and first lady – you know the first lady was a diversi-crat, and the president was a community organizer. That’s even more pointless than doing the nightshift at the Quicky-Mart. It’s even less connected to the creation of wealth. And then at the middle you’ve got people who do these sort of jobs with the Department of Paperwork all day long. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lawyer insuring that something is compliant with the federal regulations, or whether you’re one of those people who says, 'Well you send me a W-2, and I’ll send you a 1099 and we’ll all pretend that this is some kind of valuable economic activity.'"
[sharequote align="center"]You send me a W-2...I’ll send you a 1099..we’ll all pretend that this is..valuable economic activity[/sharequote]
5. Steyn feels that people are going to choose to go off the cliff, progressivism's natural end
"I find the idea that the progressive project, which we’re in now, which for some people now is the point of life, that life becomes a sort of exercise in solipsistic kind of self-expression, and it should all be about going to college till you’re 35 and taking early retirement at 52 and you do some desultory little activity between 35 and 52, but that the purpose of life now has been utterly transformed in the course of the 20th century in a way that’s unsustainable. So how do you persuade people that you can’t have a 30-year retirement, and you can’t stay in school till 28th grade, that life…the values are not gonna work. And I’m not sure, when you say progressivism, I’m not sure that in the end it won’t want to — the way to bet is that it will want to go off the cliff and over the cliff, and the question then is, how do we pick up ourselves up after that."
[sharequote align="center"]The purpose of life now has been utterly transformed...in a way that’s unsustainable[/sharequote]
6. Ultimately, will America have any more purpose than the Soviet Union?
"[America] was founded on certain ideas about liberty, and small government and self-reliant citizens, and so if it is no longer a self-governing Republic of limited government by self-reliant citizens, that it’s actually – a majority of people are actually comfortable with European-sized welfare states, and dependency, and all the rest of it – if at that point America still has any more purpose than the Soviet Union did after it ceased being Communist. And I think that’s an interesting question. The Soviet Union broke up, and Yugoslavia broke up and…big countries are not the norm, and a big country that checks out of its founding principles…there’s no reason why it should expect to maintain the same real estate in perpetuity."
7. Here's a cautionary tale from Scotland on the transformative power of government if we do not change course
"The Scots are almost everywhere you go – every corner on the planet — anything that’s worth it, doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about banks in Hong Kong or rubber plantations in Malaya or the Canadian Pacific Railway, everywhere you go on the planet was built by Scots. And you go back to contemporary Scotland now, and they’re these pathetic, feeble, passive economic swamp of dependency – parts of Glasgow, male life expectancy…they all sit around eating fried Mars bars all day, and life expectancy is getting down to West African rates in certain wards of Glasgow. So if you’re someone who knows the Scottish diaspora, all that great stuff they did around the planet, and you go back to Scotland, you think, "What the hell happened?" "Well what happened is government. What happened is welfare."
8. What we should recognize is that "the great evil of welfare is not that it wastes money, which it certainly does, but it’s greatest evil is that it wastes people"
"[What one conservative professor underestimated was] how far welfare and the culture of trans-generational dependency has eaten into the American spirit. And I see that in my part of the world – you know I live in a corner of the world where the mills have closed down, and people who were the grandsons of mill workers and the great-grandsons of farmers – there’s nothing for them to do. But yet at the same time there’s subsidized housing and there’s subsidized this and that…so people can live their lives without having to bear the burdens of their grandparents and great-grandparents, but it’s not a life of dignity. And that’s why I always say the great evil of welfare is not that it wastes money, which it certainly does, but it’s greatest evil is that it wastes people. And that’s absolutely terrible."
9. But things aren't looking good in society, as reflected in a free speech case that Steyn says could lead to the biggest setback for the First Amendment in 50 years
"I’m being sued by Michael Mann from Penn State University, who’s one of three people who came up with the global warming hockey stick, which showed the last thousand years as the flat handle of the hockey stick – no temperature fluctuations for a millennium – and then the 20th century is the blade where basically it rockets up and out the top right-hand corner of the graph like we’re all gonna fry circa 2014. That would be the conclusion you’d draw from his graph, which isn’t what happened.
…the use to which that graph was put was in my mind completely fraudulent. And I described it as fraudulent.
I think I’m entitled to say that…there’s all kinds of people who think that graph does not smell right…the President of the Royal Statistical Society in Britain is among them…you know statisticians are not big fans of what Michael Mann did with his proxy data. So he’s suing me, and, you know, it’s always a crapshoot when you’re in court, and if you come up in front of a jury.
But I will say this: that I think if he [Mann] were to prevail in that case, it would be the biggest setback for the First Amendment in half a century since New York Times v. Sullivan. It would be a very consequential case, with repercussions that go way beyond climate change. But just on the climate change stuff, it would tell editors and publishers that this critical aspect of public policy on which trillions of dollars of spending hinges, is not like other public policy questions. It is not subject to the give and take of vigorous debate. And that’s why I’m fighting this battle. And that’s why I think…people understand the seriousness and I think I’ll win. But that’s what would be the consequence of it."
10. This statement sums it up nicely: "I don’t like official ideology...whether it’s fascism or communism, or whether it’s marriage equality or climate change"
"Again, it’s [climate change] an elite accessory that will destroy millions of lives. And we should be free to talk about it. And again...I’ve got no problem…most people who are opposed to gay marriage don’t object to you or anyone else arguing in favor of it, but increasingly people who are in favor of gay marriage don’t even want to hear about opposing arguments. And I don’t like official ideology. I don’t like it whether it’s fascism or communism, or whether it’s marriage equality or climate change. I don’t want to be told this is the official ideology and you can’t deviate from it, because it’s despotic and it’s totalitarian.
I’m not making crazy comparisons here: I know the difference between Hitler and Stalin, and James Cameron and Barbara Streisand. I can tell the difference between Barbara Streisand and Hitler at two hundred yards, but it is totalitarian and despotic when you start saying, the other side cannot make its case."
11. And we stand at this point because of the Left's "long march" through the institutions
"you can go back to the famous debate at the Oxford Union: ”This house would not fight for king and country…” The funny thing about that though is that we all understood 80 years ago that elites at the height of the ivory towers of the academy…people did not think – that kind of contempt for national feeling…the difference though now is not just at the elite academy, it’s actually down at the grade school. It’s being taught from the grade school – climate change is a very good example, or even the whole gay thing…when I was at school, we did Latin and Greek in school, and we were expected to pick up homosexuality in our free time. And now nobody does Latin and Greek, but they’re being taught all about gay issues, climate change, all the rest of it. It’s a waste of time above anything else.
...If...[progressivism is] society’s default position – if it’s the air you breathe, which it is largely — the likelihood of persuading people to go into a polling booth every other Tuesday morning in November and plump for conservative government shrinks, and shrinks, and shrinks. They don’t live in the polling booths, they live in front of the television set, and in the grade schools, and in the squishy churches, and in the movie theater, and they spend two minutes once every two years in the polling booths.
So if you’re not in all the space where they actually live, you’re gonna lose."
12. But it all starts with changing education -- and we forget that an 8th grade-educated America won the Second World War
"The average American in 1940 had an 8th grade education. The post-war prosperity of this country was built by 8th graders. 8th grade America won the Second World War, and then bad that big post-war 1950s prosperity. Now we stay in school twice as long, have twice as much attention from school teachers, and for no purpose. The longer you keep people in education — if you pretend that college is universal, it becomes middle school. If everybody goes to college it’s middle school, that’s what it is, that’s what it will be. You take away so many people’s most productive years. It leads to later economic contribution, later family formation, it has all kinds of consequences. And the education that matters is still K through 8. Because if you screw up K through 8, you can spend the next 20 years trying to play catch-up, and it doesn’t really make any difference. And that’s what I’d like to see. I’d like to see a stronger telescope education. I’d like to see a return back to the spirit of single-town school districts, and I’d like to see American education delivered out of the hands of the present educational establishment, and Common Core does none of those things, which is why it’s to me part of the problem, not the solution."
13. While the hour is dark, the right man at the right moment could make all the difference
"And you know as bad as things are – when I think back to that time for example, and I think when Neville Chamberlain was forced out of the prime ministership in the spring of 1940, if the Tory party had picked Lord Halifax instead of Winston Churchill, the entire history of the 20th century would have been different. And so the lesson you draw…we’re in New York City…Winston Churchill was almost hit by a car crossing 5th Avenue in 1932 or whatever it was – if that taxicab had actually left the tread marks over Winston Churchill — again the entire history of the second half of the 20th century would have been different. And so the lesson you draw from that is that yes the debt numbers are bad, yes the demographic numbers are bad, yes all the big picture stuff, the trends, the macroeconomic stuff is all bad, but even so, one man, the right man at the right moment can make all the difference…extraordinary people can make all the difference."