Magazine | August 29, 2011, Issue

Old Blighted

I had a new book out the other day. Usual doom and gloom, as the more alert reader may just about be able to discern from the subtle title: After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. One always hopes, in a competitive market for shrill apocalyptic alarmists, that there will be some topical news peg to give the release date a bit of a lift. And sure enough, the weekend before the launch day, S&P obligingly downgraded the United States from its triple-A rating for the first time in history. You can’t buy publicity like that. Well, okay, you can, if you’ve got $15 trillion and toss it in the Potomac and watch it float out to sea, as the government of the United States has done. But other than that, the stars have to align pretty darn precisely. (It is untrue, by the way, that S&P stands for Steyn & Publicity.)

A few days after the U.S. release, the book debuted in the United Kingdom. Halfway through my narrative, there’s a chapter about civic disintegration in the old country called “The Depraved City.” Obligingly enough, 48 hours before the British launch, London erupted in flames. Switching on the TV to find a beautifully posed image of one of those double-decker buses beloved by tourists vividly ablaze and as perfectly lit as the iconic shot in a disaster movie (the aliens zapping the White House in Independence Day, say), I wondered if my publicist had perhaps let things get a little out of hand. You probably want to be out of town when she decides the nuclear finale could use a bit of a plug.

What’s happening in London is part of the same story as the downgrade. S&P run the numbers, factor in the political probabilities, and produce a green-eyeshade assessment. London reminds us that, as I wrote in this space a couple of issues back, culture trumps economics. The blazing double-decker is where the plot goes after the financial pages.

I quote a little bit of Anthony Burgess in my book. Burgess isn’t as famous a name in the futuristic-dystopia biz as Orwell or Huxley, but he was remarkably prophetic and in a rather lightly worn way. His most famous novel is A Clockwork Orange, thanks to the Stanley Kubrick movie. At one point in the book, the precocious psychopathic teen narrator offers his dad some (stolen) money so his parents can enjoy a drink down the pub. “Thanks, son,” says his father. “But we don’t go out much now. We daren’t go out much now, the streets being what they are. Young hooligans and so on. Still, thanks.”

Burgess published his book in 1962, an era when working-class Britons lived in cramped row houses on dingy streets that were nevertheless some of the most tranquil on the planet. Their residents kept pigeons and tended vegetable allotments. The idea that the old and not so old would not go out, “the streets being what they are,” “young hooligans and so,” was not just the stuff of fiction but of utterly transformative fantastic fiction.

#page#But it happened in little more than a generation. The men on our TV screens rampaging through the streets were born three decades after Burgess’s novel, yet he had their measure. There is no great “cause,” despite the best efforts of leftie commentators to kit them out with one. They are the children of dependency, the product of what Sir William Beveridge, the father of the British welfare state, called a world without want. And certainly these ski-masked bandits do not want. They do not want to work, they do not want to marry and raise children, they do not want the responsibilities of adulthood, they do not want to live productive lives of any kind. So instead, under the eyes of a cowed and craven politically correct constabulary, they smash the windows of electronics stores and steal the latest toys.

Nineteen sixty-two was a good year for Burgess. He published a second, less well-known futuristic novel. If A Clockwork Orange predicted the Morlocks of the 21st century, The Wanting Seed with disarming ease conjured our Eloi. The other day, a reader reminded me of this passage, written in a Britain with very little television (and certainly no sets in bedrooms) and a healthy fertility rate, and well before either Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, mass vasectomies and tube-tying, or even the decriminalization of homosexuality:

How long had it been in England since anyone had seen a play? For generations, people had lain on their backs in the darkness of their bedrooms, their eyes on the blue watery screen on the ceiling: mechanical stories about good people not having children and bad people having them, homos in love with each other, Origen-like heroes castrating themselves for the sake of global stability.

He anticipates an entire aesthetic there, although it barely existed even in embryo back then.

The Eloi and the Morlocks do not interact much except during street riots, but occasionally the former are obliged to acknowledge the latter — as when a handsomely remunerated London advertising designer gets the contract for a stylish campaign about public violence. At bus stops in London, there are posters warning, “DON’T TAKE IT OUT ON US.” At the Underground stations, you see the slogan “IF YOU ABUSE OUR STAFF, LONDON SUFFERS” above a poster of Harold Beck’s iconic Tube map rendered as a giant bruise — as if one of those energetic young rioters had punched London itself in the kisser and beaten the map Northern Line black and Piccadilly Line blue, with other parts of the pulverized skin turning Circle Line yellow and even Central Line livid red.

It is a visually striking ad, made with all the award-winning expertise of the Soho advertising world. Alas, on the streets of London, the real thing didn’t look half so stylish and witty.

My book’s thesis is stated upfront: It starts with the money, but it never stops there — in part because it’s never really about the money. What’s worse than debauching your finances? Debauching your human capital. As London reminds us, much of the Western world is too far down that grim path.

– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist. That’s to say, his latest book, After America (2011), is a top-five bestseller in ...

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Making Believe

With trumpets and drum rolls, the White House has released a new policy paper on methods to prevent terrorism, a study said to have been two years in the making. ...
Politics & Policy

London Aflame

London – Yesterday, August 8, I was watching live looting footage — some of it from districts near mine or where friends were hunkered down behind locked doors — with ...


Politics & Policy

Gagging Us Softly

To be honest, I didn’t really think much about “freedom of speech” until I found myself the subject of three “hate speech” complaints in Canada in 2007. I mean I ...
Politics & Policy

Not a Race Card

A  number of states have recently passed voter-ID legislation — among them, Texas, Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Rhode Island. Two others, Georgia and Indiana, implemented such laws ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Something to Fear

  Decades ago, the historian Theodore Draper wrote about what he called the “minor academic industry” dedicated to resurrecting the reputation of the American Communist party. The industry’s ranks were composed ...
Politics & Policy

Roads Not Taken

Late summer, like midwinter, is a time of year when it’s best to shun the big studio releases. Any star-studded blockbuster or crowd-pleasing comedy that’s actually worth its budget (i.e., ...


Politics & Policy


Lochner in Rehab Reading Joseph Tartakovsky’s review of David Bernstein’s Rehabilitating Lochner (“Rights Revisited,” July 4), I got the sense that both gentlemen embrace the proposition that the 1905 Lochner decision was ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Who would have guessed that Moammar Qaddafi would outlive America’s AAA rating? ‐ Wisconsin Democrats have gone to extraordinary lengths ever since Republicans introduced legislation to scale back the collective-bargaining ...
The Bent Pin

The Virgin Mother

A new version of an old song is running through my head. “‘M’ is for the million threats against you. ‘O’ is for Orlando’s mounted cops. ‘T’ is for tattoos ...

The Empire Goes Hungry

We could spend our time together here detailing the ideas that separate the Right and the Left, but if Maureen Dowd has taught us anything, it’s that it’s more fun ...
Politics & Policy


  SOUTHERN STORM To the east is subtropical fern Whose shadows imprint the trails to the springs, More ancient than the forests themselves. To the west of these too-deep predawn pools There are rolling fields and ...
Happy Warrior

Old Blighted

I had a new book out the other day. Usual doom and gloom, as the more alert reader may just about be able to discern from the subtle title: After America: ...

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

It’s the Stock Market, Stupid

Before going any further, I must say that I don’t believe Protectionist Donald really will go all the way with his present attempt to strangle global trade. I believe that the end run will be quite similar to what it was with the steel and aluminum tariffs — which is to say, a photo op in the Oval Office. ... Read More

Ten Things that Caught My Eye Today (March 23, 2018)

I send out a free weekly e-mail newsletter that typically goes out Saturday mornings and includes WFB flashbacks, Firing Line videos, upcoming events, and some of what I’ve been up to. Sign up here. 1. Cardinal Timothy Dolan in the Wall Street Journal: Talking about New York, he noted: 2. The Guardian on the ... Read More
National Review

Palm Sunday with WFB

The wonderful National Review Institute forum in New York City last month, held on the tenth anniversary of Bill Buckley’s death -- but truly a celebration of his life and legacy -- was captured by the good folks at C-SPAN, who now tell us that two panels of the forum will be broadcast this Sunday on C-SAN 3. ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Sliming of Bari Weiss

If you follow at all the ideological war that’s erupted around the New York Times editorial page, then you know Bari Weiss. It’s too much to call Bari conservative. A better description might be heterodox. On some issues, particularly social issues and immigration, she’s a woman of the Left. On others — ... Read More
Politics & Policy

How the Nazis Used Gun Control

The perennial gun-control debate in America did not begin here. The same arguments for and against were made in the 1920s in the chaos of Germany’s Weimar Republic, which opted for gun registration. Law-abiding persons complied with the law, but the Communists and Nazis committing acts of political violence did ... Read More