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.
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 (www.steynonline.com).