MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN – REVIEW: Mark Steyn – After America: Get Ready for Armageddon

I am reading Mark Steyn’s brilliant After America: Get Ready for Armageddon.

USA book click here.
USA Kindle book click here. (Text-to-Speech enabled)
UK book click here. UK doesn’t have a separate Kindle version yet.

Readers in the USA, this is a good book.  I suggest you read it.  There are reasons for people on the other side of the Atlantic to read this book.  Steyn analyzes the state of Europe’s economy and culture and prospects for the future in tandem with what is going on the USA.  He is brutally clear, but his prose and sense of dark humor are rich, the word play so far ranging, that you can’t help turning page after page in anticipation of the next witty turn of phrase.  His skill is, in itself, a reason to read it.

One of the important things he tackles is the falling birth rate in nations with vast debt being shoved along to future shrinking generations.  He looks at the issue not only from point of view of economic implications but also social, cultural.

He is talking about the death of a civilization, not just problems in the USA or Europe.

In this, it seems to me that he is giving voice, from another point of view, to Pope Benedict’s concerns for the identity of Europe and, of course, the West.

Here is a sample of the end of one of Steyn’s chapters.

I was struck by this little section because I had just read a story on Roma Sette about vandalism of the Trevi Fountain and also a fountain in the Piazza Navona.

Here is Steyn on the defacing of monuments, et al., with my emphases:

Europe is already dead—in the short run. Linger awhile, how fair thou art.  It’s nice to linger at the brasserie, have a second café au lait, and watch the world go by. At the Munich Security Conference, President Sarkozy demanded of his fellow Continentals, “Does Europe want peace, or do we want to be left in peace?”  To pose the question is to answer it. But it only works for a generation or two, and then, as the gay bar owners are discovering in a fast Islamifying Amsterdam, reality reasserts itself.

We began this book with some thoughts from Bertie Wooster and Jonathan Swift regarding Belshazzar’s feast and “the writing on the wall.” But sometimes there’s so much writing you can barely see the wall. On my last brief visit, Athens was a visibly decrepit dump: a town with a handful of splendid ancient ruins surrounded by a multitude of hideous graffiti covered contemporary ruins. Sit at an elegant café in Florence, Barcelona, Lisbon, Brussels, almost any Continental city. If you’re an American tourist, what do you notice? Beautiful buildings, designer stores, modern bus and streetcar shelters…and all covered in graffiti from top to toe. The grander the city, the more profuse the desecration. Go to Rome, the imperial capital, the heart of Christendom: the entire city is daubed like a giant New York subway car from the Seventies. Look at your souvenir snaps: here’s me and the missus standing by the graffiti at the Trevi Fountain; there we are admiring the graffiti at the Coliseum.

A New York Times feature on Berlin graffiti reported it as an art event, a story about “an integral component of Berliner Strassenkultur.” But it’s actually a tale of civic death, of public space claimed in perpetuity by the vandals (like graffiti, another word Italy gave the world, as it were). At the sidewalk cafés, Europeans no longer notice it. But it is in a small, aesthetically painful way a surrender to barbarism—and one made even more pathetic by the cultural commentators desperate to pass it off as “art.” And it sends a signal to predators of less artistic bent: if you’re unwilling to defend the civic space from these coarse provocations, what others will you give in to?

It’s strange and unsettling to walk through cities with so much writing on the wall, and yet whose citizens see everything but. Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia is right: once upon a time, you were certainly an ass if you didn’t know where “the writing on the wall” came from. It was part of the accumulated cultural inheritance: in the old Europe, Handel and William Walton wrote oratorios about it. Rembrandt’s painting of Belshazzar’s Feast hangs in the National Gallery in a London all but oblivious to its significance. Instead of paintings and oratorios and other great art about the writing on the wall, Europeans have walls covered in writing, and pretend that it’s art. Today, I doubt one in a thousand high-school students would have a clue whence the expression derives. And one sign that the writing’s on the wall is when society no longer knows what “the writing on the wall” means.  (p. 124)

Turn to any page in the book and you find stark commentary on what we face in the not distant future.

I hope a perfectly sane Steyn is more successful than poor Cassandra.  We had better start listening and doing something soon.  If it is not too late already, it is nearly too late.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. One of those TNCs says:

    Mark Steyn is an excellent writer and speaker, and even more than that, he is intelligent, articulate, and is not afraid to tell the truth. I am currently reading “America Alone,” which precedes “After America.” The pictures he paints are not pretty ones, but unless the freedom-loving West sits up and takes notice, she will be neither free nor “the West.” She will be broke, shackled, and Islamist.

  2. Charles E Flynn says:

    The writing on the wall, in Wikipedia.

  3. Pachomius says:

    I note Steyn is still the same pompous, vacuous ass he was when (c. 2002-2005), with typical humility and accuracy, he was busily telling readers of The Spectator that there was no point being in Afghanistan, since Osama bin Laden was already dead (and thus, in a deft manoeuvre managing to be wrong in premise, conclusion and methodology), in the one-and-a-half columns he endlessly regurgitated in that organ over the period mentioned.

    As for style, Fr., I can only think that you are either so starved of writers with any skill in the US [?!? What an asinine remark.] that any piece with the more brisk manner of a British writer will appeal, or else all that Ayn Rand in your youth has permanently damaged your appreciation for English prose; [Okay… I am cutting this off here. Disagree with me, fine. When you make a nasty, ad hominem attack, you are gone.]

  4. UncleBlobb says:

    Ps. 22: 1-2.

  5. Glen M says:

    Steyn is brilliant and urgently needed. If he’s not Catholic now he will be eventually.

  6. Charles E Flynn says:

    I do not recall seeing anyone cut off at a semicolon.

  7. Taylor says:

    But Father, asinine comments can be art too!

    My question is, at what point does graffiti go from being a sign of the decline of a civilization, to a worthwhile thing to study. I am thinking, specifically, of the graffiti at Pompeii, and the insight it gives us into Roman street culture. I mean, was Rome in decline in the 70s?

  8. Taylor: For some reason, people want to leave traces of themselves by writing on walls. This continues today on Facebook and in our streets. On Facebook, it is not generally vandalism. On the streets it nearly always is. How many people own the thing they are painting or scratching on? In Pompeii, some of the things we find on the walls were political or other advertisements sponsored by some guild or other. A lot of it is as graffiti is today. I think what Steyn is driving at is the sheer quantity of graffiti in European cities. It is disgusting. There is a point at which the quantity of graffiti takes on a qualitative implication.

  9. acroat says:

    We have chain link fence so they have sprayed painted our motor home & carved the door of my vehicle…just wish I knew who NHS…now we park behind the fence to defend our property…

  10. holeksa says:

    Sweet, I will have to order this book.
    Mark Steyn is Canadian…thats the country north of the 49th parallel.

  11. muckemdanno says:

    C’mon Fr Z et al,

    It seems to me that the great, and very Catholic, Patrick J. Buchanan wrote this book 10 years ago…He called his book “The Death of the West”

    Pre-September 11, PJB was condemned by these neo-con types when he wrote the book and essays with a similar theme. (He’s a reactionary! He’s a racist! He’s behind the times!)

    Pat’s seen all this coming long before the rest…maybe that’s why he didn’t get all hysterical and support all the crazy and immoral military campaigns post-September 11. He knows the US and the West have serious cultural and moral problems, and that they will absolutely not be solved through military action, but by a return to our common cultural and religious heritage.

    I suggest you all read “The Death of the West” – which was written with a clear head before all the war-on-terror hysteria began.

  12. Taylor says:

    Father Z-I see what he’s getting at. The sheer quantity demands a qualitative explanation, the most likely being a sense of decline (I think, for a modern example, the London riots could argue his case as well).

    Is there a sense in which Europeans see their cultural artifacts as “theirs” in a sense? That is to say, in America, we have a certain reverence for our historical buildings, etc., because we 1) a certain respect for our peculiar historical institutions, and 2) a desire to preserve our own monuments, in the face of Europe’s accumulated historical artifacts. I suppose the simple way of asking the question is, does familiarity breed contempt? Is it worse in Europe, because they don’t have the same historical awe that Americans sometimes tend to possess?

  13. Taylor says:

    Ugh…I am abusing the word “sense” in that last post. Apologies!

  14. Brian K says:

    David P. Goldman is a religious Jew and a senior editor at First Things. He has written many good articles on demographics under the pen name “Spengler” at Asia Times Online. His article “Demographics & Depression” at First Things is must reading on the subject:–depression-1243457089

  15. @Pachomius… since Bin Laden was found in Pakistan and not Afghanistan, it appears Steyn was at least correct in conclusion… if not in premise.

    Steyn gives apocalyptic writings a quirky and very funny twist. He gives statistics and observations that we here in the US would be wise to heed least we fall further into the abyss of socialism like our European friends.

  16. Jonathan says:

    “The people feast and drank their wine
    And praised the false gods of his time
    All holy things were scorned and mocked
    But suddenly all their mocking stopped

    For on the wall there appeared a hand
    Nothing else, there was no man
    And but, the hand began to write
    And Belshazzar couldn’t hide his fright

    For he was weighed in the balance and found wanting
    His kingdom was divided, couldn’t stand
    He was weighed in the balance and found wanting
    His houses were built upon the sand “

    Johnny Cash-Belshazzar

  17. Virgil says:

    I have lived in Turin for some years now, and I admit that I have adopted the more European attitude to graffiti. I’m answering Taylor’s query. I think the graffiti are a little bit Pompeii.

    When I first arrived, I noticed that quite literally every building (shops and apartment buildings, not so often monuments) was tagged. I feared, “What a horrible, dirty city. Must be plagued by crime.”

    Now, I realize that most of the tags are years old. No one bothers to clean them up, because it wouldn’t be Italy without this landscape. [?!?] And the messages are not generally the work of “criminal” types. Now that I can read Italian, I realize that they are almost uniformly political in nature. Leftists and Rightists, Communists and Xenophobes.

    Mind you, I still hate it. But I hate it in the same way I find it difficult to stomach politicians who speak in sound bites, but still accept it as part of Western democratic culture.

  18. Supertradmum says:

    Thank you Father, and I shall try and find a copy of this book. As to the decadence of Europe, it is happening with greater rapidity than even twenty years ago, when there was still national pride, a sense of Art and Beauty, and a reverence for the past. That is gone. Sadly, the liberalization of education and the constant apologetic attitude for Western Culture in the face of political correctness have been part of the reasons for the increase of decline. For many reasons, too many for this space, the words of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI have not touched the youth as in the States. I fear that the secularization of the youth has accomplished creating an entire generation of anarchists and cynics, hence the graffiti. One of the biggest problems is the toleration of evil, which I have tried to point out to older people here. Sin is blatantly tolerated, and ergo, we have not only architectural and artistic decay, but the decay of the human soul. I have noticed the difference after being away for fifteen years and coming back. A sister in the Marist community, who is a friend of mine, was in Germany for many years, and recently came back to England. She noticed the difference here as well. Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Great Britain have lost their cultural and political identities. This is happening in the States as well, except the spiritual minority who see this is larger and also there are great leaders who are Bishops, which helps.

  19. mike cliffson says:

    God forgive me for my pride and even mentioning it, but this might jog someone into opening themselves to God, and God’s blessings: Persecution(seldom physical) started in the world with our second and third child, among even orthodox and traddie “Yurupean” catholics, reliably antiabortion,etc. but very NFP, with our fourth.
    However hypocritical for however many, on every daily dollar,you cousins got “In God we trust ” .
    Do you?

  20. Bruce says:

    …Anyone that will be absolute over a point of doctrine shall find himself a stranger here. And we above all, that will stick to the old religion, shall have no part with you. We shall be marked down for hatred; why, I know not, unless it be that men hate more where they have done wrong than where they have suffered it, as the philosopher says that he confers a benefit is afterward move loving than he who hath received it. It will not be aught we have done to you, whether the burnings in Queen Mary’s time or the plottings, if there be any, at the present, that will be food for your hatred; it will be as when a man loathes the sight of the mistress he hath cast off, you will wish us dead because we disturb you with a memory of what once you were… You in Oxford will be slow to strike in with new fashions, but evermore, though at a distance, you will follow them, and the old things will not return.

    Let Dons Delight-Ronald Knox

  21. muckemdanno says:

    Goldman’s analysis at First Things is ridiculous! He acknowledges in the article that the population of the country increased by 50% over the last generation. This is nothing but a boon for housing prices, regardless whether it’s because of births or immigration. The fact is that the central economic planning that he supports caused the excessive artificial boom in house prices, and subsequent house over-building. The “wealth” associated with higher housing prices was a facade to begin with. The government overstimulated housing purchases through low interest rate, subsidized, guaranteed loans to those who should not have bought a house. Surprisingly (not!) this bit of central planning failed…what a shock!

    Demographics are a problem, as pointed out by Buchanan and the Johnny-come-latelies like Steyn and Goldman. But it’s not why the economy has collapsed. The economy collapsed because of too much borrowing, too much spending, and too much debt. People who have no children get into trouble with too much debt, and people with lots of children get into trouble with too much debt. So do entire nations.

    The federal government has too much debt, state governments have too much debt, local governments have too much debt, homeowners have too much debt, college students have too much debt, consumers have too much (credit card) debt, businesses have too much debt.

    And Goldman writes favorably of the idea of government ‘stimulating’ the economy (it can only do it through more debt!) like it did during the depression.

  22. bookworm says:

    It seems to me that although having more children would be an obvious solution to at least part of this dilemma, the picture of the future that Steyn and others paint is so bleak that it will only discourage people even further from wanting to marry or have children, and thereby become a self-fulfilling prophecy!

  23. Christophe says:

    Re: muckemdanno’s reference to Pat Buchanan above, PJB has a new book coming out in October, “Suicide of a Superpower,” in which he explicitly ties the the death of the West to the decimation of the Church. I agree. To a large extent, the current state of Europe is a result of the Church’s throwing open the windows to the rotting culture. Instead of standing athwart history and yelling “Stop,” the Church got in line with the lemmings. And She still hasn’t jumped out of the line yet.

  24. Supertradmum says:


    God is the God of the living and with God there is always hope. The children of this generation will be saints, perhaps martyrs-not a bad thing-for the love of Christ and His Church. A desert father corrected a young monk over 1,000 years ago, the younger one bragging that his generation were the holiest, as he and others cast out Satan, were very holy, etc. The ancient father said to him that his generation was not the greatest, nor the next, but the last, who will be great saints because they persevered in the face of darkness and great evil. Rejoice and be glad we are entering into these times, when there will be many saints from out of our own communities.

  25. jeffreyquick says:

    My most controversial blog post ever was about a young man (and a fine Christian, I was assured) who was “tagging” something on the Cleveland RTA right-of-way when he was hit by a train. I was crass enough to suggest that there was something Darwinian in his demise…and oh, the howls of those who took up the cause of his sainthood! And somehow, nobody would respond when I made the clear simple point that the guy was altering property that did not belong to him, and that’s no way to maintain a civilization.

  26. benedetta says:

    I don’t understand why these localities just tolerate vandalism of what belongs to all (or of private property in the case of shops, storefronts, etc). There is so much data out there on that sort of thing. It was over a decade ago that critics lampooned the “quality of life” proposal of the NYPD with the Mayor of the city. Yet, the results of that quality of life approach won over secular supporters, municipalities from all over the globe sought to replicate it and in an overwhelmingly liberal, Democratic town, the electorate was so enthused about the improved quality of life that other side of the aisle became the favored party for the mayoralty.

    As to its effects on people’s willingness to raise a family, already life in urban areas is often far from optimal as to family and children (I remember Europeans themselves telling me many years ago, mid-80s, that their cities were beautiful and fabulous for those who could afford it but if one was not fortunate enough to be in a certain financial strata that the experience was very different). Because of the housing and rent costs urban areas are generally not hospitable to larger sized families. I don’t listen to Steyn’s show or read his column (although I am interested in reading this particular book after reading this excerpt) however he may have a good point about people asking themselves what sort of places would be best for the younger generation to grow in and what we can do about that in terms of our responsibilities. Not only in terms of affirmative acts but also in terms of resisting things which impose on others’ freedoms in criminal sense.

  27. Imrahil says:

    For brevity’s sake:

    Mr Steyn is right: Europeans don’t see them. Hence, the Downfall of the Occident, even in the old occident, cannot be proven from the prevalence of graffiti.

    Seen among the context of contemporary art, graffiti don’t compare at all unfavorably. They might, however, compare unfavorably to blank walls.

    Graffiti are in most cases property damage, and (in Germany) persecuted as such. However, in matters not really felt with a disgust by the people (such as first-degree murder, kidnapping, child rape, maffiaism, political crimes with Nazi or leftist-terrorist background – not necessarily including armed robbery, [the example of Mathias Kneißl, who also murderously resisted an arrest attempt, shows this clearly], unorganized drugdealing, etc.) a sense of sympathy is for the persecuted, not for the persecution, even if the persecution is accepted as a necessity, the punishment inflicted as just, and the persecutor a man of honor and great merit. And this is no 1968 invention; we might even find traces of a Catholic mentality in it.

  28. Imrahil says:

    For brevity’s sake means I had wanted to spoil the place here and comment much longer. However, I apologizes for not for brevity’s sake cutting out the word “for brevity’s sake”.

  29. robtbrown says:

    muckemdanno says:

    C’mon Fr Z et al,

    It seems to me that the great, and very Catholic, Patrick J. Buchanan wrote this book 10 years ago…He called his book “The Death of the West”

    Oswald Spengler’s “Decline of the West” was published about 80 years before the Buchanan book.

    I have mixed feelings about Buchanan. He can be very good on nuts and bolts politics. When he’s outside of that arena, however, he seems little else than a pessimistic reactionary progressive (let’s go back to 1962!) and isolationist.

  30. Scott W. says:

    I see from an earlier comment the existence of Steyn Derangement Syndrome.

    Moving on,

    Bad graffiti: public defacement of legitimate property that shows an utter lack of regard for law and order.

    Good graffiti: When someone has scrawled on a condom machine in a public restroom: “My dad says these don’t work.” :)

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