Mark Steyn’s political poetry

Mark-Steyn-hi-resA friend sent me a quotation culled from Mark Steyn’s Statement to the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness of the United States Senate:

In response [to the public’s increased doubts about anthropogenic climate change], federal bodies such as NOAA and NASA have adjusted the past to make the present appear hotter, and thus supposedly demonstrated that in fact there is no such “pause.” As a result, public opinion, which no longer trusts the Big Climate enforcers to tell them what the climate will be like in 2050, now no longer trusts them to tell them what it was like in 1950.

Reading that, I had two thoughts pop into my head, one immediately on the heels of the other. The first thought, of course, was that as a factual matter, Steyn is absolutely right: Climate science, which was flawed to begin with, has now abandoned naive mistakes in favor of pure corruption. It started with computer programs that only a naif or a fool would believe could calculate all of the climate’s moving parts with sufficient accuracy to predict climate a year in advance, let alone decades or centuries. It’s reaching an end (a very expensive end) with out-and-out data falsification intended to cover-up the consistently failed predictions that the inevitably flawed computer programs generated.

The legal aphorism that’s drilled into each young attorney is “If you have the law, argue the law; if you have the facts, argue the facts; if you have neither facts nor law, pound the table.” In the wake of the damage climate “science” has done to the scientific method, the scientific aphorism for each new B.S. (an acronym that takes on new meaning in today’s intellectual climate) has become “If you have the theory, argue the theory; if you have the data, argue the data; if you only theory and no data, corrupt the entire scientific record and brutally censor those who challenge your theory.”

The second thought that struck me when I read those words was “Wow. His writing is like the best of Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook.”

Tin Pan Alley, for those who don’t know, was the section in New York that housed music publishers around the turn of the last century. It was these publishers who ground out the hits that festooned every American parlor piano and were played at every party. The Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, Rogers and Hart, and most of the other greats of the first decades of the 20th century worked in or were published by Tin Pan Alley.

A lot of silly and forgettable stuff came out of Tin Pan Alley, but it also gave birth to the Great American Songbook — those pop songs written from the 1920s through the 1950s, often by men (and one woman) who, while their parents may have spoken little or no English, had nevertheless picked up and internalized American English rhythms, which they then incorporated into songs about love and life. In other words, I’m not insulting Steyn when I say that his prose sounds like something from Tin Pan Alley or the Great American Songbook; instead, it’s a very high compliment indeed.

With music in mind, let’s go back to Mark Steyn’s quip, above, which marked the end of his prepared testimony. Look how beautifully balanced it is: The second sentence has such lovely parallelism, with its repeated phrase “no longer trusts,” and the elegant leap from the past (1950) to the future (2050). Steyn is writing politics, but he’s doing it in poetry, not prose.

That same rhythmic elegance shows up in everything Steyn writes. In the same written statement from which the above quotation comes, Mark Steyn quotes himself, referring to an earlier article he wrote about the execrable Michael Mann:

It’s always fun in a legal battle to have something bigger at stake than a mere victory. In Canada, we put the ‘human rights’ system itself on trial, to the point where the disgusting and indefensible ‘hate speech’ law Section 13 was eventually repealed by Parliament. It seems to me that in this particular case the bigger issue is the climate of fear that Mann and his fellow ayatollahs of alarmism have succeeded in imposing on an important scientific field.

And there it is again: that lyrical word play — “his fellow ayatollahs of alarmism” — which is simultaneously alliterative, rhythmic, metaphorical, and persuasively clever. How many other political writers can do that in just five words?

Need another example? Look at what Steyn does with the way in which false Nobel laureate Michael Mann (“false” as in he fraudulently claims to be a Nobel prize winner) savages anyone who dares challenge his findings or, worse, his methodology. Steyn points out that true Nobel laureates can weather these attacks, just barely, but that Mann’s ferocity effectively silences non-emeritus scientists who disagree:

But if you’re a younger scientist, you know that, if you cross Mann and the other climate mullahs, there goes tenure, there goes funding, there goes your career.

A less musical writer than Steyn would have written, “But if you’re a younger scientist, you know that, if you cross Mann and his fellow climate change advocates, you risk losing not just tenure and funding, but your whole career.” Both sentences say the same thing, but Steyn’s sings. He’s got rhythm, parallel structure, and even a delicate internal almost-rhyme with “tenure” and “career” cradling the last part of that sentence.

Every time I read something Steyn has written — and I mean every time, without fail — I start hearing the Great American Songbook in my head. To me, that last quoted sentence is every bit as musical as Dorothy Field’s sparkling, sardonic lyrics in “A Fine Romance” (music by Jerome Kern):

A fine romance, with no kisses!
A fine romance, my friend, this is!
We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes,
But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.

A fine romance! You won’t nestle!
A fine romance! You won’t wrestle!
I might as well play bridge with my old maid aunts!
I haven’t got a chance.
This is a fine romance.

That same sarcastic, funny, lyrical quality, that one that both Steyn and Field display, shows up in Alan Jay Lerner’s “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You” (music by Burton Lane):

How could you believe me when I said I love you
When you know I’ve been a liar all my life?

You’ve had that reputation since you was a youth.
You must have been insane to think I’d tell you the truth

How could I believe you when you said we’d marry
When you know I’d rather hang than have a wife?

I know I said I’d make you mine.
Now wouldn’t you know that I would go for that old line?

How could you believe me when I said I love you
When you know I’ve been a liar

You sure have been a liar.
A double crossing liar.
[A double crossing liar, ]
All my doggone cheatin’ life

And while I’m amusing myself sharing with you the minutest fraction of the brilliant lyrics Americans enjoyed in the early to mid-19th 20th century, when I read Steyn, I hear echoes of Irving Berlin too.  Although he didn’t learn English until he was 6, and dropped out of school at 13 in order to earn money, Irving Berlin, like Steyn, had rhyme, parallelism, meter, and a wicked little twist at the end.  Take, for example, Berlin’s “Remember” (with Berlin having written both words and music):

Remember the night.
The night you said, “I love you,”
Remember you vowed
By all the stars above you,
Remember we found a lonely spot,
And after I learned to care a lot,
You promised that you’d forget me not.
But you forgot
To remember.

Nor should you think Steyn just brought out his best for his Senate testimony.  I can go to my database of posts, search the word “Steyn,” pick at random any one of a number of his articles to which I’ve linked over the years, open the article, and find politics as music.  Take for example, these paragraphs he wrote two years ago about Obama’s Obamacare edicts:

On Thursday, he passed a new law at a press conference. George III never did that. But, having ordered America’s insurance companies to comply with Obamacare, the president announced that he is now ordering them not to comply with Obamacare. The legislative branch (as it’s still quaintly known) passed a law purporting to grandfather your existing health plan. The regulatory bureaucracy then interpreted the law so as to un-grandfather your health plan. So His Most Excellent Majesty has commanded that your health plan be de-un-grandfathered. That seems likely to work. The insurance industry had three years to prepare for the introduction of Obamacare. Now the King has given them six weeks to de-introduce Obamacare.

“I wonder if he has the legal authority to do this,” mused former Vermont governor Howard Dean. But he’s obviously some kind of right-wing wacko. Later that day, anxious to help him out, Congress offered to “pass” a “law” allowing people to keep their health plans. The same president who had unilaterally commanded that people be allowed to keep their health plans indignantly threatened to veto any such law to that effect: It only counts if he does it — geddit? As his court eunuchs at the Associated Press obligingly put it: “Obama Will Allow Old Plans.” It’s Barry’s world; we just live in it.

Reading it, one has to wonder how often the editors at National Review (in which the above was published) wake up at night in an agony of anguish and remorse over their decision to part ways with Steyn. To my mind, the neologism “de-un-grandfathered” is right up there with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” except with a more political resonance.

Because of Steyn’s insistent poetry, his writing can be a bit wordier than other people’s. Take, for example, the phrase “The same president who had unilaterally commanded that people be allowed to keep their health plans indignantly threatened to veto any such law to that effect.” A leaner, lesser writer might say “First Obama promised that people would keep their health plans; then he threatened to veto any law supporting that promise.” That second sentence says the same thing, but it’s so flat, compared to “unilaterally commanded . . . to keep their health plans” and “indignantly threatened . . . to that effect.”

Back in 2004, when I finally had the epiphany that I was actually a conservative and not the Democrat my San Francisco Jewish upbringing and UC Berkeley education had prepared me to be, I began what has become an 11 year obsession with political writing on the internet. Over these years, I’ve had the pleasure of reading more good writing than I could ever have imagined either as a student at Cal (Leftist academic writing is the next best thing to brain death) or as a litigator (with judicial opinions being the next best thing to Leftist academic writing). I’ve discovered writers who constantly amaze me with their insight and erudition — Jonah Goldberg, Kevin Williamson, Charles Krauthammer, David French, Steven Hayward, Ace, Andrew Klavan, and Bill Whittle, to name but a few — but Mark Steyn is the only one who simultaneously sets my intellect on fire, and makes me want to sing and dance.