An evening with Mark Steyn, Victor Davis Hanson, and Steven Hayward
I’m still vibrating from the excitement of an evening hearing Mark Steyn, Victor Davis Hanson, and Steve Hayward, something I try to share in this post.
Thanks to a kind friend, last night I once again had the inestimable pleasure of attending PRI’s annual gala. This year, Mark Steyn was the keynote speaker, Victor Davis Hanson received the Sir Antony Fisher Freedom Award, and Steven Hayward was the master of ceremonies. Honestly, for someone who is a political junkie and a total fan girl when it comes to good writing and effortless erudition, it doesn’t get better than that.
I hadn’t planned on taking notes because I always flatter myself that I’ll remember what was said. By the time that Hayward had made several hysterical jokes about San Francisco politics and Hanson had made a brief, but powerful, acceptance speech when he received the Sir Antony Fisher Freedom Award, I realized that, if I wanted to share anything with you, I’d better start writing things down. This belated realization is why I can only dredge up a few of the funny, pertinent things Hayward and Hanson said, but can give you fairly complete rundown of Steyn’s speech.
Naturally, because I’d convinced myself my memory was enough, I hadn’t brought any paper to the gala. I therefore ended up scribbling my notes on the little folded name cards PRI put by each place setting at the table.
Even notes, though, are inadequate to conveying the evening’s intellectual content. I can only liken what the three men said to a continuous cascade of verbal diamonds, with me trying to reach in and grab the most pertinent or funny. Given the number and velocity of those falling diamonds, I know that I missed more diamonds than I captured. I hope, though, that the following gives you some idea about being in the same room as three of the best political writers and thinkers working today.
Steven Hayward opened the evening by talking about the political insanity that characterizes San Francisco. Those were some fast falling diamonds, and I wasn’t yet taking notes, so I only caught two to share with you. The first was that “San Francisco is well on its way to making itself a work free drug place.” If you’re like me, and just about everyone else in the audience, it took you a beat before you realized that, not only was Hayward describing accurately San Francisco’s political trajectory, he was having fun with the mantra that employees are in a “drug free work place.”
The second Hayward joke that I caught was his statement that, when he’s in San Francisco, he feels like “bringing a Smith & Wesson to a Smith & Hawken’s city.” What I found especially funny about that joke is that the foo-foo, high falutin’ Smith & Hawkens, which once sent out catalogs that were the gardening equivalent of a J. Peterman Company catalog, now markets itself through Target. I’ll get back to you when I figure out whether that’s a “how the mighty have fallen” thing or a “wow, talk about profitable broad-based marketing” thing.
Victor Davis Hanson was up next, but he spoke with such brevity that by the time I got my brain in gear to grab those verbal diamonds, he’d already finished speaking. VDH mostly wanted to remind us about the importance of Sir Anthony Fisher’s institutions, which are all over the world acting as advocacy centers for free markets and free thinking. He did say, however, that California is becoming a dangerously bifurcated state economically and politically, a point that cropped up again throughout the evening.
It was then Mark Steyn’s turn. I don’t need to introduce Mark Steyn to you, dear readers, do I? I’ve been a fan girl of his ever since I realized I was (a) conservative and (b) fascinated by politics. Not only do I love the way he thinks, I truly love the way he writes — and that’s because he doesn’t write like anyone else in today’s political scene. What I am about to say next is not a digression.
I adore the great American songbook (popular songs from the 1920s through the 1950s). I do so, however, in an amateur, superficial way. The music makes my ears happy and the lyrics make my brain happy. Mark Steyn, however, is truly musical. He therefore understands everything about the music that makes up America’s popular song canon, including all the subtleties of rhythm, harmony, meter, etc.
The foregoing paragraph was not a digression because it goes to the heart of how Steyn communicates. He has a lyrical quality that frequently reminds me of some of the best songs from that great era, whether by Berlin, Porter, McHugh, the Gershwins, Mercer, or the other American greats. Steyn’s writing and speeches are the political version of swing.
Or maybe a better analogy than swing is that Steyn’s writing and speaking are the political version of jazz from the swing era. Although there’s a tight line of logic running through everything he says or writes, thereby sparing us the auditory anarchy of post-1950s jazz and keeping us anchored to a recognizable intellectual framework, Steyn goes beyond mere swing by including creative riffs and improvisation that make his work more exciting than a set essay.
I mention all this, not only because of the pleasure I get hearing or reading Steyn, but also because that same marvelous jazz quality makes it hard to capture Steyn’s reason and rhyme in an essay, especially one based upon the depressingly cryptic notes I made on name cards. Forgive me, therefore, if the following fails to convey Steyn’s sparkle. I’m doing well if I at least capture his content.
Steyn opened by riffing on California’s regularly excesses, which he says are a constant inspiration to him. He reminded us that, three years ago, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health Standards (OSHA) decided that, given California’s exploding porn industry, the bureaucracy needed to have a say in making sure all those actors and actresses were safe. OSHA’s concern extended far beyond mandatory condoms. Instead, OSHA wanted the actors and actresses to suit up for safety. No fooling. To give a little context to Steyn’s riff, I’ll let the WaPo explain what was going on in our halls of bureaucracy:
A handsome delivery man arrives offering more than just a pizza. A pretty young woman opens the door. Flirtation ensues. Clothes are cast off. Then out come the goggles.
Porn stars could soon be forced to don far more protection than just condoms in California. New rules proposed last week by the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health Standards (OSHA) would require adult film actors to wear eye gear for many scenes. The rules, which have yet to be finalized, would also impose strict hygiene standards and outlaw common porn practices.
“All equipment and environmental and work surfaces shall be cleaned and decontaminated after contact with blood or [other bodily fluids] at the end of each scene, and no later than at the end of each day of production,” according to the proposed rules. “Employers shall ensure that cleaning and disinfection methods that are used for sex toys and other objects that may have contact with an employee’s genitals, eyes, skin, or other mucous membranes do not cause irritation or other harm to the employee.”
The new rules wouldn’t just sanitize porn. If adopted, they would also outlaw many practices common in adult films. Under the rules, “all bodily fluids shall be considered potentially infectious materials.”
That means a ban on the — shall we say — dramatic flourishes at the end of many porn films. In other words, no matter how sexy it might seem, the pizza delivery man won’t be spilling his sauce.
Steyn’s jokes on the subject — which revolved around hospital-style face masks — flowed so fast I didn’t manage to write any of them down. I know he made a joke about the fact that, when he arrived at San Francisco Airport, the parking police were all wearing masks, making him wonder whether he’d inadvertently wandered onto a porn set as an extra. He also said that someone advocating for this clean porn plan (which failed) had said porn shoots should be as clean as Canadian hospitals. Given that Canada’s socialized hospitals, according to Steyn, are filthy places rife with hospital-born bacteria, Canada would be better off if its hospitals were as clean as porn sets.
From there, without missing a beat, Steyn turned to another example of California’s coercive policies. Back in 2011, California tried to pass a law mandating that all hotels use fitted bottom sheets (or, as Steyn called them “elasticated sheets”) because using flat sheets to make hospital corners was causing back injuries to hotel employees, large numbers of whom are in the U.S. illegally. That led to a wonderful riff of jokes and puns about “sheets” and porn. I was laughing too hard to write but did manage to make a cryptic note about KKK kleagles and mandatory elasticated hoods in California, which, because they are scratchy, give new meaning to “red neck.”
Speaking of illegal aliens, Steyn reminded us that, last year, California filed suit against the federal government to block Trump’s wall along California’s southern (and Mexico’s northern) border. The basis for the lawsuit was that any work on the wall needed to be halted until a full environmental review could be completed.
To hear Steyn tell it, California was especially concerned about a little beastie called the “long-toed salamander.” As he said, to California it was more important to protect the long-toed salamander’s habitat than to protect the United States’ national territory. Despite California’s excessive concern for the wee salamander last year, though, this year California is entirely untroubled by the thought of 70,000 “undocumented immigrants” tramping over that same habitat. Go figure.
Steyn next riffed about California’s Prop 65 madness. For those who haven’t been to California, under voter-approved Prop 65 all businesses must display a notice stating that California believes that just about everything in the business causes cancer. The signs’ ubiquity means that everyone ignores them. After all, if everything causes cancer, one can either stop living or stop caring. Indeed, the only ones who care about this signage are specialty lawyers who hunt down Mom and Pop businesses that are too naive to know about signage — such as home B&Bs — and then threaten them with endlessly, costly litigation unless they pay the lawyer their life savings. It’s a scam, pure and simple.
Scam or not, the Ritz Carlton knows that it needs to have a sign. So it was that Mark Steyn, upon entering the hotel, noticed this sign:
After struggling several times to pronounce “di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate,” Steyn gave up, stated that he felt like Daffy Duck, and just turned that word into a wildly lisping joke. But the real joke is that, in California, the Ritz Carlton is required to welcome all guests by promising “Come to the Ritz and get cancer.”
Meanwhile, across California, as you enter any city, large or small, you’ll find vast tent cities in which the homeless live in diseased filth. Steyn told us something I’d missed, which is that one activist trying to aid people in Los Angeles’ tent cities lost a leg to a flesh-eating bacteria he picked up roaming those streets. Perhaps, Steyn said, the homeless should be moved to the Ritz where they’ll only face cancer. From there, Steyn had us in hysterics as he imagined the homeless being barred from a room in which a masked and goggled Stormy Daniels, watched over by similarly masked airport police, writhed around on elasticated sheets under which a long-toed salamander was both helplessly trapped and exposed to cancer.
Silly, yes, but no sillier than the coercive regulations that . . . I was going to say “drive California,” but that’s wrong. These regulations drive nothing. Instead, they bring California to a grinding halt. No wonder that Californians are fleeing the state. Of course, those who flee are too . . . dare I say stupid? . . . yes, stupid to realize that California is failing because of the Leftist politics that control the state. That’s why, when they move to Colorado or Texas, both of which were/are prosperous because government kept its grubby, greedy, all-powerful hands mostly to itself, they bring their damn, locust-like California politics with them. The result is a blue Colorado and a Texas election in which hard Left O’Beto managed to make a decent showing against Ted Cruz.
Now, where was I? Oh, right. Back to Mark Steyn’s brilliant jazz-tinged talk:
After reminding us that California’s policies and instincts, when seen from 30,000 feet, are risible at best, Steyn got serious. He told us that VDH is correct that California’s real problem is that it is indeed a bifurcated society. This bifurcation shows up in the fact that the rule of law is gone. Instead, there is a class of people to whom the law does not apply, while everyone else in the state is hyper-regulated.
Those most immune to California law are the millions of illegal aliens living here. Or, as Steyn remarked, “If you don’t have a permit to come to the United States, why have any other permit?” Certainly, California’s regulators and law enforcement understand this unspoken bifurcation because, while they’ll ride herd on the citizen or green card holder who wants to set up a food truck, they’ll leave alone the illegal alien who runs a restaurant out of the back of his pickup. In this same vein, Steyn noted, Americans have been on “orange alert” since 9/11, even as half of the illegal aliens now in America entered after 9/11. No one in law enforcement is taking the orange alert seriously.
What the government does take seriously is making us miserable. According to Steyn, with Thanksgiving nearing, the TSA is ruining pumpkin pie. If your granny is flying in from far away, and she has a famous, delicious, moist pumpkin pie, she’d better not bring it with her on the plane because it’s considered wetly weaponized. Her travel pie had therefore better be as dry as a bone if she wants to make it past those blue-clad bureaucrats.
But even as TSA workers are stopping granny’s pie, our government cannot stop 70,000 Latin American caravanners from storming our border. Heck, the latter are so confident of their welcome they’re suing us before they’ve even arrived, causing Steyn to say, “You can’t tell me they’re not eager to assimilate!”
Meanwhile, even as our bureaucracy has abandoned the southern border, over which millions of illegals are flowing, it’s spending crazy sums of money and putting huge effort into policing the northern border, which has an average crossing rate in New Hampshire of about two people per hour. Steyn described crossing the border with his children around Easter, when his son was in happy possession of a Kinder Egg, a European treat that has chocolate on the outside and a toy in the middle. It turns out that, when you cross the border from Canada to the U.S. it’s no longer a toy. It is, instead, a “non-nutritive embed.” I won’t butcher Steyn’s funny, depressing story by trying to narrate it myself. Here’s how he told it at his blog:
I’d smuggle in a dirty nuke before I’d risk another Kinder egg in the car. Three Easters ago, the United States Government gave me a delightful seasonal gift of a Department of Homeland Security “Custody Receipt for Seized Property and Evidence”. Late the previous night, crossing the self-same Quebec/Vermont border post, my children had had two boxes of “Kinder Eggs” (“Est. Dom. Value $7.50″) confiscated by Customs & Border Protection.
Don’t worry, it’s for their own safety. Hitherto, I had had no idea that the United States is the only nation on the planet (well, okay, excepting North Korea and Saudi Arabia and one or two others) to ban Kinder Eggs.
What’s not in the above blog post is the fact that, when Steyn’s son suggested letting the Customs agent have the chocolate, while the boy took the toy, the Customs agent got quite huffy about the son “disrespecting the process.” Steyn suddenly worried that his son was two answers away from Gitmo.
It’s even worse with bagpipes which, like moose and salmon, are subject to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s jurisdiction. In its wisdom, this bureaucracy has determined that bagpipe owners need a $238 permit to take their pipes to Canada. Moreover, that’s only a one-way ticket. If you want to get them back home again, that will cost you another $238.
Again, the view from 30,000 feet is that the U.S. has a huge, costly security apparatus to the north that has a warehouse full of seized bagpipes, but on the south it’s helpless before 70,000 (or, really, several million) illegal border crossers. This is just another symptom of a two-tiered society, one in which people live in the same space but are subject to vastly different laws.
Steyn believes that America’s education system is our single biggest structural problem. You all know that, when he said that, he was preaching to my choir. I’ve blogged for years about the horrors of public schools and Leftist universities.
In 1939, said Steyn, the average American had an 8th grade education. Those marginally-educated Americans — by modern standards — weathered the Depression, won WWII, and then drove America to become the greatest, richest country in the history of the world. Now, the average American goes through to “the 28th grade” but knows, and can do, less and less. The problem, of course, is that in those 1st eight years of our endless education, and extended adolescence process, they learned nothing. The addition 20 years don’t change that.
The ignorance that results from American education means we’re perpetually living in the Year Zero. Nobody knows history. It is, instead, a series of catch phrases that Leftists use to demonize people. As Steyn reminded us, just a couple of weeks ago, astronaut Scott Kelly, a man of great accomplishment, quoted Churchill’s “in victory, magnanimity” saying. Kelly was immediately lambasted because Churchill is now the avatar for racism and imperialism. Said Steyn, “In an age when everyone is literally Hitler, even Churchill is literally Hitler.” Thank goodness we laughed, because crying was the only alternative.
From there, Steyn riffed over to the foolishness of Leftist environmentalism, which is mere posing and comes nowhere near the conservative notion of “stewardship of the environment.” Posturing is easy; stewardship, starting with our neighborhoods, towns, cities, and counties, is harder. The latter doesn’t involve bureaucratic wealth transfers to third-world oligarchs. Instead, it requires real thought and real effort.
Steyn contrasted that thought and effort with the meaningless apocalyptic pronouncements from such intellectual lights as Al Gore and Prince Charles. So it was that, after pointing out that Prince Charles gave red squirrels two more years than humankind within which to survive the earth’s upcoming immolation (we were given precisely 96 months, while the squirrels got an extra 24), Steyn explained that Charles was promising us the “Planet of the Squirrels,” a world in which Florida has nut recounts, red squirrels on the go stay at the Nuts Carlton, Kim Jong Un lobs nuts at Guam, and Bruce the gray squirrel transitions to Caitlyn the red.
Humor aside, Steyn turned to Thatcher’s timeless statement that “First you win the argument; then you win the vote.” Republicans routinely fail even to make the argument, a problem that begins when they can’t even frame the argument. Instead, Republicans always start by accepting the Democrat terms of debate (“when did you stop beating your wife?”), so they’ve lost the moment the argument begins.
(My take on why conservatives love Trump tweets is because Twitter is his “Oxford debating society” forum and, in that forum, he absolutely refuses to accept the Leftist debate terms. When I recently said of a Trump tweet that “he fights,” a friend challenged me by stating “tweeting is not fighting.” Using Mark Steyn’s template, though, my friend is wrong. Fighting starts with the argument. Using Twitter, Trump is framing the argument and, often, winning the argument, which is why he won the White House in 2016, kept and grew the Senate in 2018, and lost by a historically small-to-average margin the House in 2018.)
On the same subject of Republicans’ failed communication strategy, Steyn lambasted Paul Ryan for being pathetic, absent, and without anything to say in the last pivotal weeks. Ryan is a perfect example of the conservative who concedes before the argument has even begun. (Those of us who still cringe when thinking of Ryan’s obeisance before Biden in the Vice-Presidential debate did not find anything inaccurate in Steyn’s words, so we did not consider him rude to call out Ryan for exemplifying the toxic intellectual weakness that means political Republicans will always yield the argument to the Left.)
Steyn reminded us that today is the 100th anniversary of the last shot fired in the Great War — a war that came to be called World War I only after the world it created then offered us World War II. Because we Americans entered the war late, it’s not our “great war.” We have the Civil War for that, which saw more American lives lost than all the following wars put together. In other places, though, the loss of life is hard to comprehend. Serbia, for example, lost 25% of its total population and 60% of its men.
With that carnage in mind, Steyn made a point I’ve frequently made here, which is that most of our modern world descends directly from WII’s battlefields and the politics in its immediate wake. The current Middle East conflicts all take place in lands that the Ottoman empire once controlled and that the victorious allies sliced and diced into artificial countries doomed to endless internecine warfare. (I blogged here about Israel’s geographic creation in the years after WWI and here about the Wilsonian foreign politics that drove American and that Trump seems to repudiate.)
Not only did WWI shape our modern geopolitical conflicts, it also led to a welfare state. For example, it’s hard to argue against some form of welfare when you have a vast generation of women that would never be able to marry at a time when women had few options for earning money. The Left adapted easily enough to the political landscape that emerged from WWI, but conservatism never did.
Steyn made a few more points before closing his epic political jazz riff. First, he looped back to the failure of our educational establishment, which holds on to young people throughout their late 20s. Not only are they de-educated (dis-educated? un-educated?) through that process, but they also delay the markers of individual maturity and of a mature society such as starting a family, building businesses, etc.
Second, Steyn reminded us that Obama once said that only government could build the Golden Gate Bridge, thereby justifying his vast stimulus. But as Steyn pointed out, under the stimulus bill, we could have gotten not just one Golden Gate Bridge but, using today’s dollars, 1,567 Golden Gate Bridges.
The reality today is that the only thing government builds with our tax dollars is an ever-larger bureaucracy. We’re paying, not for more genuine, useful, and often necessary infrastructure, but simply for more government — which is why there is a brand new, vast border agency in Whitefish, Montana, even though, while Canadians can enter America at that point, Americans cannot enter Canada. It’s our own tax-funded Hotel California, into which you can enter at any time, but from which you can never leave.
Third, Steyn turned his focus to America’s federal politics and elections. He stated his disgust with the fact that we have monarchical presidents today, complete with 40 car entourages, something that puts actual monarchies to shame.
People like Kasich still campaign as if they grew up in log cabins (“I’m proud to say I’m the son of a mail carrier”), but the reality is that we have an elite political class (Kasich worked in government for two decades and made bank at Lehman’s) that ascends to the White House and expects royal treatment. Steyn said he would have loved to have Jeb! campaign by saying “I’m proud to say I’m the son of a president. In my day, things were so hard, my dad had only a 20-car motorcade.”
Steyn closed by saying that conservatives think they should pick and choose their battles. The contrary is true. In a world that the Left defines, every hill is a hill to die on. There are moral consequences to giving in constantly to the Left’s endless attacks. If you don’t stop things at the lowest level, you won’t stop them at all.
After some thunderous and deserved applause, Hayward and Hanson joined Steyn on the stage for a question and answer process. The arthritis in my wrist was loudly serenading me by this point, so my notes are increasingly unintelligible, but I’ll see if I can recover some of what was said.
Both Steyn and Hanson addressed the problem of an ascendant China. My notes don’t say who made which argument, so I’ll state what they said without attribution.
Somewhere along the line, America got the idea that, if we allowed China to cheat on every trade and foreign policy issue, it would become wealthy and liberalize. However, despite conducting this experiment for decades, there is no evidence that is becoming any more liberal or less imperial. Indeed, using its new wealth, it’s become more imperial with its man-made islands and the third world countries it’s put permanently in its debt through monetary shenanigans.
Moreover, had we remembered our history, there was no reason why we should have thought that exposing China to American values would be enough to shift its culture. That certainly didn’t certainly happen with Japan in the 1930s, a time during which the Japanese industrialized, sent their best and brightest to American universities, and traveled throughout the U.S. Instead, the Japanese exposure to America simply solidified that nation’s disdain for what it saw as a weak, corrupt culture. The Japanese were willing to skim for themselves anything good that America had to offer, but they were never willing to concede that their own culture and politics were deficient.
Trump, thankfully, is reversing a wishful-thinking policy that has seen America subject itself to tremendous financial abuse, while allowing China’s quest for world domination to continue unchecked. He is insisting that China lose the handicaps we handed to it, which now put American business at a tremendous disadvantage (e.g., package mailing rates) and that China no longer be allowed to cheat in trade. If China ignores fair trade, it will get a trade war; if China steals intellectual property, we’ll push back with sanctions.
Regarding post-election counts and recounts that, in the past 18 years at least, invariably result in surprise Democrat victories, Hanson said that the philosophy behind these late counts is that the all-knowing states know what good voters meant to do. It’s inconceivable that voters could have meant to support the -isms that so offend the Left: racism, sexism, homophobia, transgenderism, etc. This situation — in which the government kindly interprets your vote for you — puts us squarely in a post-bureaucratic world (which, after a night’s sleep, I would call a “post-bureaucratic dystopia”). A noble government, divining the true intent behind voters -isms, ensures that social justice carries the day for the good of all. Hanson added the sad truth that making the preceding argument at any American university today would get him fired.
Hanson also reiterated Steyn’s point that conservatives always lose the argument before they begin because they believe that they first must defend against the name-calling before reaching the main point. And because the Left defines terms, it’s impossible to defend against the assertion that you, as a conservative, are a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, white supremacist.
The three men looked at whether America’s education system can or will change. One thing that hints at a possible systemic collapse is student loan debt, which now totals $1,500,000,000, with tuition ascending at a rate that exceeds inflation. Young Americans are destroying their financial futures so that they can spend six years getting degrees that will not lead to financially remunerative jobs. Aside from their innate Leftism, academics can keep students on this disastrous trajectory only by teaching them that it’s bad to get married, have babies, start businesses, or hold jobs that generate useful goods and services.
Hanson noted that, when he began his academic career, his local state college had no classes with the word “studies” in their name. Now, there are over 70. He characterizes “studies” classes as therapeutic exercises that neither teaching students facts nor critical thinking. Were it up to him, he would cut in half the number of students going to college. Steyn said he would cut the number by 80%. He also suggested that we should put Mrs. Bernie Sanders in charge of America’s colleges, because she managed within three years to wipe out completely the one college that she headed in Vermont.
Finally, all three men stated that our new hard Left social media technological overlords are dangerous. Trust busting seemed to be something of which they approved, with one of them (Hanson?) saying that Google is far more dangerous than big oil was more than 100 years ago, because big oil controlled only a product, while Google controls human knowledge.
One of the men pointed out that the tech companies have become more powerful than many governments. At which point someone (Steyn? Hayward?) said that he can imagine a poker game in Hell, with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot gathered around the table, when one of them exclaims, “We could have had true world domination if only we’d figured out that you just need to publish other people’s cat pictures.”
And that is the end of what I scribbled down on name cards.
Overall, it was a lovely evening. The people to whom I spoke at the pre-dinner cocktail gathering were delightful, the company at my table was equally delightful, the food was delicious, and I got to bathe in the intellectual radiance of three of my favorite writers and thinkers.
To make the evening just that much more wonderful, I spent a happy ten minutes discussing American popular song with Mark Steyn. I was vibrating so hard with excitement that Steyn must have been afraid to cry off from what might have been very boring to him lest I collapse from sudden onset Parkinson’s. I’ll just say that, if you’ve spent most of your life reveling in the marvels of American popular song melodies and poetry, speaking to Mark Steyn on the subject is an epic experience.