Monday, 28 March 2016

Passing Parade, by Mark Steyn

Mark Steyn is a well known right-wing journalist, whose work is usually witty and enjoyable. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don't. Like a lot of conservatives, he comes across as not very at ease with the modern world; a grumpy old man. His worse fault is his endless tendency to repeat Islamophobic misinformation. More than once in this book, he brings up the false claim that Muslims are going to take over Europe as a result of having an high birthrate. This is false. It is solidly taken apart by Doug Sanders in The Myth of the Muslim Tide. The truth is that although Islam is growing relative to other religions, the global Muslim birthrate is declining dramatically. Although Muslims have more children than their neighbours, their birthrate is slowing down. The current migrant crisis will increase the number of Muslims in Europe, but not enough to significantly shift the demographics.

Passing Parade is a compilation of obituaries that Steyn has written. While that might not sound very exciting, the figures in this book, from Pope St. John Paul II to Idi Amin offer titanic snapshots of the history of the Twentieth Century. An obituary is the best kind of biography because it is a concise summary; leaving out all those tedious details about the subject's childhood, schooling and military service. At times in the book, Steyn's interest is not so much in describing the life of his subject, but in making a broader point. For instance, in talking about the Argentine dictator, Leopoldo Galtieri, he talks about Britain's resurgence from decline. After the demise of the British Empire, Galtieri had every reason to think that Britain would do nothing to stop Argentina taking the Falklands. Thatcher, however, had other ideas and halted Britain's descent into impotence.

Mark Steyn is at his best, not when he is writing about political figures, but when he covers the people of show business- song writers, actresses and television presenters. Many of these people I had never heard of, but Steyn brought them to life and showed what made them great. I had not been aware that Lois Maxwell, the original cinematic Miss Moneypenny, also voiced Atlanta Shore in Gerry Anderson's Stingray. Steyn amusingly suggests that she was basically playing the same character in both Stingray and James Bond (the office girl ignored in favour of the exotic beauty). Our author is scathing about the celebrated playwright Arthur Miller, dismissing his work and suggesting he is admired only for his shallow Left-wing politics. He points out the uselessness of The Crucible's suggested analogy of the Salem Witch Trials with McCarthyism:

He wasn’t amiable enough to be an amiable dunce but he was the most useful of the useful idiots. It was a marvellous inspiration to recast the communist ‘hysteria’ of the 1950s as the Salem witch trials of the 1690s. Many people have pointed out the obvious flaw — that there were no witches, whereas there were certainly communists. For one thing, they were gobbling up a lot of real estate: they seized Poland in 1945, Bulgaria in ’46, Hungary and Romania in ’47, Czechoslavakia in ’48, China in ’49; they very nearly grabbed Greece and Italy; they were the main influence on the nationalist movements of Africa and Asia. Imagine the Massachusetts witch trials if the witches were running Virginia, New York and New Hampshire, and you might have a working allegory.

Steyn makes other very interesting points. On the murdered rapper Tupac Shakur, he chides the media for celebrating his violent and rather repulsive life. On Pope St. John Paul II he argues that the media was utterly unable to comprehend the holy father's defense of timeless moral values. On the Mormon polygamist leader Owen Allred he says:

In an age which deplores unreconstructed homophobes foolish enough to conflate gayness and pedophilia, we’re happy to assume that, if some hatchet-faced patriarch with nothing but a compound in one of the less chic zip codes can find eight women prepared to marry him they must be 14-year old cousins he keeps in the cupboard under the stairs most of the week. One of Owen’s nieces, Dorothy Allred Solomon, wrote an expose of her life within the church, under the title of Daughter Of The Saints: Growing Up In Polygamy or, if you prefer (as the publisher evidently did), Predators, Prey And Other Kinfolk: Growing Up In Polygamy. Mrs Solomon couldn’t quite live up to the latter billing. She was the middle child – 24th of 48 – of Rulon Allred, and the vicissitudes of her life seem to derive from the secrecy and isolation that necessarily attends such communities – the psychological damage of the polygamous closet.

But, if you’ve got 48 kids and only one is disaffected enough to go public, that’s a better strike rate than most celebrities manage, or, indeed, many two-child monogamous couples. At Allred’s funeral, six of his sons carried his coffin and as many daughters celebrated his memory with a rendition of “Oh, My Papa” and, given that most of them aren’t exactly spring chickens, I doubt that’s because he was keeping them chained out in the dog pound. There’s less verified child abuse among all the Utah churches than among priests who passed through Cardinal Law’s diocese in Boston. It was the state that permitted marriage at the age of 14, and Owen Allred who campaigned for the legislature to raise the age to 16. “For 50 years now,” he said, “the rule among our people has definitely been that girls should not even start courting until they are at least 17.” At 88, he told The New York Times, “People have the wrong idea that we’re old-time kooks who prey on young girls. I suppose I’m guilty of that. My youngest wife is 64. My oldest girl is 93.” They lived in four houses, lined up side by side, and all eight marriages were till death did them part.

Writing of the fallen statesman, John Profumo, Mark Steyn contrasts the penitent former minister's life of quiet dignity and charitable service with Christine Keeler's desperate attempts to prolong her celebrity status. I hate to sound like a lefty feminist type, but maybe it's easier for a man from a privileged background to live a life of quiet dignity than for a working class former call girl.

In terms of Mark Steyn's own career, the most significant obituary in this book is that of the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. While it's hard not to admire the cheek this woman showed in her famous interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini, she was the godmother of Islamophobes, introducing all the cliched arguments that get recycled by right-wing bores, unfortunately including Steyn. These are the same arguments that were included in a manifesto written by a chap called Anders Breivik. Like Steyn, Breivik had issues with the Left and accused them of complacency towards Islam. Breivik is still with us. However, should he ever be murdered or commit suicide in prison, perhaps Steyn will write his obituary. Perhaps he will comment on how fear and suspicion of Muslims inspired this man's crimes. The Left is almost always wrong, but sometimes the Right can take a wrong turn.

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