Friday, August 24, 2007

Not optional - Chapter One

Chapter One of Mark Steyn's America Alone is entitled "The Coming of Age." I ended rather abruptly yesterday - maybe I can be a little more coherent today.

And so. Populations in the developed world are aging. And, in the developed world, old people expect that systems they've been "paying into" for much of if not their entire adult lives will continue to "pay out" at expected rates. And how, pray tell, do we manage this on less and less actual money coming in, given that among these social programs there's not a "lockbox" to be seen? Take the U.S. Social Security system: it's apparently predicated on "30 percent population growth between now and 2075 or so and, even then, expects to be running a deficit after 2017." Yet the U.S. population is at replacement rate, 2.1-ish births per couple. How do we grow by 30 percent in the next seventy years when we're only just replacing ourselves?

Immigration, of course. Right? The trouble is that everyone in the developed world is in the same boat, many nations in far worse shape than we are. Take Spain, now, at 1.1 births per couple. Their population is halving itself in every generation. Can it possibly invite - attract - support enough immigration to replace all the babies not being born there, to pension off its rapidly aging populace? And add to this conundrum the fact that fertility rates are declining all over the world, not just in developed countries; it's just that in the developed world, we've already been close to the edge for some time.

Steyn's point is why I'm calling this portion of this blogpost series "Not optional." You ignore the bare facts of demography at your peril. You, as a society, defer or avoid having children for today's reasons, but tomorrow you'll pay.

His secondary point is that if you're going to rely on immigrants to have the children who will eventually pay your social security, you ought probably to think about how those immigrants and their children will fit in to your social systems, such that they'll be willing to abide by the social contract that compels them to give up (at present) a quarter of what they might otherwise expect to pocket in order to support today's elders. (Yes, I know the percentage that comes out of my paycheck is half that, but if my employer weren't having to pony up the other half, perhaps he might consider increasing my rate of pay. Or not; I'd settle for the extra 13 percent and my own IRA that nobody but me has to fund.)

I was on a demographics blog (yup, there are some) today in which someone was claiming that "family friendly" policies including cash payments until age 18, free day care for all, etc., etc., were the solution to the demographic cliffhanger in which participating. You know, in some ways I almost wish I could believe it. But I have three children; free day care would not have enticed me to work, work, work to support somebody else's grandparents while my kids were babies, and I'm already making "cash payments" for my children until age 18 and beyond; I can't imagine why anyone else would be willing to pay for them too. Any "cash payment" that could make a meaningful difference in the expense of having children for me would be prohibitive. Three kids, each costing a quarter mil or so to raise to adulthood - isn't that the number we hear so often? So society - which, face it, is US, all of us, whether or not we have children, whether or not we have one, two, three, or eight children - would "owe" me $750,000 over eighteen years? And by the same token, I as a worker in society would owe a portion of that amount to some other three-kid family? How on earth do we make those books balance? Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Social payouts can't be a longterm solution. But the problem must be solved, somehow, or we pass from the earth - we liberal pluralist democrats.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Not optional

There's only one man in the world who could, at my advanced age, convince me to have another baby, and he's neither my husband nor that lopsided-lip knowitall naif George Clooney, however popular he is with my set: it's Mark Steyn, humorist commentator and demographic doomsayer. I finally found his America Alone and started it last night. I'm only up to page 59 (Deathly Hallows was like the world's longest sprint while hopped up on goofballs, while this book takes a little more digestion on the way), but I decided on the strength of what I've read so far that I'm going to blog it chapter by chapter.

Beginning with the prologue, and beginning here: "To Be or Not To Be."

Steyn acknowledges the resemblance of his thesis to the many end-of-the-world theses that have been promulgated since, well, the beginning of the world (as he says) - but perhaps I should start with that thesis: that Islamists pose the greatest-ever threat to (in his apt formulation) the community of liberal pluralist democracies, and that demographics alone gives them a significant advantage over the nations that belong to that fraternity. Muslim-majority nations have, across the board, way way higher birth rates than we LPDs (because I wouldn't be a military brat without occasionally introducing a new acronym) have, and most of us, save - wait for it - America alone, are not even close to replacement level. Therefore we'll simply be outpopulated, and the Islamists and their indifferent Muslim counterparts will achieve the Islamist aim of widespread, even global, caliphate without firing a shot. Or many, at any rate.

It's terribly hard to resist launching into a whole lot more on this piece of the topic right now, but I'll try to stick to the prologue, the point of which is the ever-popular "We stand at a crossroads." We do, and I (and many others) have been talking about it since 9/11, when multicultural sensitivity first clashed with the determination of the world's most committed enemies of liberalism on the front pages and the TV news ledes. Yet we continue to muddle through the bogs of fantasy:

All dominant powers are hated - Britain was, and Rome - but they're usually hated for the right reasons. America is hated for every reason. The fanatical Muslims despise America because it's all lap-dancing and gay porn; the secular Europeans despise America because it's all born-again Christians hung up on abortion; the anti-Semites despise America because it's controlled by Jews. Too Jewish, too Christian, too godless, America is George Orwell's Room 101: whatever your bugbear you will find it therein; whatever you're against, America is the prime example of it.

That's one reason why its disparagers have embraced environmentalism. If Washington were a conventional great power [I might say, instead, if it acted like one - ed.], the intellectual class would be arguing that the United States is a threat to France or India or Gabon or some such. But because it's so obviously not that kind of power the world has had to concoct a thesis that the hyperpower is a threat not merely to this or that rinky-dink nation state but to the entire planet, if not the entire galaxy. "We are," warns Al Gore portentously, "altering the balance of energy between our planet and the rest of the universe."

Spoken like a true child of the Crazy Years. Al Gore, I mean. And my Lord, my Lord, I'm reminded of my dear friend who told me, post-9/11, that her most potent fear was that Bush would be reelected in 2004. Here we are, three years on from that dread day, and so far she and her kids continue to live normal liberal lives, probably sporting that puckish little "Oh well, I wasn't using my civil liberties anyway" button I ran across in Dallas.

I also heard a dude on the radio the other day, a caller to the Glenn Beck program, which I seldom hear but usually get a chuckle from when I do, who came across with the usual "You righties are living in fear" line. Uh-huh. No. The analogy that sprang to mind was actually a real event: a wasps' nest outside the door of my work, which happens to be a door children use a lot. I'm not afraid of stinging insects. In fact, there's a ground nest of bees in the lavender in my herb garden, and we live in perfect harmony, the swarms of bees and I. I do, however, realize that wasps can hurt people, that some people actually are in grave danger from stinging insects, and that a door opening and closing in front of the nest all the time might incite the critters to action.

So my choices were (a) to detour everybody to another door, and therefore avoid irritating the wasps, or (b) to remove the nest, at some risk to my skin. I removed the nest - of course. What are we, as a society, as a liberal and, we hope, global community, to do about the Islamist wasps who have built their nest outside our door? Do we avoid them so they don't get stirred up, or do we remove them, taking back possession of our door? Me, I'm for removing them; we built the damn door. (The analogy fails where it comes to Europe, because the nest - of unassimilated, disaffected Muslims - is in the middle of the living room.)

Standard disclaimer: I'm speaking of Islamists, not Muslims: of that minority in the Muslim world that looks forward to and works toward a renewed caliphate in which non-Muslims are dhimmis who exist on suffrance. Those who practice Islam but are committed, by birth or by conversion, so to speak, to the principals of liberal pluralist democracy, are my brothers and sisters as much as anyone else who embraces the principles of the Enlightenment.

Steyn concludes his prologue: "One day the British foreign secretary will wake up and discover that, in practice, there's very little difference between living under Exquisitely Refined Multicultural Sensitivity and sharia." This statement comes after a bunch of examples of Exquisitely Refined Multicultural Sensitivity's capitulation to the unreasonable demands of Islamists: the Danish cartoon "kerfuffle" that resulted in dozens of deaths, Burger King's elimination of squiggly-topped ice cream cones from British menus because they looked too much like the word "Allah," the fact that Muslim inmates at Gitmo are handed complimentary copies of the Koran by gloved soldiers (gloves not being normally part of the Uniform of the Day), such that the U.S. military has tacitly acknowledged and attempted to mitigate its ritual uncleanness to its prisoners and enemies.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Book Club

June 21, huh? Amazing how time flies, especially when a new Harry Potter book and movie come out...

So let's start there, shall we? Putting aside for the moment my Mrs. Robinson thing for Harry (and I do mean Harry, not Dan Radcliffe, who I think is cute and all but my goodness, he could be my son if I'd just gotten an earlier start), what makes the Potter franchise so very not a franchise and so very much a world to which I wish I had access? Well... consider Wicked, which I read this summer too, for the first and last time.

Before I go on, I should point out that I'm an avid rereader. I love to read more than just about any other recreational activity. But the only books that survive my periodic purges of my home library are the ones I want to read, and read, and read. Dune is in there, but not any Dune franchise book after the third. The Mitford series are all there. Most of the Evanovich number books (One For the Money, etc.) made it, but none of her other romantic pabulum. Wicked was great when I read it - in talking it over with them afterwards, it appeared that I enjoyed it much more than did most of the friends who had recommended it to me - but then Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out and Wicked became just another book I'd borrowed and given back, without wanting to rush out and buy it for the home shelves. I loved the style of Wicked: the fairy tale made real, with mundanities salted through the magic to make it a little bit droll and with big emotions played out on an enchanted stage. It echoed the gorgeous Technicolor of The Wizard of Oz.

But it failed to catch my heart, because no matter how you slice her, the Wicked Witch of the West really does try to kill Dorothy and her friends, and ideological necessities can't erase that fact. Let me be clear: in the real world, there is such a thing as a "lesser evil." Hard decisions can and do cost innocent lives. It's possible to be a hero and not have clean hands. And yes, I do understand that Wizard is the children's version, Wicked the adult one: that we, the nuanced, are supposed to see Elphata in shades of gray, so to speak. Sure, I can do that. But it doesn't make me want to revisit her. She stood up for something good but her means to that end were meants to encompass the willful killing of a child; why should I have to read that twice?

Deathly Hallows, now - and while we're at it, Order of the Phoenix, which I took my oldest to see and then sneaked out two days later, leaving a babysitter with the kids, to see again alone: there's no doubt about Voldemort. Not even his own supporters actually think he's good - they just substitute power for virtue, knowingly and often cynically. The whole story arc of the Harry Potter books brilliantly combines a very clear view of global good and evil with far less clear personal struggles on the part of several characters (Harry first, of course) to choose, and to continue to choose, over and over, the good. What the books do is to instruct the reader, entertainingly and with generally terrific pacing, that it's never enough to be good once. Teenagers sometimes think they know this already, but it's my opinion that most adults (perhaps all adults) could use the reminder. I know I can.

That's why all the Harry Potter books (except, inexplicably, Order of the Phoenix, which I swear was in the house two weeks ago but has vanished) are on my shelves: because I need that reminder.

Which brings me to two more books, one a former and one a current selection of my friendly real book club: The Kite Runners and A Thousand Splendid Suns. For the four people who haven't read them, they're Afghani stories: one that begins in Afghanistan and moves to the United States, the other that never makes it farther than Pakistan. Both moved me profoundly. Both impressed me horribly with the sheer brutal punishment the human body can endure, and impressed me tragically with the odds-against possibility of staying normal when everything around you is crazy-bad. Both made me feel woefully inadequate as a human being. But that's not why they're leaving my shelves; they're one-timers for me for the same reason that Prince of Tides was: because, having suffered through vicarious depravity once, I don't see why I should pollute myself again.

Anybody spot the discrepancy there? It's not as if Deathly Hallows is short on depravity. Maybe this is why I enjoy a certain degree of fantasy, and certain subgenres of science fiction: because there, the depravity is invented - even if it's based on what people have indeed done to one another over history, it's still not to be taken as "really real." No characters were harmed in the making of those stories. Whereas, in a realistic novel such as A Thousand Splendid Suns, it's hard to escape the sense that Hosseini was writing biography with (as Heinlein said) the serial numbers filed off. A doctor, perhaps he's revisiting old cases; an Afghan, perhaps he's recounting first- or second-hand accounts. I don't close my eyes... but I read fiction for entertainment, not to be harrowed up. The real world is quite harrowing enough... and while we're on the subject, Suns is a frickin' fantastic advertisement for why we need to stay in Iraq until Iraq can hold itself together on its own.

A rather clumsy segue into this appalling non-comedy:

A Roman Catholic Bishop in the Netherlands has proposed people of all faiths refer to God as Allah to foster understanding, stoking an already heated debate on religious tolerance in a country with one million Muslims.

Bishop Tiny Muskens, from the southern diocese of Breda, told Dutch television on Monday that God did not mind what he was named and that in Indonesia, where Muskens spent eight years, priests used the word “Allah” while celebrating Mass.

“Allah is a very beautiful word for God. Shouldn’t we all say that from now on we will name God Allah? … What does God care what we call him? It is our problem.”

(Actually an MSNBC story, but I prefer to credit Jeff at Protein Wisdom with winnowing it out.) Honest to God. Goes right along with the story I read sometime in July about the Episcopal (of course, she says, rolling her eyes at her adopted sect) priest in Seattle who is also a practicing Muslim, seeing no cognitive dissonance there. Again let me be very clear: Islam is not my, nor our, enemy. Muslims are not my, nor our, enemy. But when fanatical practitioners of one religion cause clergy of another to abdicate tenets of their own faith out of a sense that the fanatics might quite literally go medieval, it's hard to avoid labelling the fanatics "evil." Isn't it?