Mark Steyn. (Image source: Mark Blevis/Flickr)
It was certainly the weirdest year. It began with a supremely weird decision by the entire world, except China and Sweden, to tank the global economy.
No one has ever done that before. The only major economic power to grow last year was China whose GDP is up by, I think, about 2.5 percent compared to declines everywhere else, including some actually catastrophic ones, such as 11% in the UK.
This decision to tank the entire global economy is something that strengthened China, the creator of the virus, and the exporter of the virus, and weakened any opposition to China -- and that is how they began.
This first year of the new weirdness ended with the United States government pretending that its principal threat is a domestic terrorism movement that does not exist.
This is the characterization of the so‑called insurrection on January 6th. We were told two weeks later that there were going to be mass insurrections, not only in Washington but in every state capital. Montpelier, Vermont, for example, the smallest state capital in the Union, went into lockdown. There was no such insurrection at any of these state capitals.
Then they said, "No, there is going to be an insurrection on March 4th," because that was Benjamin Harrison's Inauguration Day back in the old days and people apparently attach such great significance to that, that there was going to be a mass insurrection. There was no such thing on March 4th. Now, we are told it will be March 20th.
I have lived in countries that have real domestic terrorism movements. It is not something that one should concoct out of whole cloth lightly. No country blessed enough not to have a domestic terrorism movement should be inventing one.
We used to be told back after 9/11, there was a cliché after 9/11, "If we don't maintain our normal life, if we don't carry on shopping, if we don't carry on going to sports features, then the terrorists will have won!"
Now, it is the complete opposite with this new alleged domestic terrorism movement, and everything we do has to be changed. We have to have a permanently armed capital city in Washington. Because of this so‑called domestic terrorism movement, we have to have a border wall around the US Capitol. We are living in a blizzard of lies.
Perhaps that is the most disturbing feature of the last year: because most of us see far fewer people and go far fewer places than we did a year ago, we are more dependent on acquainting ourselves with reality through the computer, which means that we are more dependent on a handful of woke billionaires to tell us what reality is.
They are far more open than ever that they get to determine what are the agreed facts. Google made an explicit announcement about this recently. They said that sometimes they would put warnings on things that are factually accurate because, even though they are true, they do not think it is in society's interest for people to be seeing it.
When you talk about freedom of expression, for most people, that is an abstract concept that does not have much practical bearing on their lives.
People do not think of it as a first‑order issue for their own lives because, unless you happen to have accidentally insulted a fire‑breathing imam who is determined to get his revenge or a particularly robust transgender activist who takes action against you, these are not issues that affect most people.
The big change over the last year is that these issues are no longer abstractions. Everyone in the Western world has had some familiarity with the core meaning of Western liberties, whether you are talking about freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of religion, they have all become very real, even for people living the most quiet and uncontroversial lives. We have states, a few weeks ago issuing orders on who you were allowed to spend Christmas or July 4th with.
The ability to go to your church, the ability to open your hairdressing salon, the ability to go and get a cheeseburger at your local diner, all these abstract intellectual philosophical issues are now absolutely real for most people around the Western world. Yet, there has been very little pushback against it.
Even in America, I've always loved that American word ornery, which doesn't really exist in Britannic English because Canadians aren't ornery and New Zealanders aren't ornery. Americans are ornery. I was a little surprised at the way -- including the best-known American states on the planet, New York and California -- basically accepted what was happening with this new regime.
There was a famous remark, I like to quote, by Lord Moulton, an English judge. He also had, during the World War I, what may be my all‑time favorite job title. He was director general of the explosives department -- an enviable job title.
Lord Moulton said that what matters in any healthy society are not the small number of things that one is obliged to do, or, at the other end of the spectrum, the small number of things that one is not permitted to do, but the big chunk in the middle. It is not a question of whether you have to do it, or you are forbidden to do it, but whether we decide for ourselves about those aspects of our lives through what he called the realm of manners. By his estimation, about 80 percent of life should be within the realm of manners rather than within the realm of law.
Now everything is law: How far you have to stand away from people. The realm of manners, in Lord Moulton's phrase -- choice -- has shrunk to nothing.
Everything now, is regulated by the state from above. We are now seeing, for example, influential voices. "The Guardian" newspaper in the UK for example, said the other day that whatever happens to the pandemic, and the COVID, and all the rest of us, they would like us to go into lockdown once every two years. It would supposedly be good for climate change. You do not see this in America, but you quite a lot on overseas news reports. BBC, in the early days of the pandemic was doing all these encouraging reports on how Ireland where it is illegal for you to go more than three miles from your home.
On how Ireland had, fantastically -- and this is really terrific news – they have managed to lower their carbon footprint simply by confining people to their homes and a three‑mile radius. The idea that this is the new normal is deeply disturbing.
At the same time, we have had a serious crackdown on free speech, particularly in America during election year, and culminating on January 20th by the convergence of the Big State and Big Tech.
What has changed this last year is that if you go back to what used to make you unpopular, they were things in which people had a serious emotional investment. For example, if you are transgender, and you see something on the Internet in which somebody says, "You're just a bloke who's wearing a dress." I can understand how that would be something that would make you upset. I can understand people are touchy about that.
Even on the climate change, for example. If you genuinely think that the planet is going to fry in 12 years' time or whatever; that sea levels are going to sweep over and wash away the Maldives, I can understand why you would get upset about that.
As recently as a year ago, the clampdowns on free speech, where Twitter or Facebook would delete your account or put a warning on you were about these kind of emotional issues. Something changed along the way, and now you will be banned or deleted or blocked or silenced simply for disagreeing with the official version of events.
For example, the Great Barrington declaration, which was written by three of the most prominent epidemiologists in the world from Harvard, Oxford, and I think it was Stanford. That was basically deleted from YouTube, banned from Facebook, simply because it contradicted the WHO, CDC official version of events.
In what world did we suddenly wake up and find ourselves living in in which it is not permitted to disagree with government bodies on a matter of public policy on an issue that has only emerged in the past few months?
Even on an emotionally uncontentious topic such as how best to handle a pandemic, you are not allowed to criticize the official version. I do not think there are experts. It is just groupthink enforced by a cabal of woke billionaires, who have more power than anyone else on the planet.
I do not understand why the right, which is always two steps behind on these things, is blithering like nincompoops about how these are private companies and it is nobody's business what they do. These companies, such as Facebook and Google, are more powerful than most nation states today. At some point, they will be more powerful even than the United States.
The other thing that emerged during this year very quickly is that we are at a hinge moment of history. We were told a generation or two back that, by doing trade with China, China would become more like us. Instead, on issues such as free speech, we are becoming more like China.
American companies are afraid of offending China. American officials are afraid of offending China. We are adopting Chinese norms on issues such as free speech and basic disagreements with the government of China. It was interesting to me the other day, a Chinese court ruled that it is alright to refer to homosexuality as a mental illness.
I remembered a year or two back when North Carolina had its so‑called Bathroom Bill -- about what bathrooms you were supposed to use according to what your biological sex was. Because of the pressure from the transgender rights groups, suddenly all the big showbiz companies, all the big sports franchises, all boycotted the state... simply because of this issue of transgender bathrooms.
On the other hand, when China says, "Homosexuality is a mental illness," Disney, and the NBA, and all the other China shills that American corporations have become, all of those groups say, "No problem. We're not going to say a word about it, and we are all going to continue sucking up to China."
For a brief moment in the spring, we were talking about something that mattered, which was the rise of China to global dominance. China was always seeing the long view, and it sees the last half‑millennium as a Euro‑American aberration. They see what's happening now as the natural correction in which China resumes its role as the dominant power on the planet.
We tend to think in short terms. If you are an Anglophone, what happened at the end of the Second World War is that the British Empire ceded global leadership to its prodigal son, the American Republic. If you are a Frenchman, you think the last two centuries since the Battle of Trafalgar have been one continuous Anglo‑American disaster.
If you are China, you take the long view. They are deadly serious about this half‑millennium correction. What we learned in the spring is that everything we need comes from China. China, not only gives us the virus, we are also dependent on China to give us the personal protective equipment ‑‑ all the masks and everything ‑‑ that supposedly protect us from the virus.
China makes our aspirins. Good luck fighting a war against China over Taiwan because by the third day, China will have disrupted the supply chain of aspirins and suppositories. Our tech fighter pilots are all going to be flying into battle with splitting headaches and itchy posteriors.
China makes batteries. Everything that is with you right now is dependent on a battery, your telephone, your laptop, and all the rest of it. At first, the rationale was we are giving China our manufacturing. It is no longer practical for American workers to make widgets.
It is no longer practical for American worker to make crappy T‑shirts, so we let China do all that. We shall become the knowledge economy, in the phrase they used 20 years ago. We are not going to be manufacturing.
Suddenly for some reason, we are all talking about Huawei and 5G. It turns out that China snaffled the knowledge economy away from us as well. There is not much left for us except low‑paid service jobs, and they are the ones that have been totally clobbered by the COVID.
We are now living in the future. We're living in the early stages of a future that is the direct consequence of poor public policy over the last couple of generations. We are not even aware of that. I would love it if we would talk about something important.
If you switch on the news, if you watch TV, if you listen to the radio, if you go in the Internet, you would think that the most critical issues facing the world today are a pampered, third‑rate actress whining to Oprah that she was never taught how to curtsy properly.
We do not talk about anything important even as China is snaffling the world out from under us.
Question: What are your thoughts on China and what the US and the West should be doing about it?
Steyn: I think we ought to have some serious decoupling. Under cover of COVID this year, China tore up an international treaty over Hong Kong. Hong Kong essentially existed as a hybrid Anglo-Chinese entity since 1997. They have some Chinese judges, but they also have seven judges from the British Commonwealth. There are English, Canadian, Australian judges sitting on the Hong Kong High Court. Beijing did not like that. Beijing basically tore up that treaty and said, "From now on, you are just Chinese like everybody else."
You could be extradited to the mainland to be tried in a justice system in which there is no justice. China thinks strategically as a conventional ethnonationalist power calculating its best moves in its own interests. I am in favor of serious decoupling.
You should actually get a 100% tax break if you bring your business home from China to the United States. You should get something like a 70% percent tax break if you move it to a non‑hostile nation, such as moving it from China to Indonesia, or to India, or to Vietnam, or some such.
Right now, we are witnessing a non‑stop continuous transfer of power to a country that is serious about using that power. This is China's moment. Take it as someone who grew up, in large part, in a great power in decline. There's no real explicit handover day. People, in hindsight, expect to pinpoint the day that the baton was passed.
No one in Britain was aware of it at that time. The term the British Empire was used seriously basically until Suez, the Anglo‑French‑Israeli operation against Nasser's Egypt that Washington decided to scuttle. At that point, after that, it was hard to use the phrase the British Empire with a straight face, because it was obvious it was no longer any such thing.
You only see, in hindsight, the moment it occurred. My great worry is that actually, the transfer to China has already happened. The baton has already been passed. We just haven't formally acknowledged that yet.
Question: What are your thoughts about our recent election "irregularities" called by some in the media, "The Big Lie"?
Steyn: I'll say it straight out loud. I do not think that Joe Biden "won the election." I don't think it is a question of "widespread fraud." I think the way the system works with the Electoral College, you only need actually to spread fraud in six key cities in six key states.
I'm actually disgusted by the attitude of the courts, all the way from the rinky dink little judge in your local county courthouse, all the way up to Chief Justice John Roberts, when they say that, "Oh, well, all this is moot. There isn't sufficient fraud to have changed the result."
I would like some of these genius jurists, including Mr. Roberts and his colleagues, to then give us a figure on what is the acceptable level of fraud in American elections. Denmark, in its history, has never actually had a plausible accusation of any kind of electoral fraud.
As we know, in the United States, in cities like Philadelphia, this is a tradition that has long roots and goes back 150 years.
You know this, that if you wake up in the morning if you're in some hotel and you switch on the radio, and there's a new story about how they're delaying announcing the result because some ballot boxes arrived in the middle of the night, you know that's either a story about an election in Sudan or the United States.
In Canada, in Slovenia, in the Netherlands, in Australia, ballot boxes do not get driven around. It's one of the most basic things. Jimmy Carter and his UN advisors wouldn't be able to certify an election in which ballot boxes are being moved around. The whole principle of functioning election integrity is that votes are counted where they're cast.
There are all sorts of disturbing elements that have been allowed to go on far too long here. The upshot is that half the country does not think that Joe Biden "won that election."
That's not a good thing for anybody, for any nation to be in, particularly, as I said, you want a grown up polity that acknowledges... My only bit of advice to the former president was that instead of running on Make America Great Again, he should actually tackle the Chinese question head on and say, "Make America Number One Again."
If you have no basic election integrity, essentially, all the other issues are irrelevant. It's disturbing to me when you look at the checks and balances, which are all laid out in the constitution, about who gets to determine the election laws in each state, and all the rest.
That in the end, the judges, from John Roberts down, the judges are just like any no‑name guy tweeting from his basement. They're as vulnerable to cultural pressures as anybody else. For that reason, they decided this was a hot potato and they didn't want to go anywhere near it.
Question: What are your thoughts about Big Tech, and what should be done about it?
Steyn: Many people are finding themselves in the same predicament that my website is, and all the other websites are: Big Tech has essentially wrecked the internet.
If you go back to recently for example, that business on New Year's Eve in Cologne a couple of years ago, thousands of women, got sexually assaulted by gangs of young Muslim men on Silvesternacht in Germany. Not just in Cologne, but in other German cities and I believe in Swiss cities as well.
There was nothing about it in the German newspapers and on German state TV, radio, and whatnot. It only emerged over the next few days via Facebook. Without Facebook, that story would never have come out.
What has changed now is that Facebook would clamp down on that story. It does not really matter whether you look on it as these are good things, or these are bad things. The so‑called Arab Spring was known if you recall as the Facebook revolution in its early utopian phase.
At that point, it was well‑understood that in Germany as in Egypt, Facebook somehow weakened state power and provided a workaround to state power. Now Facebook is working with state power. The first place these Big Tech guys learned to do this was with China.
As I said at the time, it's foolish to think that the tricks they learn to restrict free speech on these platforms in China, that they won't also be applying them to their algorithms in the United States, and Europe and elsewhere. I'm in favor of breaking these companies up as soon as we can.
Let me work this out. A hundred and whatever it was now.... Standard Oil was broken up because of its control over the oil business. Facebook and Google and Apple have far more control over their business than Standard Oil did 110 years ago.
The difference is that their business is knowledge and the access to knowledge, which is more important even than oil or when you think of MGM back in the days when they broke up the movie studios also owning the movie theaters. This is more important than movies and more important than oil. It is actually access to human knowledge.
The genius of George Orwell in "1984." He wrote that in 1948, in the early days of television. When you switch your television on, and you watched Milton Berle. George Orwell's thought experiment was, What if the television could watch you back?
That is the world that Google and Apple and Facebook have moved us into. The world of 1984, where the telly screen can watch you back. It's not even as if it requires any great imagination from the governments of the world because George Orwell wrote it all out in 1948.
The only answer to it is to actually split these up, use whatever you have, the antitrust legislation. I know conservatives are wary about it - conservatives are wary of using state power against private companies, but these companies are bigger.
Right now, in the United States we worry because Facebook is canceling some actress or pop star. In Australia right now, Facebook is trying to cancel an entire country. We have left it far too late to take serious moves against these people.
Question: Do you think the Winter Olympics of 2022 should be moved to another country? How come every country is being criticized except China?
Steyn: There is no point in doing all the masking and social distancing and the small shrunken lives with no concerts, no theater, no normal events, in which the citizenry congregate to celebrate, if we're not going to take action against China for what it did in Wuhan by closing Wuhan to the rest of China, but keeping international departures flying out to Rome and Madrid and Paris and Seattle and Vancouver and all the rest of it. None of it is worth doing unless you're going to take action against the country that, by conscious choice, exported it to almost 200 nations and territories. If you are not taking action against China, all this stuff we are doing at home to punish ourselves is an absolute, complete waste of time.
When Australia criticized China, China played smash‑mouth, and beat Australia down and pummeled them into the ground. From my mind, there was not enough support for Australia, either from its Commonwealth colleagues or from Europe or America over Australia standing up to China.
I try to restrain myself from seeing obvious metaphorical geopolitical symbolism in trivial events, but that story the other day about how China was making US diplomats undergo COVID anal swabs had too much symbolic power for what China has basically done to the entire planet to let it go.
They understand that; that is the reason they did it too. At some point, if we're not prepared to stand up... My whole thing, in all the years, is that Western civilization is sliding off a cliff and most citizens of most Western nations are not even aware of it.
They think the big story is whether Britney Spears will recover rights to her wealth from whoever is running it all at the moment. If you said to them, "No, the fact that Western civilization is heading off the cliff, is the one you ought to be focusing on".... We are running out of time to actually focus on that.
Question: Would you say that moving the supply chain out of China is really in the interest of each company because it is an inherent danger to any company to have its supplies centralized in a dictatorship country with a competitive commercial objectives?
Steyn: People used to ask me occasionally how I got into newspapers. American students rather touchingly used to ask me whether I'd gone to the Columbia School of Journalism or whatever.
I used to say, "No. I never met anyone who wound up writing the newspapers, who intended to do that." If you were in Africa a few years ago, and you said to someone, "You are the home affairs correspondent of a paper in Bulawayo, how did that happen?"
They would all tell you some sob story about how they had a copper mine in Zambia. Then Zambia became independent and the government nationalized the copper mine. That was what used to just happen to people who had rubber plantations, copper mines, or that kind of thing.
It had to be something you could only do in that particular corner of the world. With decolonization, that made it a little bit precarious. Now we have got everything that is made in China. All these companies know that you have to get half into bed with the regime in order to do business there. In China, when you do business there, you are expected to share it with the Chinese government.
Ultimately, we have come up with this false model in which we have accepted, basically, the premise that it is no longer feasible for citizens of developed nations to make things. That was always a completely a false statement. If you cannot make a widget in Massachusetts, it is generally because Massachusetts has an over‑regulated economic environment.
We cannot make widgets in Massachusetts, we cannot make laptops in Massachusetts, we cannot make smartphones in Massachusetts. Everything now is being made in China. Every single Western government should have an active decoupling policy with regard to China.
At some point, everybody should be aware that you are enjoying the benefits of slave labor when you buy products made in China. If you go to Walmart, almost every single product there is made in China. Nike got into trouble because they have slave labor in their factories where their shoes are made. Even if it is not direct, the whole economic model, the people who make the food that sustains the people who work at the factories are part of some enforced slave labor regime.
There is a moral component that we are overlooking. We live in an insane world where moral narcissism attaches to whether or not you rampage around some statue of a Confederate general who died 150 years ago. The fact that you're rampaging around the Confederate general while wearing shoes made by child labor somehow does not impact on your moral virtue at all.
We are in Harriet Beecher Stowe territory with this relationship, because it is a moral question. I do not believe there's any chairman, any chief executive, any COO, or anyone in these boardrooms who does not know what is ultimately underpinning this Chinese manufacturing.
Question: It seems as if several of President Trump's key executive orders on deportations, for example, were quickly blocked by federal judges. President Biden has blocked deportations, yet not a peep from the judiciary. What is your take on that?
Steyn: That is what happens when you bet on judges. I think it was Andrew Breitbart who famously said that politics is downstream of culture. Judges are downstream of culture, too. They respond to cultural pressures more easily than politicians do, which is why the left has made most of it to critical advances through the courthouses rather than through legislatures.
If you're obsessing on judges, you're already playing defense. We had a particularly good example of it just in the fall, where a couple of weeks after being rammed down the throats of the democrats in the Senate, Amy Coney Barrett then joins the majority in saying, "No, I'm not really interested in taking any election fraud cases."
Question: Do you see any effective backlash building to the woke consensus?
Steyn: The backlash will not come unless it is organized. My whole view is that unless you are prepared to surrender everything, surrender nothing. I find myself defending things I do not even like. Dr. Seuss is rubbish. His rhymes are doggerel. He is a complete waste of time.
If they are now trying to argue that for example, the bow tie of the Cat in The Hat is a dog whistle to fans of 19th century minstrelsy, as they did a year or two back, then I find myself having to defend Dr. Seuss. Again, this is all rubbish that we should not even be talking about. We have self‑moronized to the point beyond our ability to survive.
The war on the past is straight out in 1984, straight out of Orwell: Who controls the present, controls the past. Who controls the past, controls the future. If you blow up the past, you make social engineering so much easier because there is nothing to go back to.
That's why the Taliban blow up those Buddhist statues. That is why ISIS tore down pre‑Muslim heritage sites in Syria because it leaves only the current madness and eliminates the possibility of anything to go back to.
We used to talk about these people with bipartisan outreach. They have got broad appeal. They reach across the aisle. They recognize that people want to end their lives in a society that is not totally unrecognizable from the one they were born in.
Trump tapped into that in 2016. That is what provided Trump's margin of victory in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and brought him close in a handful of other states too. He articulated that if you are living in a ruined town that once had a mill and a factory and you could afford a nice three‑bedroom house on a good size lot, which had no crime, and raised your children, that was fine. Now, the mill and the factory are gone, and your daughter does the night shift at the KwikkiKrap, and your son is running a meth lab because that is marginally more interesting than doing the night shift at the KwikkiKrap.
Trump recognized that there are basic questions on oldest functioning societies on Earth now, and that's actually the sweet spot for political leadership.
We are now all warts, all the time. But that is not true. We are the civilization that built the modern world. If you do not like us, we can go back to what it was 500 years ago. Basically, the world functions because of the world we built.
It has its flaws, and those flaws are sometimes serious, but for the most part, like the bow tie around the Cat in the Hat, they are completely irrelevant to the challenges to face us now. Someone has to take that gauntlet and run with it. We are going to have to have someone who is prepared to say, "Enough with the self‑loathing. Enough with the moral preening. We're going to put the Cat in the Hat bow tie around every Confederate General across the land and stop being ashamed of who we are."
Question: Any thoughts about Iran, and what should be done?
Steyn: I do not really know who is running the United States government at the moment. All we know is that the head of the executive branch is not really heading the executive branch. They bring him out once every few days, take him to an ice cream parlor with a 40‑car motorcade. He manages to order the ice cream pretty competently.
Other than that, we know two things. That the Iranians are keen to finish their nuclear project. At the same time, that the United States, under its present government, is keen to get back into the Iran deal and deliver more pallets of cash to sweeten that deal.
I would say that the likelihood of some Iranian‑American rapprochement quickly and early in this new administration is almost a certainty. I would also say that as we saw in the recent naval exercises, China, Russia, Iran, that there is a danger of putting enemies into boxes.
Those three guys did their naval exercises together because they understand that at a certain very crude level, they are opposed to the American unipolar world that has nominally existed since the fall of the Soviet Union.
I take Iran seriously. Not so much because of the Iranians, but because of the promises and the expectations in places like Sudan that Iranian nuclear technology will basically be shared with some of the most lethal basket-case states on Earth. Iran is in some sense like Russia and China. These are all, in a certain sense, great civilizations that have become perversions of themselves in a relatively short time.
The approach to Iran ought to be, "Look, this Islamic regime is exhausted. It has minimal support within the country. You have a rich long history before that, that is glorious, and it has been suppressed, but it has not been blown up like the Taliban did with those statues."
What we ought to be trying to do is connect the Iranian people with their great glorious past, which actually is a platform on which you can build a future. That again is one of Orwell's lessons.
The article above is a slightly edited version of an address by Mark Steyn to Gatestone Institute earlier this year.
© 2021 Mark Steyn. All rights reserved.