Mark Steyn is a very good writer. I always found he could turn a phrase as well as most any pundit out there. Years ago, Steyn had a regular column in the paper I tended most to read, National Post. I always enjoyed those columns. So, yes, Mark Steyn is a good writer.
Of course, being a good writer is not the same thing as being a good person.
A few weeks ago, Steyn wrote on the emergence of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in a piece titled Last Stand of the Old White Males. I don’t write much about American politics because I don’t follow it all that closely, but it is difficult to escape and too important to ignore. A little insight into the emergence of Donald Trump would certainly be beneficial.
It is, for the most part, a worthwhile read. Yes, it offers an overtly and explicitly partisan view of the Presidential race, but the analysis and comparison of the popularity of Sanders and Trump is interesting. Non-Americans (and, probably too, many Americans) are wondering how Trump could even appear a remotely viable candidate. It is useful to understand why.
Don’t worry, though, before it appears that praise is too effuse, there is still much ugly and repulsive about the piece. Steyn gets on one of his standard hobby horses and starts attacking immigration and immigrants.
(As an aside, it is quite… interesting… how a Canadian expat living in New Hampshire is so concerned about the havoc to be wrought through American immigration policy.)
Steyn wrote this piece shortly after Trump made some very unsavoury remarks about Mexicans. Steyn approved:
What he said may or may not be offensive, but it happens to be true: America has more Mexicans than anybody needs, and then some. It certainly has more unskilled Mexicans than any country needs, including countries whose names begin with “Mex-” and end in “-ico”. And it has far more criminal Mexicans than anybody needs, which is why they make up 71 per cent of the foreign inmates in federal jails. Just to underline that last point, a young American woman was murdered for kicks in a supposed “sanctuary city” on the eve of the holiday weekend by an illegal immigrant from Mexico. He had flouted US immigration law for years – or, to be more precise about it, local, state and federal officials had colluded with him in the flouting of US immigration law, to the point where San Francisco’s sheriff actively demanded the return of this criminal to his “sanctuary city”, thereby facilitating the homicide of an actual citizen, taxpayer and net contributor to American society.
But this is well-worn territory, and highlighting Steyn’s racism isn’t particularly insightful. It’s like noting, in August, that the Mets ain’t gonna win the World Series. (Hi Dan!) We can all easily see (if we avoid willful blindness) the racism in this paragraph. Put aside any anecdotes about one particular crime. The idea that “his” country doesn’t need those people is quite odorous.
What is more hidden, and more insidious, is the sexism Steyn hides in the piece. The racism is upfront and easily addressed. The sexism is less perceptible. I was struck by this passage:
So Bernie is a real danger to her. He will be nimbler, more fun and more human in the debates. And he enthuses the young in a way Hillary doesn’t. He could win Iowa, and I know he could win New Hampshire, too, where he will ensure that, instead of going off to destabilize the Republican primary, Granite State “independents” vote in the Democrat poll and play hell with Hillary’s ability to manage turnout models. If Mrs Clinton’s two down by South Carolina, Berniephobes will be begging any alternative (starting with Crazy Joe) to jump in the race.
Did you catch it? It was a pretty standard paragraph without any direct shots. He didn’t write America has more women than anybody needs, as he did with Mexicans. No, there was nothing explicit. He just decided to call her “Mrs. Clinton”.
Read the article. There is no mention of “Mr. Trump” or “Mr. Sanders”. Only Clinton is blessed with any sort of prefix to her last name. Only Clinton is referenced in such a way as to not only classify her by her gender but also by her marital status. This is a subtle method to define the former Secretary of State and Senator as Bill’s wife.
Last year, Maclean’s Scott Gilmore wrote a column addressing the issue of the under-representation of women in politics. His argument boiled down to women, go out, raise money, build a network and run for office. Gilmore was swiftly, thoroughly and deservedly taken to the woodshed. He completely ignored, or just could not recognize, the subtle and overt sexism that some/most/all female politicians endure.
Gilmore was, I believe, being completely sincere in the column. There was no sense of concern trolling, scolding or belittling women. (There may have been some arrogance, but I don’t think it was rooted in sexism.) Similarly, I am sure some will read that passage from Steyn, and think nothing much of it. They will, sincerely, think there is nothing wrong with singling out the gender and marital status of Clinton.
The thing is, it doesn’t matter if you sincerely think there’s nothing wrong going on here. It doesn’t matter if Steyn wasn’t consciously tapping into his sexism as he was his racism. Subtle, systemic discrimination colours so much of our say-to-day and political lives. You can easily be condoning or perpetuating sexism (or racism, or homophobia, or transphobia, or…) without even noticing. You can disavow misogyny and chauvinism, declare yourself a defender of equal rights and still fall into the traps that our inherently sexist society sets out.
It takes vigilance to see and try to avoid these traps, and it is dreadfully important to call them out when others fall in.
Even if he’s a good writer.
[Image is a work of a United States Department of State employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain per 17 U.S.C. § 101 and § 105 and the Department Copyright Information.]