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Steyn’s way (continued)

More articles by Dan Kennedy

Miller's Times: The Gray Lady confesses its sins in hyping Iraq's nonexistent weapons capabilities and terrorist ties. So what took so long?

Tipping point: The horrors at Abu Ghraib have finally changed the way the media report on the war – and on the president who started it

The big story: With Iraq taking center stage, other news gets squeezed. Plus, Danny Schechter goes public, Spare Change News goes pro, and the Globe goes porn.

THERE ARE MANY, many more examples I could cite. In a New Criterion piece, for instance, Steyn mentioned the title of a New Republic essay by Andrew Sullivan, "We Are All Sodomites Now," as being some sort of commentary on the state of gay sexuality. In fact, Sullivan’s was a closely argued piece in which he contended that all non-procreative sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is a form of sodomy. (For good measure, Steyn got the title wrong, too; it was "We’re All Sodomists Now.") On the cover of his most recent anthology, Mark Steyn from Head to Toe, as well as on his Web site, Steyn claims that Harper’s publisher Lewis Lapham once wrote of "[t]he poisonous language of a columnist by the name of Mark Steyn." In fact, the original reveals that Steyn cobbled together two of Lapham’s sentences; and that though Lapham is clearly not a Steyn fan, the "poisonous language" reference was not at all specific to Steyn. And on and on (and on) it goes.

Head to Toe itself is filled with right-wing rants of the most conventional kind. We learn, for example, that Al Gore’s makeup in the first 2000 debate and John Kerry’s hair say much about their shortcomings. The effect, in all too many instances, is of a second-rate Maureen Dowd — that is, of a writer who makes the same kind of pop-culture analogies as the New York Times columnist, only without the deft touch. The one piece from Steyn’s anthology that I unreservedly admired was his 1998 tribute to Frank Sinatra, published in the Sunday Telegraph, in which he recounted a moment when Sinatra, upon encountering the outstretched hand of an old adversary in a Las Vegas lobby, was said to have snarled, "Fuck you! Keep walking." Wrote Steyn: "Indeed, his entire oeuvre could be sub-titled ‘Fuck you! Keep walking.’" Good stuff. Unfortunately, that only reinforces the impression that Steyn is on firmer ground when writing about the arts than when he ventures into the political world.

Perhaps the most bizarrely skewed Steyn piece I’ve read was also his most ambitious: a long essay that appeared in the New Criterion this past January on the state of public education. Steyn started out by recounting the Saddam Hussein–worship that was the principal hallmark of Iraq’s schools before the fall of the regime, and whose evidence Steyn could still detect when he visited Iraq some months later. He then — I’m not making this up — compared this to the plague of political correctness that he detected in America’s public schools. He cited a few anecdotes, such as one involving an elementary school in Skokie, Illinois, where the traditional Thanksgiving program was canceled in favor of a talk by a member of the local Oglala Lakota tribe. But he reserved his deepest anger for the administrators of Pioneer High School, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who put together a "Homosexuality and Religion" panel for a Diversity Week program. Wrote Steyn: "When a Catholic student, Betsy Hansen, asked to be allowed to present the Church’s traditional teaching on the subject, she was told by the school that her views were ‘negative’ and would ‘water down’ the ‘positive’ message they wanted to convey — that even religious dudes think gay sex is way cool. As we know, ‘diversity’ means homogeneity — even if, as in this case, the homogeneity is utterly at odds with reality."

Leaving aside the not-unreasonable notion that organizers of Diversity Week may have believed the kids were getting quite enough of homosexuality-is-a-sin at home and in church, Steyn omitted crucial facts: Hansen’s family enlisted the aid of the right-wing Thomas More Law Center; a federal judge ruled against the school system; and Ann Arbor officials responded by canceling Diversity Week. Then again, sharing that information would have conflicted with another of Steyn’s favorite tropes: that liberals specialize in victimology, and that they love nothing better than to find a judge willing intercede on their behalf.

Steyn concluded: "How many of our teachers ... are ashamed at what they do, as some of those teachers I met in Iraq were? Or do they truly believe, like the Baathist apparatchiks, that they’re engaged in a great project that will enable their young charges to be model citizens of a remade society? I confess that, in America as in Iraq, I can’t tell which is which, and have come to the conclusion it doesn’t matter either way."

He can’t tell, and it doesn’t matter, whether American teachers understand that they’re no better than Saddam’s terrorized classroom sycophants. This isn’t analysis, or even argument. It’s nihilism.

STEYN OFTEN criticizes the mainstream American press for its stodgy lifelessness. Last year he told the Web site RightWingNews.com that "almost any other English-speaking country, from Australia to Pakistan, has a livelier press than the US big-city monodailies.... I think that’s why when conservative US bloggers need a bit of red meat they can tear to pieces they go to the Guardian rather than the Boston Globe or the San Francisco Chronicle. Idiocy-wise, there’s no difference, but the boys at the Guardian can write."

Judgments about idiocy aside, Steyn’s got a point. But if American papers are duller than they need to be, they at least try to get the facts straight. They often fail, but there are corrections and ombudsmen and letters to the editor to provide at least some accountability. Steyn, on the other hand, is an acerbic stylist who would enliven any op-ed page. Yet, in his hands, facts are malleable things, to be twisted and reinterpreted and omitted in order to advance his particular point of view. His malpractice is hardly unique; but his sins are more egregious, and his gifts are more obvious, than is the case with lesser but more scrupulous talents.

Mark Steyn has carved out a nice little spot for himself within the world of right-wing punditry. He earned it not on the strength of his arguments or the accuracy of his so-called facts, but, rather, on his cultured, forceful writing style. And, of course, by making the truth serve his purposes, rather than the other way around. Sure, he’s no worse than Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. But he’s no better, either.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily "Media Log" at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: June 18 - 24, 2004
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