Have hope, and children

Mark Steyn, counting out western civilization, has reached about “seven.” In his new book America Alone, excerpted in the Oct. 23 Maclean’s, he says the Islamists won’t even have to kill us. We’ll just die off for them. Except in the Great Satan, we can’t be bothered reproducing ourselves because we’ve lost any reason for existing beyond transient pleasure. I say we may yet bounce off the mat. His thesis is, regrettably, not absurd. Listening to elite rhetoric, you’d think western Europe, and Canada, were the last word in human excellence, not the last audible word from the junk heap once called Christendom.

You must have seen the statistics Mark cites: Greece has a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman; Italy 1.2; Spain 1.1. (To stop population shrinking, given slings and arrows, takes 2.1). France nearly tops the European charts at just 1.86. But did you see the headline in Wednesday’s National Post? “‘Frightening’ surge brings U.S. to 300M people” on a story starting “The United States welcomed its 300-millionth inhabitant yesterday amid concern the country’s burgeoning population and unchecked consumption could place impossible demands on natural resources over the next few decades.”

Yuck, people. How loathsome. How… tacky. The Post story came from Britain’s Daily Telegraph, whose e-mail teaser said “Bloated America hits 300 million population/ Fears that the country’s burgeoning population and consumption could lead to an environmental disaster.” Even these organs of conservative opinion react with snobbish revulsion to the news that Americans refuse to die out. But casually letting the culture expire that gave us free inquiry, human rights and constitutional democracy can’t be made to sound like an accomplishment.

For one thing, if everybody dies, who are you going to socially engineer? As usual, Chesterton said it best: “Where there is no people, the visions perish.” How will Canada save the world without Canadians? And until we finish dying, who’s going to pay for all the social programs? Experts in a spring issue of the Institute for Research on Public Policy’s Policy Options sagely advised immigration or “integrating older Canadians into the workforce” through tax breaks. Your answer to dying off from anomie is to fiddle marginal rates? As for importing millions of foreigners from very different cultures to do the work, so we can lounge about, it seems both unfair and unwise.

Besides, people who can’t be bothered to pass on the gift of life have problems worse than Canada Pension Plan funding. Our society is literally as well as figuratively sterile, and the two are not unconnected. Fashionable academics tell us there is no such thing as truth; slick politicians that there is no such thing as honour; well-fed journalists that nothing is worth going to war for. Feel like whispering that to a baby?

This spring the Citizen’s Dan Gardner, assailing Mark Steyn’s thesis, made a few good points, including: “The fertility rate of white Americans slipped below the replacement rate in the early 1970s,” and without Hispanics the U.S. fertility rate is 1.9, “the same as France.” He concluded: “No one likes to be told there is no simple answer. But that’s what the research shows … if the Pope is really concerned about falling fertility — and I hope he is — he could help do something about it by putting down the Bible and picking up a book about demographics.” But it’s a bit simple to consider “white Americans” a homogenous demographic, let alone “France.” And some might call “the Pope should put down his Bible” a simplistic answer secular intellectuals surprisingly often reach regardless of topic.

Complexity is fine. But it doesn’t preclude clarity. David Frum got it nearly right this January: “the choice to have a child is the ultimate statement of your optimism or your pessimism about the world of tomorrow. When that changes the fertility rate will rise …” Except it’s not about the world of tomorrow. It’s about life, taken as a complex whole. Does it matter or not? Modernity says not, and the results are obvious except, perhaps, to an expert. Remember that T-shirt of a weeping woman saying “I can’t believe I forgot to have children”? What do you say to an entire civilization with that problem? Besides “Goodbye,” I mean.

I say: Don’t throw in the towel yet. First, the Islamists will burn themselves out. Chronic rage is debilitating, and murderous attacks on the Anglosphere have a poor track record; so-called “demographic winter” set in first in the Axis nations than the former Soviet Union. Second, those in the West who have not given up hope have also not given up children. Kiddies don’t fit into your navel and they cramp your liberated lifestyle. But there’s more to life than hedonistic emptiness.

So stay hopeful. And welcome that 300-millionth American.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson