When Mark Steyn spoke at the invitation of the Ashbrook Center in Mansfield, Ohio on October 10, drawing a crowd that filled the Renaissance Theater, he should have had little fodder for his usual comic satire of big government. It was Day 10 of the partial government shutdown—it should have been a rare interlude during which Americans went about their private business, untroubled by federal intrusions. But Steyn soon drew gasps of “laughing and horror,” junior Scholar Kate Brickner reported, as he talked about the ways government officials continued to patrol their turf after being told to cease operations.
“He said that in the first hours after the shutdown occurred, some tourists weren’t allowed to leave hotels” located on public lands lest they see and enjoy the scenery of the National Parks. “Even some views of Mount Rushmore that you could access without entering the parks were blocked by federal officials who closed off roads,” Brickner said. “I hadn’t been aware of the incident in Yellowstone where government-owned SUVs were parked so as to hide the view of ‘Old Faithful,’” sophomore Scholar Ivan Larson added.
Steyn sees how government overreach affects the often forgotten heartland of the country, the Scholars said. He opened with a wry anecdote about an Ohio man who went to court to appeal a ruling that he was legally dead. “The judge actually turned him down, saying he had been considered dead so long that the ruling could not be reversed. It was a story about government bureaucracy at its best,” Brickner laughed. Steyn deftly connected the local interest story to a broader national issue, quipping that “Death is the ultimate pre-existing condition, and fortunately it’s the only one not covered” by the new Affordable Care Act, so the man who remains legally dead “doesn’t have to sign up for that.”
Steyn’s alarm call about a federal bureaucracy that imposes high costs on our economy and personal freedoms “can be depressing,” Larson said; but Steyn enlivens the message with humor. The audience laughed when Steyn donned a Park Ranger’s hat and jacket and sang a parody of the Woody Guthrie song, “This Land is Your Land,” informing listeners that open public lands “are closed to you and you” when the government is not receiving the funding to supervise citizens’ visits.
Brickner found Steyn’s message “extremely positive. He tells people that things can change if you stand up for your rights.” Indeed, Steyn said in Mansfield that “the petty despotisms are the building blocks for the bigger ones to come. So if you resist them at the town level, at the school district level, at the county and state levels, it is much more difficult for politicians to do it at the national level.” Brickner can appreciate the importance of citizen involvement in civic life. A native of Middleburg Heights, Ohio, she is very active in student government and this fall serves as an intern in Congressman Bob Gibbs’ district office in Ashland, answering phone calls from constituents.
A strong advocate for free speech, Steyn spoke of a student at a junior college in California who was stopped when he tried to commemorate Constitution Day by handing out copies of the US Constitution. The student was told to stand in the narrow “designated free-speech zone” on campus. “The free-speech zone isn’t supposed to be a few yards of scrub behind the racism and colonialism faculty lounge,” Steyn said; “the free-speech zone is supposed to be from Maine to Hawaii.” Steyn praised Ashbrook programs for promoting the study of America’s founding principles, keeping a serious focus on “the liberty that matters.”
Some may be surprised by a Canadian writer who makes a stronger case for individual liberties than is generally heard from US-born commentators. Larson is not. A Swedish-born student, his family emigrated here when he was eight years old, settling in Cheyenne, Wyoming. “As someone who is not a US citizen myself—I currently hold a green card—I would say that America’s core principles are universal. The US was just the first to realize them and put them into practice.”
Steyn’s presentation, which was co-sponsored by WMAN Radio of Mansfield and the Ariel Corporation, concluded with a question-and-answer session during which Steyn encouraged conservatives to engage popular culture, re-claiming ownership of language that praises progress and compassion. “There is nothing compassionate about wanting to spend your grandchildren’s money,” he declared.