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Mark Steyn On The Passing Of Roger Ebert And The Growing Threat In North Korea

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HH: We begin every Thursday when we are lucky with Columnist To the World, Mark Steyn. You can read everything that Mark writes at You can follow him on Twitter @marksteynonline. Mark, one of my favorite Steyn books is The Passing Parade. And I begin today with the sad news, because I liked him, Roger Ebert. He was a left winger, but he was a pretty good movie critic. If you were writing an obit about Roger Ebert, how would it begin?

MS: Well, as you say, he was a left winger, but he was a great movie critic in that he’s one of those critics, if you have any of his books, and some movie turns up on Turner Classic Movies that you’ve never heard of, but it has someone you quite like and you’re interested to know what it is, he’s a very reliable guide to telling you what kind of movie it is and capturing the sense of the movie. And as you said, we were political opposites, but we were both employees of Conrad Black’s Hollinger Group for much of our careers, and as a result of that, Conrad, someone in Conrad’s office sent him a free subscription to The Spectator in London, and Roger once described me, allowing for the fact that my political views were insane, he said I was one of his favorite movie critics. And with the same bipartisan tip of the hat, I would like to return the compliment. He was also a great screenwriter after a fashion. Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls was his great claim to fame, but he lived a good life. He briefly dated a young woman who was hosting some local news show in Chicago about 30 years ago, and he suggested to her that she ought to do what he did and syndicate it, and it might be as successful as Siskel and Ebert’s At The Movies. And the romance didn’t work out, but the young woman took his advice and thus, we have the Oprah Winfrey show to thank Roger Ebert for.

HH: Oh, wow. Oh, I didn’t know that.

MS: So he was, and I regret, you know, I regret the political side of him in a way that, in the same way I’m sure he regretted mine, but you know, he had, in a way that most movie critics whose criticism doesn’t stand up, and I include famous ones like Pauline Kael in that. Pauline Kael was a huge cultural influence 40 years ago, and if you read her stuff in the New Yorker now, most of it is obsolescent gibberish. And Ebert’s sense of what worked and what didn’t work actually was pretty solid.

HH: You know, our friend, Michael Medved, along with Siskel and Ebert, and with Jeff Lyons, they kind of invented a show, a different kind of show, the movie show. And of course, Mike Nelson, Mystery Science Theatre 3000, is a variation on that. But they really did it, and I don’t think it actually exists much anymore. It’s been overcome by the TMZ kind of gossip thing as opposed to a genuine movie show.

MS: Yeah, I don’t think we have the same kind of thing now. It’s interesting, at the time they started, we weren’t in that situation which you are now, where every Monday morning, what is reported as news is the gross of the films that opened over the weekend. This is something that within living memory was only of interest to studio vice presidents. But it’s now something that ordinary people are fascinated by the fact that X-Men 9 took $230 million dollars on its opening weekend. And in a way, that’s pushed aside what Siskel and Ebert did so well in their heyday, I think.

HH: And I didn’t know, did you review movies for a while? I didn’t know that you did that.

MS: Yeah, I did in The Spectator. I mean, I think there’s a difference. You know, Roger Ebert understood that I was a kind of amateur at it. He was a professional. He lived movies all his life. He went to the screening rooms every day. I hate screening rooms, you know, where they show a movie to 12 other cynical, bored critics. I find that kills it, particularly if it’s like a comedy and you want big laughs. So I always made a point when I could, because I was writing for a magazine, of seeing the movies with regular people, and getting some sense of it as a real experience. And so I was always, you know, it was kind of a little bit of weekend relief for me from jihad and politics and all the rest of it. But Roger, I appreciated Roger. He was very kind, because he was a professional, he was the best at what he did. His movie books are the kind of standard reference work for a lot of people. And so I was very appreciative of his kind words at a point, in fact, in my life when I rather needed them. So I thought I appreciate him for that very much.

HH: Now I’m going to make the transition, which is not easily done from Roger Ebert to North Korea, and so I’m not even going to try and find a transition there. We’re just going to switch. I’m going to devote the rest, or the next two hours, to North Korea. How serious do you think this situation is, Mark Steyn?

MS: It is serious in the sense that we don’t know anything about North Korea except that it’s a one man psycho state, economic basket case. And therefore, it does not respond to the rational incentives that Slovenia or New Zealand would respond to. And that’s really the problem with this new world we’re moving into. If you go back to the late 19th Century, at the heyday of British imperialism, Hilaire Belloc wrote a famous rhyme about British superiority over the natives. He said whatever happens, we have got the maxim gun, and they have not. Now the world has inverted itself, and the brokest, poorest, nothingest joke states on Earth, like North Korea, are going nuclear, while the wealthiest societies in human history, whether you’re talking about Norway or Switzerland or Australia, have no means to resist these nuclear provocations. And so North Korea, I think, is in the equivalent of neighborhood thug who understands that you can do an awful lot, and all the nice people who just want a quiet life, will in the end appease you and bribe you, and give you what you want to just go and be quiet for a couple more years. And that looks very much to be what Obama is doing, which has been part of a 20 year American pattern now with North Korea.

HH: Yeah, this does not exempt W.’s administration, either, but this President has sent the B-2 and a flight of F-22’s, and he’s rapidly deploying the THAD system to the extent it can be rapidly deployed. But has he said what needs to be said, or his surrogates, the secretary of Defense or the secretary of State, to unequivocally communicate to the North Koreans, Mark Steyn, that there is a line that if they cross, I think Bret Stephens said on our show yesterday, Pyongyang will be a smoldering heap?

MS: Well, Pyongyang is not going to be a smoldering heap. And Kim Jong Un knows that. And nobody, I like Bret Stephens as much as the next guy, but the idea of the United…the United States hasn’t actually nuked anywhere since 1945. And it gets harder and harder to imagine them nuking anywhere, certainly to imagine the United States nuking anywhere first. So the reality is that there is an awful lot of provocation. A few years ago, for example, there was a story in the Canadian papers that said that Kim Jong Il had a plan to nuke Montreal. And those of us who loved Quebec said well, why Montreal? And the reason was apparently that Kim Jong Il had calculated that if he nuked Chicago or Milwaukee, that the Americans might feel obliged to respond. But if he nuked a Canadian city, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations would just issue a strongly worded letter of regret. And those kind of, we laugh that those kinds of calculations, but they’re what are dancing through this guy’s head right now.

HH: My goodness, that is alarming. So in terms of what you would like to hear the President say, though we will not hear it, what do you think, Mark Steyn, he ought to say publicly so that it will be consumed by the North Korean military elite and the crazy young guy?

MS: Well, I think what matters less is what he says publicly, and what matters less is the messages that are being delivered in private both directly to Pyongyang and through North Korea’s only real friends who matter, which is Beijing. And the evidence suggests that in recent years, and I include particularly the latter phase Bush administration in this, that we were simply not forceful enough with Pyongyang on this, and that they understand that in effect, provocations get rewarded. I mean, this is a guy who basically pulled out of the Korean War Armistice a couple of weeks ago. As far as North Korea is concerned, the Korean War is back on. It’s a going concern again. These are people who understand that there is no appetite in the West for turning Pyongyang into a smoking ruin, or even delivering a strongly worded form of sanctions or anything like that.

HH: Dangerous situation, that. Mark Steyn, thank you,, America, for all that Mark writes.

End of interview.


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