When a villain named Edward J. von Kloberg committed suicide last May, most journalists handled the story with long faces and solemn phrases. As an unscrupulous Washington lobbyist who boasted that "Shame is for sissies," Kloberg worked for the world's most contemptible despots, executing virtuoso acts of guile like getting the United States to bestow Most Favoured Nation trade status on Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania. Newspaper obituaries noted quietly that he was a "controversial" representative of dictators.
That wasn't Mark Steyn's reaction. He found it hilarious as well as horrible that Kloberg became rich doing the devil's business. "He was the Washington lobbyist for the dictatorial A-list" -- Saddam Hussein, Mobutu of Zaire, Abacha of Nigeria, etc., Steyn wrote. "If you had enough blood on your hands, chances are you were on his books." Steyn called him "the go-to guy for guys you wouldn't want to go near," the William Morris agency of global pariahs.
Steyn believes that the seriousness of a subject, whether it's a jihad or a crisis caused by Oval Office fellatio, should never get in the way of laughter. For him, comedy and tragedy live within the same story, even the same sentence.
This week he caused a stir in the otherwise serene offices of the National Post when he ran a close second to Don Cherry, the hockey talker, in readers' voting for Canada's leading public intellectual -- the last act in our Beautiful Minds series. Cherry edged ahead in the third period and won by a small margin.
As the star commentator on the national game, Cherry has been famous for years. Steyn's appearance near the top of the charts was a little more surprising, since he doesn't appear in a Canadian newspaper and seems never to show up on TV. In Canada his work runs in the Western Standard newsmagazine, published fortnightly in Calgary. In most of Canada he's mainly an Internet star.
His place in elite journalism around the world ("the one-man global content provider," boasts www.marksteyn.com ), rests on the way he lets his eccentric imagination play over the events of the day. Alone among journalists, he brings to public affairs the dark comedy developed in the Theatre of the Absurd.
Many readers discovered him when he began appearing in the 1990s but far more have sought him out since 9/11 gave fresh meaning to favourite Steynian themes, such as the death-wish of liberalism and the inanities of left-wing politics. He's developed a remarkable range of expertise. He not only writes on politics for London's Daily Telegraph and the Chicago Sun-Times, but also reviews movies for the Spectator of London and theatre for the New Criterion of New York while writing brilliant obituaries in the Atlantic Monthly and discussing any damn thing in the National Review, the Jerusalem Post, the Irish Times and The Australian.
When the National Post was founded in 1998, Steyn began contributing a hugely popular column; he withdrew his services in 2003 out of a disagreement with management, but there are those who claim they have seen a light flickering in our front window, awaiting his return.
Do Steyn and Don Cherry have anything in common? On the surface, nothing. But they share a traditionalism that makes them look like radicals in the 21st century. As Tony Keller wrote, you make a mistake if you think Cherry's subject is hockey. In truth, it's honour, as demonstrated by hockey players. Cherry believes in "the code" all good players live by.
Keller wrote: "It is hard to imagine a Canadian politician invoking honour, a pre-modern concept of duties and not rights; it is even harder to imagine any other sports journalist doing so." But however archaic, "it resonates with many Canadians." Steyn's belief in democracy, his disdain for liberal appeasement and his dislike of multiculturalism, all expressed (as Barbara Kay wrote) with "his quicksilver intelligence and merry iconoclasm," suggest that for all his irreverence he, too, embraces tradition.
Neither Cherry nor Steyn is universally admired. Keller believes that while half of Canada considers Cherry anachronistic, exactly the same quality endears him to the other half. Steyn, a self-styled "right-wing bastard," violates everyone's sense of good taste. His Web site advertises a coffee mug decorated with the words of his song, My Sharia Amour, and carries a headline questioning the new Parti Quebecois leader's plans for an independent Quebec: "Can a gay cokehead be the father of his country?"
Like Cherry, he's an opinionmonger we admire as much for his enemies as for his friends.