BOOKS: by Peter Donald (reviewer)News Weekly
OUR CULTURE, WHAT'S LEFT OF IT, by Theodore Dalrymple
, August 18, 2007
No such thing as evil, only victimhoodOUR CULTURE, WHAT'S LEFT OF IT:
The Mandarins and the Masses
by Theodore Dalrymple
(Chicago: Ivan R. Dee)
Paperback: 341 pages
Rec. price: AUD$33.90English doctor, writer and social commentator, Theodore Dalrymple (pseudonym of Anthony Daniels), has practised medicine among the very poor and oppressed in several continents and, more recently, at a public hospital and prison in England. An earlier collection of essays, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass (2001), was highly acclaimed.
This latest collection of his essays comprises 26 pieces arranged under two headings titled, "Arts and Letters" and "Society and Politics". The essays cover literature and ideas and range in topics from Shakespeare to Marx, from "The frivolity of evil" to "When Islam breaks down", from "Why Havana had to die" to "Don't legalise drugs".
It is rare for a book on social issues to be so readable, but this is not a work of abstract social theory.
In his preface he begins by saying: "The fragility of civilisation is one of the great lessons of the twentieth century." The widespread optimism that technical and moral progress went hand in hand was dashed by the Great War.
"The most civilised of peoples proved capable of the most horrific of organised violence," says Dalrymple. "Then came communism and Nazism, which between them destroyed scores of millions of lives, in a fashion that only a few short decades before would have appeared inconceivable."
Dalrymple muses that one would expect intellectuals to be interested in maintaining the boundaries that separate civilisation from barbarism, "since those boundaries have so often proved so flimsy in the past hundred years". This expectation has been shattered as some have deliberately embraced barbarism; others are ignorant of boundaries needing "maintenance and sometimes vigorous defence".
Some are attempting to abolish the line between civilisation and barbarism completely. Dalrymple recognises that the greatest threats to civilisation often come from within.
The intellectual and political elites regard being "unconventional" and opposing "traditional social rules" as high virtues. But Dalrymple says, "No man is so brilliant that he can work everything out for himself, so that the wisdom of the ages has nothing useful to tell him."
Opposition to the obligations of any moral law and supporting the view that all morality is relative "soon communicates itself to non-intellectuals. What is good for the bohemian sooner or later becomes good for the unskilled worker, the unemployed, the welfare recipient - the very people most in need of boundaries to make their lives tolerable or allow them hope of improvement."
Dr Dalrymple writes of his long experience with the English underclass and the breakdown of morality and self-restraint in contemporary British society. His account and analysis of underclass life, and the elite ideas which support it, resonate in most Western nations. He has witnessed at first hand the tragic results of the work of social engineers and their distorted vision of reality.
He observed that most of the social pathology exhibited by the underclass has its origin in ideas that have filtered down from the intelligentsia. Whether the subject is alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual relations or marital abuse, he finds an essential self-deception at work among his patients.
Its roots may be found in fashionable social policy. Dalrymple believes long-term poverty is caused by a dysfunctional set of values that is continually reinforced by an elite culture searching for victims. This culture persuades the underclass that they have no responsibility for their actions and are not the moulders of their own lives. A society has been created where "there is no evil, only victimhood".
Dalrymple notes the replacement of the word "unhappy" with the word "depressed" by patients. Whereas unhappiness is a state of mind that is clearly the result of circumstances of one's life (whether self-inflicted or not), depression is an illness that is the doctor's responsibility to cure.
"The patient pretends to be ill and the doctor pretends to cure him," quips Dalrymple. The doctor is precluded from passing any judgement on his patients that could be interpreted as moral, and has no option but to play along with this deception. The result? Gross over-prescription of medication, without any reduction in unhappiness.Social disaster
The elites cannot acknowledge the social disaster that has occurred, as this would be an admission that their ideological libertinism was responsible.
Two of the essays deal with the inherent problems of Islam as it encounters the West and modernity. "To be sure, fundamentalist Islam will be very dangerous for some time to come… but ultimately the fate of the Church of England awaits it. Its melancholy, withdrawing roar may well (unlike the Church of England) be not just long but bloody, but withdraw it will. The fanatics and the bombers do not represent a resurgence of unreformed, fundamentalist Islam, but its death rattle."
Several essays deal with the "legacy of destruction and despair" in the fields of literature and the arts. Figures examined include Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and Versace.
The author has spent most of his working life treating the victims of illegal drugs, and mounts persuasive arguments against their legalisation. That people will continue to use drugs when they are illegal is not a valid reason to legalise them or any other criminal behaviour.
"If the war on drugs is lost, then so are the laws against theft, speeding, incest, fraud, rape, murder, arson," he says. "Few, if any such wars are winnable."
The vividness of Dalrymple's prose and the remorseless logic of his arguments make this a formidable work. Anyone concerned about the fate of Western civilisation should read this book.