Several weeks ago I added a category for Theodore Dalrymple, and since then I've noticed that I've received a lot of hits from people searching for his writings. Consequently, as a service to my readers, I thought that I should blog about a few of Mr. Dalrymple's more recent pieces, even though I hadn't been planning on posting about them.
Theodore Dalrymple is actually Anthony Daniels, who was a doctor for the NHS in the U.K. until just recently. He has retired, and has been saying for some months that he will be moving to France to escape the barbarity that has overtaken his country. Much of Dalrymple's best writing draws on his medical experience, which, given the nature of his practice, was often bleak but instructive. He frequently writes about what people in the U.S. call the underclass.
One thing to keep in mind when reading Dalrymple is that many of his essays appear in City Journal, a conservative quarterly published by The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. Now, bright-eyed wonders that you are, you might ask yourself why Dalrymple's essays about underclass life in the U.K. appear so frequently in a conservative American publication. The answer is simple: the underclass in the U.K. is overwhelmingly white. No white doctor in the U.S. Dalrymple is white could make a second career by specializing in writing about the black underclass. There is a sizeable white underclass in the U.S., but the political debate of the past forty years regarding welfare, crime, and illegitimacy has tended to focus on the black underclass.
Since Dalrymple writes mostly, though not exclusively, about white people, he can't be accused of racism. Furthermore, since his tales about the white underclass routinely include fulminations against liberal intellectuals and the welfare state, conservative American publications eagerly publish his essays. Conservatives in America are sympathetic to his diagnosis of the causes of underclass pathology. Furthermore, since Dalrymple can't be accused of being motivated by racism, conservatives can publish his work with a clear conscience, all the while believing that his essays are relevant to certain aspects of life in the United States.
In fact, Dalrymple is full of lessons in life for all of us. He is both an essayist and a moralist. I find much to admire in his work. In a moment, though, I'll talk a bit about what I don't admire in his writing.
That was a long preamble. On to "The Frivolity of Evil."
Dalrymple draws on his medical practice to tell the tale of a woman who has had three children with three different men, has been abused by every man she has lived with, and so forth. She's one of Dalrymple's usual suspects, in other words. What concerns him is how someone can act in such a way as to blight not only her own life but also the lives of her children:
She knew perfectly well the consequences and the meaning of what she was doing, as her reaction to something that I said to herand say to hundreds of women patients in a similar situationproved: next time you are thinking of going out with a man, bring him to me for my inspection, and I'll tell you if you can go out with him.
This never fails to make the most wretched, the most "depressed" of women smile broadly or laugh heartily. They know exactly what I mean, and I need not spell it out further. They know that I mean that most of the men they have chosen have their evil written all over them, sometimes quite literally in the form of tattoos, saying "FUCK OFF" or "MAD DOG." And they understand that if I can spot the evil instantly, because they know what I would look for, so can theyand therefore they are in large part responsible for their own downfall at the hands of evil men.
Moreover, they are aware that I believe that it is both foolish and wicked to have children by men without having considered even for a second or a fraction of a second whether the men have any qualities that might make them good fathers. Mistakes are possible, of course: a man may turn out not to be as expected. But not even to consider the question is to act as irresponsibly as it is possible for a human being to act. It is knowingly to increase the sum of evil in the world, and sooner or later the summation of small evils leads to the triumph of evil itself.
My patient did not start out with the intention of abetting, much less of committing, evil. And yet her refusal to take seriously and act upon the signs that she saw and the knowledge that she had was not the consequence of blindness and ignorance. It was utterly willful. She knew from her own experience, and that of many people around her, that her choices, based on the pleasure or the desire of the moment, would lead to the misery and suffering not only of herself, butespeciallyof her own children.
This truly is not so much the banality as the frivolity of evil: the elevation of passing pleasure for oneself over the long-term misery of others to whom one owes a duty. What better phrase than the frivolity of evil describes the conduct of a mother who turns her own 14-year-old child out of doors because her latest boyfriend does not want him or her in the house? And what better phrase describes the attitude of those intellectuals who see in this conduct nothing but an extension of human freedom and choice, another thread in life's rich tapestry?
Dalrymple is certainly right to point out that his patient has willingly collaborated in her own misery, and thus has willingly brought misery upon her children. It's a puzzle as to why people do such things.
In the final paragraph of the above quotation we see Dalrymple's standard complaint about intellectuals, which in his case usually, though not always, means liberal intellectuals. He develops his accusation at greater length:
Where does this evil come from? There is obviously something flawed in the heart of man that he should wish to behave in this depraved fashionthe legacy of original sin, to speak metaphorically. But if, not so long ago, such conduct was much less widespread than it is now (in a time of much lesser prosperity, be it remembered by those who think that poverty explains everything), then something more is needed to explain it.
A necessary, though not sufficient, condition is the welfare state, which makes it possible, and sometimes advantageous, to behave like this. Just as the IMF is the bank of last resort, encouraging commercial banks to make unwise loans to countries that they know the IMF will bail out, so the state is the parent of last resortor, more often than not, of first resort. The state, guided by the apparently generous and humane philosophy that no child, whatever its origins, should suffer deprivation, gives assistance to any child, or rather the mother of any child, once it has come into being.
[. . .]
But if the welfare state is a necessary condition for the spread of evil, it is not sufficient. After all, the British welfare state is neither the most extensive nor the most generous in the world, and yet our rates of social pathologypublic drunkenness, drug-taking, teenage pregnancy, venereal disease, hooliganism, criminalityare the highest in the world. Something more was necessary to produce this result.
Here we enter the realm of culture and ideas. For it is necessary not only to believe that it is economically feasible to behave in the irresponsible and egotistical fashion that I have described, but also to believe that it is morally permissible to do so. And this idea has been peddled by the intellectual elite in Britain for many years, more assiduously than anywhere else, to the extent that it is now taken for granted. There has been a long march not only through the institutions but through the minds of the young. When young people want to praise themselves, they describe themselves as "nonjudgmental." For them, the highest form of morality is amorality.
It's here that I begin to become irritated with Dalrymple, not so much because I disagree with him, although I do to some extent, but because I'm weary of the certitude with which he asserts his diagnosis of what must be regarded as a complicated matter. The sort of self-destructive behavior that he describes is certainly influenced by culture to some degree, since it isn't a straightfoward product of unreflective instinct or unconscious biology. Consequently, culture is somehow implicated in what he is describing.
What strikes me so forcefully when I read stories like the one Dalrymple tells is that his patients have such an undeveloped sense of self-interest. Leave out their moral sensibilities for the moment. Isn't it just stupid to have several children with several different abusive men? What does morality have to do with the choices that have led to such foolishness? Can't Dalrymple's patients male and female peer into the future that will likely follow from their actions? If they can't, should we chalk up that failure to moral decay? Will moral uplift also enhance their ability to think about their own interests, even in a rudimentary fashion? I don't know, but neither does Dalrymple.
In short, Dalrymple is much too dogmatic a diagnostician. How culture and ideas are involved in what he describes is far from clear. To be fair, he takes swipes at both the Left and the Right in this paragraph:
There has been an unholy alliance between those on the Left, who believe that man is endowed with rights but no duties, and libertarians on the Right, who believe that consumer choice is the answer to all social questions, an idea eagerly adopted by the Left in precisely those areas where it does not apply. Thus people have a right to bring forth children any way they like, and the children, of course, have the right not to be deprived of anything, at least anything material. How men and women associate and have children is merely a matter of consumer choice, of no more moral consequence than the choice between dark and milk chocolate, and the state must not discriminate among different forms of association and child rearing, even if such non-discrimination has the same effect as British and French neutrality during the Spanish Civil War.
Who are these people? Are any of them important thinkers who have written books and articles that Dalrymple could cite? Philosophers at least those who think about ethics certainly don't believe that there are rights without duties. Dalrymple needs to give us more details if he is to do more than merely assert widely held conservative opinions.
A misplaced sense of pity, which could be attributed to our Christian heritage, could just as well be the culprit. Perhaps we should simply harden ourselves to the suffering of other people and ignore their plight, if it turns out that the consequences of institutionalized compassion in the form of the welfare state are as dire as Dalrymple would have us believe. But I doubt that many conservatives, especially in the U.S., would agree with such an unpopular diagnosis. I don't pretend to have argued for this view, but it's as initially plausible as any other view on these matters.
Once again, it's not that I disagree with Dalrymple's conclusions. It's that I don't see any reason to believe that he has successfully argued for his views.
Here's how the essay concludes:
So while my patients know in their hearts that what they are doing is wrong, and worse than wrong, they are encouraged nevertheless to do it by the strong belief that they have the right to do it, because everything is merely a matter of choice. Almost no one in Britain ever publicly challenges this belief. Nor has any politician the courage to demand a withdrawal of the public subsidy that allows the intensifying evil I have seen over the past 14 yearsviolence, rape, intimidation, cruelty, drug addiction, neglectto flourish so exuberantly. With 40 percent of children in Britain born out of wedlock, and the proportion still rising, and with divorce the norm rather than the exception, there soon will be no electoral constituency for reversal. It is already deemed to be electoral suicide to advocate it by those who, in their hearts, know that such a reversal is necessary.
I am not sure they are right. They lack courage. My only cause for optimism during the past 14 years has been the fact that my patients, with a few exceptions, can be brought to see the truth of what I say: that they are not depressed; they are unhappyand they are unhappy because they have chosen to live in a way that they ought not to live, and in which it is impossible to be happy. Without exception, they say that they would not want their children to live as they have lived. But the social, economic, and ideological pressuresand, above all, the parental examplemake it likely that their children's choices will be as bad as theirs.
Ultimately, the moral cowardice of the intellectual and political elites is responsible for the continuing social disaster that has overtaken Britain, a disaster whose full social and economic consequences have yet to be seen. A sharp economic downturn would expose how far the policies of successive governments, all in the direction of libertinism, have atomized British society, so that all social solidarity within families and communities, so protective in times of hardship, has been destroyed. The elites cannot even acknowledge what has happened, however obvious it is, for to do so would be to admit their past responsibility for it, and that would make them feel bad. Better that millions should live in wretchedness and squalor than that they should feel bad about themselvesanother aspect of the frivolity of evil. Moreover, if members of the elite acknowledged the social disaster brought about by their ideological libertinism, they might feel called upon to place restraints upon their own behavior, for you cannot long demand of others what you balk at doing yourself.
There are pleasures, no doubt, to be had in crying in the wilderness, in being a man who thinks he has seen further and more keenly than others, but they grow fewer with time. The wilderness has lost its charms for me.
I'm leavingI hope for good.
I can only wish the man well, and so I hope that he enjoys his retirement and continues to write essays that I'm eager to read. At some point, however, Dalrymple's certitude and dogmatism need to be replaced by analysis and argument. The bromides of the conservative moralist do not suffice.