Theodore Dalrymple wrote an article a while back "A Murderess's Tale" that I should have blogged when it appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of City Journal. Life being what it is, unfortunately, I haven't had the time until now.
If you're a first-time visitor to my blog, you'll see that I've devoted a category to Dalrymple. I did so because I think that his writing is worthy of attention. I've read many of his essays, and I consider him a fine writer. At the same time, though, his work often exemplifies a fault that I encounter in conservative writers with ever greater frequency. I'll explain at the end of this post.
If you read "A Murderess's Tale" for yourself, you'll see that it's a fairly typical Dalrymple essay: that is, it combines experiences drawn from his medical practice with reflections on the failings of the liberal welfare state. You can read the sad tale of the young woman who murdered her lesbian lover without any commentary from me. What concerns me in this post is what Dalrymple says after he has finished recounting her story.
Here are the final eight paragraphs of the essay:
The prison was a long way from my home, and as I drove I thought about the meaning of this terrible story. What would a liberal say about it? How would he explain what had happened? How would he go about trying to ensure that such cases did not recur?
Would he say that the state had been insufficiently generous with its social security payments, as a result of which the murderess had suffered material deprivations that caused her to commit her crime? But her mother had brought six children into the world, all by men who had contributed not a single penny to their upkeep. The murderess had never gone without food, was of notably strong physique, was of good stature, had never been ill, and had probably never even gone a day of her life without hot water. She was well clothed, and though she had never worked a single day of her life, her home boasted a stove, a refrigerator, a VCR, a stereo, and no doubt many other appurtenances that would have made Nero gasp. What more should the state have done or given her in the way of material goods?
Was she the victim of a restrictive sexual code that frustrated her desires and caused her to become violent? Surely even the most liberal of liberals would blush to say so. As she was incestuously raped from the age of eight to 12, and was herself able to take up a lesbian relationship with a girl aged 13 completely unopposed either by the state or by private individuals, it is difficult to see how further sexual license could have saved the day.
Had the educational system stifled her self-esteem? Quite the reverse. Our schools have fulfilled the liberal educators' every dream, abandoning educational achievement as their goal and systematically replacing it with nurturing self-esteemor at least self-conceitleaving their pupils unaware of their own disastrous ignorance, unable even to read properly, and without a counterweight to their chaotic home environments. Perhaps if the accused, and all the young people around her, had been treated with a firm but benevolent guiding hand when they were younger, the tragedy might have been averted.
Was the criminal justice system too harsh, above all on her stepfather? On her own account, he was never accused or found guilty of more than a very small fraction of the crimes that he had actually committed. Moreover, he was repeatedly released from prison, though he had provided irrefutable evidence that he had absolutely no intention of changing his mode of life. Had he been kept in prison for as long as he so manifestly deserved, there would have been at least the possibility that his "family" might have achieved a modicum of stability.
Was the problem that the killer was unable to obtain alcohol and marijuana easily enough? Had they been available to her freely, and free of charge, from (say) the age of six, would the tragedy have been averted?
Or perhaps she was released from the children's home at too tender an age? But the demand that adolescents be treated as autonomous adults has never been a conservative one, because it seems to conservatives to be not in accordance with human experience; rather, it is a liberal demand.
This murder, exceptional in some characteristics as it undoubtedly was, took place in a social universe that liberals have wrought, and whose realities they are too guilty or cowardly to acknowledge. It is a universe that has no place for children or childhood in it. Believing that man is the product of his environment, they have nevertheless set about creating an environment from which it is truly difficult to escape, by closing off all the avenues and bolt-holes as far as possible. They have destroyed the family and any notion of progress or improvement. They have made a world in which the only freedom is self-indulgence, a world from whichmost terrible of allprison can sometimes be a liberation.
Although these paragraphs meet Dalrymple's usual standards of clarity and elegance, they fail to prove anything. At best they dogmatically imply, perhaps correctly, perhaps incorrectly, that the liberal welfare state is somehow responsible for the plight of Dalrymple's young murderess.
Because Dalrymple himself doesn't actually produce the names of any liberals who are willing to defend the indefensible propositions that he offers up in these paragraphs, I have to infer from this omission that there aren't any liberals of the sort Dalrymple would like to hold responsible for the young woman's predicament. If you can't readily produce the party whom you regard as the cause of some widespread misfortune, then that's usually a good reason for the rest of us to believe that the party in question doesn't actually exist.
But even if there are such people, so what? Dalrymple still needs to demonstrate that liberals and liberalism as he puts it, "a social universe that liberals have wrought" are to blame. He clearly intends for the reader to draw the conclusion that there is no other explanation. Maybe he's right. Then again, maybe he isn't. But since Dalrymple hasn't ruled out other possible explanations, he is simply assuming that his explanation is the right one.
As I suggested in an earlier post "Theodore Dalrymple on the Frivolity of Evil" the sort of self-destructive behavior that Dalrymple typically discusses is a complicated matter. Finding the cause of this particular example in the failings of liberals and liberalism is another exercise in dogmatism on his part.
Dalrymple might actually be right, but without a real argument he is once again merely asserting that his view of the matter is the correct one. But that's the usual problem that one finds in made-to-order political hack work. Too much conservative writing these days that might otherwise be worth taking seriously suffers from this fault. Dalrymple can do better than this.