Review of "Our Culture, What’s Left of It" by Theodore Dalrymple

This was another great set of Dr Dalrymple's essays.  I must admit to having a soft spot of conservative pessimism, but I also have a soft spot for damn good writing.  The skeptical doctor provides both.  Incidentally, he also provides great old-fashioned reporting (the kind that has died as newspapers have died).

Dalrymple's books are collections of essays that have subtle ties.  In this book the meta, subtle tie is a criticism of the leaders of our culture.  Our intellectuals and stars – in short, our role models and opinion-makers.  The doctor believes that these people have ruined our culture and condemned our poor people to a nearly hopeless life in the under classes.

With that tie in mind, here are some of the highlights:

John  Maynard Keynes wrote, in a famous passage in The Economic  Consequences of the Peace, that practical men might not have much time for theoretical considerations,but in fact the world is governed by little else than the outdated or defunct ideas of economists  and social philosophers. I agree: except that I would now add novelists, playwrights, film directors, journalists, artists, and even pop singers. They are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and we ought to pay close attention to what they say and how they say it. . . .

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 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. . . .

To paraphrase Burke, all that is necessary for barbarism to triumph is for civilized men to do nothing: but in fact for the past few decades, civilized men have done worse
than nothing-they  have actively thrown in their lot with the barbarians. They have denied the distinction between higher and lower, to the invariable advantage of the latter.


A necessary, though not sufficient, condition [for the decline of our culture] 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  resort – or, 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. In matters of public housing, it is actually advantageous for a mother to put herself at a disadvantage, to be a single mother, without support from the fathers of the children and dependent on the state for income. She is then a priority; she won't pay local taxes, rent, or utility bills.

The increase in crime is a favorite topic of the good doctor:

In 1921, the year of my mother's  birth, there was 1 crime recorded for every 370 inhabitants of England and Wales; 80 years later it was 1 for every 10 inhabitants. There has been a twelvefold increase since 1941 and an even greater increase in crimes of violence.

And some marvelously old-fashioned bits:

Until then I had assumed, along with most of my generation unacquainted with real hardship, that a scruffy appearance was a sign of spiritual election, representing a rejection of the superficiality and materialism of bourgeois life.  Ever since then, however, I have not been able to witness the voluntary  adoption of torn, worn-out, and tattered clothes-at least in public-by those in a position to dress otherwise without a feeling of deep disgust. Far from being a sign of solidarity with the poor, it is a perverse mockery of them; it is spitting on the graves of our ancestors, who struggled so hard, so long, and so  bitterly that we might be warm, clean, well fed, and leisured enough to enjoy the better things in life.

There is also plenty of my favorite Dalrymple theme: the imperfectibility of mankind:

And, as usual, Shakespeare's answers to the questions he raises are subtle, far subtler than those of any ideologue or abstract theorist could ever be: for he is a realist without cynicism and an idealist without utopianism. He knows that the tension between men as they are and men as they ought to be will forever remain unresolved.  Man's imperfectibility is no more an excuse for total permissiveness, however, than are man's imperfections a reason for inflexible intolerance.

There is even some Roissyism:

But Isabella [a patient] knows that a society that places no value at all on chastity will not place much value on fidelity either: and then we are back to the free-for-all and all its attendant problems. . . .

That civilized life cannot be lived without taboos – that some of them may indeed be justified, and that therefore taboo is not in itself an evil to be vanquished – is a thought
too subtle for the aesthetes of nihilism.

And there are unbelievable stories from his patients:

The young man regained consciousness in the ambulance [after being beaten by his mother's boyfriend], but his mother insisted that he give no evidence to the police because,  had he done so, her lover would have gone to jail: and she was most reluctant to give up a man who was, in her own words to the young man's eleven-year-old sister, "a better f-k than your father."  A little animal pleasure meant more to the mother than her son's life; and so he was confronted by the terrifying realization that, in the words of Joseph Conrad, he was born alone, he lived alone, and would die alone.

Such is our cultural decline.

Another interesting idea (that came up in several essays) was the idea that we are willingly living under conditions that are becoming increasingly similar to conditions under totalitarian regimes, for example:

If Custine were among us now, he would recognize the evil of political correctness at once, because of the violence that it does to people's souls by forcing them to say or imply what they do not  believe but must not question. Custine would demonstrate to us that, without an external despot to explain our pusillanimity, we have willingly adopted the mental habits of people who live under a totalitarian dictatorship.

The book ends with an interesting essay on Rhodesia and colonialism that I am still chewing on.  I'll post some excerpts as I continue to pull together my thoughts:

And condemned Rhodesia most certainly was, loudly and insistently, as if it were the greatest threat to world peace and the security of the planet. By the time I arrived, it had no friends, only enemies. Even South Africa, the regional colossus with which  Rhodesia shared a long border and which might have been expected to be sympathetic, was highly ambivalent toward it . . .

I expected to find on my arrival, therefore, a country in crisis and decay. Instead I found a country that was, to all appearances, thriving: its roads were well maintained, its transport system functioning, its towns and cities clean and manifesting a municipal pride long gone from England.  There were no electricity cuts or shortages of basic food commodities. . . .

An  income that allowed a white to live like a lord because of a lack of such obligations scarcely raised a black above the level of his family.  Mere equality of salary, therefore, was quite insufficient to procure for them [i.e. blacks] the standard of living that they saw the whites had and that it was only human nature for them to desire – and believe themselves entitled to, on account of the superior talent that had allowed them to raise themselves above their fellows.  In fact a salary a thousand times as great would hardly have been sufficient to procure it: for their social obligations increased pari passu with their incomes. . . .

The thick network of social obligations explains why, while it would have been out of the question to bribe most Rhodesian bureaucrats, yet in only a few years it would have been out of the question not to try to bribe most Zimbabwean ones, whose relatives would have condemned them for failing to obtain on their behalf all the advantages their official opportunities might provide.  Thus do the very same tasks in the very same offices carried out by people of different cultural and social backgrounds result in very different outcomes. . . .

And indeed, in all but one or two African states, the accession to independence brought no advance in intellectual freedom but rather, in many cases, a tyranny incomparably worse than the preceding colonial regimes. . . .

After several years in Africa I concluded that the colonial enterprise had been fundamentally wrong and mistaken, even when, as was often the case in its final stages, it was benevolently intended.  The good it did was ephemeral; the harm, lasting.

One Response to Review of "Our Culture, What’s Left of It" by Theodore Dalrymple

  1. […] thriving: its roads were well maintained, its transport system functioning, its towns and cities clean and manifesting a municipal pride long gone from England.  There were no electricity cuts or shortages of basic food commodities. […]

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