»  The New Criterion

January 2002

  The Age of Bad Ideas


Life at the Bottom
By Theodore Dalrymple
Ivan R. Dee; 272 pp. $27.50

There is an odd conservatism in the common perceptions of life in other lands. I grew up among English people who still thought of France — a rather stuffy and puritanical country in the 1960s — in terms of the "Gay Paree" of seventy years earlier, a place of unbridled license and monocled boulevardiers swilling champagne at the Folies Bergère. In the same way, many Americans carry in their minds an image of England as a polite and civilized land, where impeccably courteous David Niven types sit around at their clubs in antique leather armchairs sipping port, while, at the other end of society, stoic cockneys converse in rhyming slang and cheer each up other with cups of tea in the parlor. In fact today's England is a rather coarse and violent place, whose crime statistics now surpass the U.S.A.'s in most categories (homicide being the principal exception). The nation's everyday culture is dominated by the most brutish of proletarian values: politicians like Tony Blair from perfectly sound bourgeois families affect the dropped aitches and glottal stops of the slums, while the old codes of chivalry, patriotism and restraint have been shoved aside in a snarling, clawing assertion of "rights." American jaws drop when I say, in response to inquiries, how much I enjoy the comparative tranquillity, security and civility of life in the U.S.A. and the exquisite manners of Americans — especially in the South, the best-mannered large region in the English-speaking world.

The older, tranquil England of the American imagination actually existed not long ago. I am merely middle-aged, but I can recall quiet working-class streets in the midland city of Birmingham, where I spent part of my childhood, that are now bedlams of vice and crime. Birmingham is, as it happens, the city where Theodore Dalrymple works as a hospital doctor, with occasional medical duties at a nearby prison. For some years he has been chronicling English underclass life: in regular columns in the London weekly The Spectator since at least 1993 (the limit of my own personal stock of Spectator back numbers), as a contributing editor for the Manhattan Institute's quarterly City Journal, and with occasional pieces in other newspapers and periodicals, including this one. The main thrust of Dalrymple's observations has always been the moral and intellectual poverty of the people he encounters while carrying out his professional rounds. He has observed these phenomena across many years and thousands of instances, and thought deeply about how they originated and what sustains them. In Life at the Bottom Dalrymple has put together 22 of his City Journal articles, written in the late Nineties and early Oughts.

Dalrymple writes with great clarity, slicing through the common gibberish of the "official" social sciences with the sword of reductionism. The child-rearing philosophy of the underclass is, he tells us, one of "laissez-faire tempered by insensate rage." The distress that leads to attempted suicide — an everyday occurrence in the lives of Dalrymple's patients — is "the consequence of not knowing how to live." (A key insight. In another place he speaks of "the chronic suffering caused by not knowing how to live.") The poor, he writes, "live in a torment of public and private disorder, which I have trembled to behold every day of the last ten years of my professional life." Reading, we tremble with him. The misfortunes of a patient result from "a willful chasing after misery." Root causes? "Since the cause of crime is the decision of criminals to commit it, what goes on in their minds is not irrelevant."

Well, what does go on in underclass minds? Not much that is coherent, of course, since the people we are dealing with here have, either by their own will or under the example or intimidation of their peer group, rejected all attempts to educate them. The typical Dalrymple subject is "devoid of either ambition or interests," his inner life a solipsistic jumble of "emotions … simultaneously intense and shallow." It is clear, however, that all the cant of our age, all the doctrines of moral and cultural relativism that seized hold of the educated classes in the years after WW2, all those pop-Marxist doctrines that attribute every worldy ill to some form of material deprivation, or to oppression by malign political conspiracies, have seeped down into the dull minds at the bottom of society, turning toxic in the process. Are our personalities formed in response to our physical environment? Why, then, the inanimate world is our master, and we cannot fairly be held responsible for the things we do. "The knife went in," three different stabbers told Dalrymple, when he pressed them, in the prison, to describe the deed that landed them there. Why should a low-IQ barely-literate youth believe in the doctrine of free will, when, for all he can see, his intellectual superiors have given up on it?

Dalrymple is particularly good on the squeaky-wheel syndrome that is so characteristic of modern social services. Defy your circumstances; manage to get some scraps of education; win some decent, if low-level employment; stay out of trouble; stay off the dole; maintain some minimal standards of honesty and chastity; and see what happens to you! If you are lucky, the authorities will ignore you; if not, they will actually harass you. Should your less disciplined neighbors make your life a misery, you will get no help from police or social workers. If, on the other hand, you follow your peers into the world of dysfunction and dependency, all the attentions of England's extravagant welfare state will be lavished on you. You will be given a free apartment furnished with all modern appliances, a regular supply of money, free medical attention, and the doting ministrations of "health visitors," "case workers," "counsellors" and so on.

Americans may find it surprising that most of the people wallowing in this slough of ignorance, illiteracy, promiscuity, bastardy, intoxication, vice, folly, lawlessness and hopelessness are white English people. Much of what is described here is the sort of thing Americans instinctively associate with this country's own black underclass. There is some satisfaction, I suppose, though of a very melancholy kind, to be drawn from the revelation that sufficiently wrong-headed social policies, persisted in with sufficiently dogged refusal to face simple truths, will visit moral catastrophe on people of any race.

Not that racial foolishness is altogether absent from Life at the Bottom. Thanks to government policies of staggering idiocy pursued across several decades, England is now both multi-racial and multi-cultural, though there is no trace of evidence that any detectable number of English people ever wanted it to be either. This has, of course, made the country a much worse place to live in. Social workers, teachers, the police, and all other authority figures are thoroughly race-whipped, and know that any action they take against a person of color will bring them under the intense scrutiny of their superiors, not to mention the press and numerous busybody groups charged with maintaining the integrity of the "gorgeous mosaic."

Dalrymple illustrates this with the horrifying story of 8-year-old Anna Climbie, tortured to death by her mother, a West African who had come to England for the welfare benefits. The poor child had been admitted to hospital twice in the months before she died, and it was obvious to the doctors and nurses that she was a victim of gross abuse. However, they could not persuade the police or welfare services to act. The child's condition and the abject terror she exhibited at her mother's approach were, the authorities believed — or pretended to believe, to keep themselves out of trouble — merely facets of West African culture, on which it would be wrong to pass judgment. Bad ideas again. Since people in other lands live contentedly under social norms wildly different from those of the London suburbs, why then, surely it's clear that one set of norms is just as good as another, and it would be wrong of us to find fault? We are living in the Age of Bad Ideas.

I think, though Dalrymple makes less of this, that the hedonism of the postwar middle classes has also been a large factor in the collapse of morality over at the left-hand tail of the bell curve. It is a bad thing, but not an irremediable one, if the daughter of an architect has an illegitimate baby or acquires a minor drug habit. If the daughter of a janitor does these things, she has taken a headlong leap over the precipice into a lifetime of destitution. If any of the people who make social policy in England are aware of this simple fact, they probably regard it as another form of unfairness, to be resolved by lavishing money and attention on the janitor's daughter. A better remedy would be for the middle classes to behave themselves, and to give a good example to those beneath them, and to stop feeling so all-fired guilty about everything under the sun. That, of course, would be "elitist": but if there is a lesson to be drawn from Life at the Bottom, it is that a society's choice is never between having an elite and not having one, it is always between having an elite with a sense of responsibility and a will to provide leadership, and having an elite with neither.