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Among the Miserabilists

The inimitable Theodore Dalrymple scores again.

By From the March 2011 issue

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The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism
by Theodore Dalrymple
(Encounter Books, 163 pages, $23.95)
 

Among the features we savor most when reading our London cousins, The Spectator, are the acerbic observations of Theodore Dalrymple about his life as a prison and public hospital psychiatrist in the squalor of the East End. When he retired from those duties some years ago he widened his viewfinder to take in the goofy gyrations of New Labour at home and the posturing of the European Community place servers abroad.

Dalrymple, of course, is just one of the pen names used by Anthony Daniels to create a variety of personas that he uses in dozens of books on topics as varied as the drug culture of South America, the kleptocracies of East Africa, scientific scares, Marxism, the British underclass, or the practice of medicine under the National Health system. My favorite Daniels nom is Thursday Msigwa. But Dalrymple, crusty of mood, laser-sharp in insight, and eloquent in scorn, is doubtless the best of his characters, perhaps because there is so much about modern Britain and Europe to decry.

The old Vichy referred to in the title was a sad and disgraceful attempt by French leaders in World War II to pretend to themselves and the world that they had not been humiliated by Hitler's Wehrmacht and that they still exerted some semblance of control over France's destiny. In the New Vichy of Dalrymple's analysis, a "miserabilist" malaise has seized most of Europe's intellectual elite, causing them to give up even the pretense of influence in world affairs or responsibility for the world's perils. Rather, they concentrate on living well while obsessively making sure their neighbor does not do any better than they.

It is certainly true that many of Europe's problems are both external and relative to other nations. The rise of China and India, not to mention a host of other expansive economies, has left the European Community trailing in many of the global league tables. But Dalrymple warns,

It is one thing to fret over a decline that leads you to inhabit a static, but rich and genteel, country that is more like a museum of past achievement than a living, breathing power, but another to contemplate absolute decline. For once the machinery of international competition is set up, there is no standing still; you can go only forwards or backwards. If you don't keep up, you will go back, not relatively but absolutely, and Europe is blessed neither with natural resources nor huge tracts of virgin land upon which its population might lead a simpler life than that demanded by advanced economies.

But rather than gear up intellectually to meet that competition, Europe's opinion leaders in all sectors appear to have seized on the very responses that paralyze them from remedying the Continent's societal flaws. Instead of listing all the usual and highly visible suspects -- the decline of religion, the disparaging of patriotism, the belief that all human responses are relatively equal in moral worth -- Dalrymple targets the very idea of Europe itself as being neither an effective form of government nor a force for cultural, let alone political, unity within its borders. Says Dalrymple:

The Second World War destroyed European self-confidence once and for all. This was for two reasons that were synergistic in their effect; the first was the total loss of European power wrought by that war, and the second was the nature of European behavior during it. No European power emerged with both its power intact and an historical record during the conflict that bears moral examination.

Among the prime movers of the idea of a European Community, he adds, Germany sought to bury part of its national guilt for the war under the cover of regional cooperation, while France, its role as a global power gone forever, sought to salvage what power it could through its weight within the new construct. The Community organization that resulted -- its pantomime parliament, its mandarin bureaucracy, its nit-picking rules making -- has become "a giant pension fund for defunct politicians, who either cannot get elected in their own countries or are tired of the struggle to do so."

Lest we revel too much in the Schadenfreude of this well-thought-out tour of the European horizon, Dalrymple reserves his final words for the United States, which also "finds itself at a historical conjuncture when its relative power in the world has weakened." Caught between this relative decline in world dominance and the conflicting demands of an expanding welfare state, America could, he warns, fall victim to the same miserabilist illness that now grips Europe. The bitter disillusion that has gripped the country in reaction to the euphoria over President Obama's election two years ago is cited as evidence that the virus is with us already.

"A healthy modern society must know how to remain the same as well as change, to conserve as well as to reform. Europe has changed without knowing how to conserve; that is its tragedy," he concludes. Thoughts worth pondering as we face the new political landscape that we have so recently brought upon ourselves. 

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About the Author

James Srodes, an author and broadcaster, is a former Washington bureau chief for Forbes and Financial Worldmagazines. His latest book, On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World, is being published next week. His email address is srodesnews@msn.com.