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Unoriginal Sins

What's left of our culture?

By 10.27.05

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Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses
By Theodore Dalrymple
(Ivan R. Dee, 341 pages, $27.50)

This is a superb collection of essays that you should not miss. Published mostly in City Journal over the past five years, they focus mainly on the decadence of today's Britain but also range widely over topics as diverse as Shakespeare, modern art, the state of today's Cuba, Zimbabwe, and Italy, and the crisis of Islam.

Dalrymple, a British doctor-writer, upholds the classic conservative insights about the need for societal constraints, but does so from the standpoint of one who has worked extensively in hospitals and prisons, in Britain and many other places, and has seen up close the results of societal chaos. In Britain, he notes, crime rates have increased twelvefold since 1941; the rise of the welfare state and the breakdown of the family and of personal responsibility have spawned a nightmare of violence, drug addiction, and illegitimacy that he depicts with the grim certitude of firsthand knowledge.

Those evils afflict particularly the lower socioeconomic classes, but Dalrymple is never more caustic than when exposing the crackpot notions and smug self-pity of intellectuals like Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Havelock Ellis, and Alfred Kinsey who laid the groundwork for the "liberation." To this day the intelligentsia cannot face "the human consequences of the changes in manners, morals, and social policy that it has consistently advocated," instead taking refuge in warmed-over Marxist shibboleths about the masses as helpless victims of malign economic forces.

Although it is tempting to link Dalrymple with the tradition of British satire -- indeed, one of his subjects is the 18th- and 19th-century satirical cartoonist James Gillray -- there is little humor in Dalrymple's perspective; his horror at what he sees is too deep. One essay takes you on a tour of "Sensation," a recent exhibit at the Royal Academy of Art in London that featured such attractions as a magnified portrait of the sadistic child-murderess Myra Hindley, amid bitter protests by mothers of her victims, as well as "flayed corpses, sliced animals in formalin, a close-up photograph of a gunshot wound to the scalp, and...Dead Dad," which was a "scaled-down but hypperrealistic model" of the naked corpse of the artist's father.

"That civilized life cannot be lived without taboos," Dalrymple remarks in one of the book's many examples of aphoristic brilliance, "...is a thought too subtle for the aesthetes of nihilism."

Another essay, "All Sex, All the Time," considers such outcomes of the sexual revolution in Britain as 12-year-old prostitutes on a street corner "a hundred yards from where I write this," rampant sexual abuse of children particularly by stepfathers and mothers' boyfriends, and unprecedented teen pregnancy rates. In Dalrymple's Birmingham, "the local health authorities send a van round several times at night to distribute condoms" to the youthful and other prostitutes, and "local residents...who object to the presence of discarded condoms in their gardens and in the street outside their homes have been offered a special instrument with which to pick them up." It would have been difficult to know it had gotten this bad in a country still associated with refinement, but Dalrymple observes that the maladies are common to today's West in varying degrees, and one would hardly dispute him.

The book is not, however, just a gallery of horrors. No less than Dalrymple is appalled at these painful phenomena, he is appreciative of insightful writers like Shakespeare, Turgenev, Orwell, and Huxley who could have, or did, predict what would happen to society when it contemptuously threw off the accumulated wisdom of centuries. ("The loss of the religious understanding of the human condition -- that man is a fallen creature for whom virtue is necessary but never fully attainable -- is a loss, not a gain, in true sophistication.") And Dalrymple's versatility is striking when he turns, with no less acumen, to more mundane topics as in "The Uses of Corruption," on the comparative workings of the Italian and British welfare states, or "Don't Legalize Drugs," which argues that case with stunning force.

Dalrymple is never more astute, though, than in "When Islam Breaks Down," a meditation on that religion's predicament in the modern world and profound problems in reconciling with it. Surveying the harsh practices of forced marriage and oppression of women that continue in Muslim communities in Britain and elsewhere in the West, Dalrymple notes "a vital difference in the historical situations" of Islam and Christianity that "tempers my historical optimism... Devout Muslims can see...the long-term consequences of secularism," and hence are even more likely to wall themselves in fundamentalism. The essay ends somewhat incongruously, however, with a prediction that fundamentalist Islam will eventually fade.

The book is written throughout in a prose that is easily flowing and conversational yet marked by elegance and sparkling precision. I cannot recommend it too highly.

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About the Author

P. David Hornik is a writer and translator in Beersheva, Israel, blogging at PDavidHornik.typepad.com.