“I do not believe,” Theodore Dalrymple wrote a few years ago in an essay on manners for the liberal British journal New Statesman, “that the human heart, undisciplined by rules and conventions, is good: on the contrary, the default setting, to use a computer analogy, is to savagery and selfishness.”
Dalrymple’s sense of original sin comes in part from experience — or more exactly, from a pliant capacity to learn from experience. Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass (Ivan R. Dee, 263 pages, $27.50; click here to order) is a collection of 22 essays about his experience over the past decade as a physician and psychiatrist treating the underclass in a Birmingham slum. At the hospital and nearby prison where he works, he estimates he has treated about ten thousand patients, each of them with stories involving at least five other lowlifes, so that his “sampling” of about 50,000 of the British underclass is not, as the social scientists say, “merely anecdotal.”
What kind of people make up this huge segment (about 30 percent, according to Dalrymple) of the British population? They include drug addicts, alcoholics, the chronically unemployed, the habitually violent, the insouciantly larcenous. They sport tattoos, shaved heads, malignant dispositions, foul manners. About 70 percent of them are illegitimate, and hardly any of them are much into family values.
They are given to overdoses of their drugs, often as a ruse to manipulate a welfare system that allocates its considerable resources (more than a fifth of the national income) in larger chunks to those more deeply degraded. They have no financial resources, no family support, no skills or training, no serious schooling, no mental accomplishments, no curiosity, no sense of the past or the future. The brightest of them can scarcely think ahead more than twenty minutes, and what little intelligence they bother to cultivate is directed towards second-guessing the bureaucrats who control their destinies.
They are not “poor” in the sense understood by Charles Dickens or Henry Mayhew. Mayhew’s chronicles of the down-and-out in Victorian London were about hungry people still connected to some human dignity. Dalrymple’s “Grim Reality” (the title he gives to the larger of the two sections in his collection, essays that first appeared in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal) is about people stripped of all dignity by a nanny state, the brainchild of liberal intellectuals eager “to flaunt the magnanimity of their intentions.”
Theodore Dalrymple is the pen name of Anthony Daniels, who took his medical degree in 1975 and first made his reputation as a writer in the 1980s with a series of books relating his experiences in the backwaters of Africa, Latin America, and eastern Europe before the collapse of communism.
His choice of a pseudonym for what appears to be a second stage in his writing career is motivated partly by a desire to keep some professional distance between his medical and literary careers (and partly by his fondness for the name Dalrymple, which he tells an interviewer “sounds grumpy”). In Life at the Bottom, Dalrymple intermittently remarks that no deprivation encountered in his travels abroad, working as a physician among the desperately poor, comes close to the degradation he witnesses daily in his treatment of the well-fed British underclass.
Following his description of “Grim Reality,” Dalrymple turns to the “Grimmer Theory” he blames for the degradation. Roughly since the late 1950s, bad ideas which had been percolating for decades in the minds of liberal intellectuals (determinism, sexual license, relativism, egalitarianism — all impervious to fact or refutation) bubbled out of the academy into the larger culture, so that career-promoting academic hypotheses became ideas widely accepted.
At the center of these cheesy ideas is a rejection of the efficacy of human consciousness. What goes on in the minds of individual human beings is denied importance “in favor of vast impersonal forces that statistical regularities supposedly reveal and that supposedly determine people’s behavior.” The irony is not lost on Dalrymple that the intellectuals attach great importance to the screwy notions cooked up in their own minds.
A familiar consequence of such notions is the pose of nonjudgmentalism, which Dalrymple calls “a prophylactic against learning from experience.” A related consequence is the feel-good fad of multiculturalism, whereby there is only difference, not bad or good.
At variance with human experience (and with the testimony of great literature), the ideas of liberal intellectuals have fostered “a lie at the heart of modern society.” If we ascribe our conduct to pressures from without (as Dalrymple’s patients invariably do), “we obey the whims that well up from within, thereby awarding ourselves carte blanche to behave as we choose. Thus we feel good about behaving badly.”
For nearly a half century now, liberal “solutions” to “social problems” have been inspired by falsehoods about the human condition. Family life can be troubled? Destroy the family with sexual liberation. Education can be tedious and discouraging? Eliminate the discipline of learning and the possibility of failure. Crime is getting out of hand? Deny all responsibility in the criminal and any legitimacy in the justice system.
Dalrymple is at his best when he describes the psychological denial of liberals confronted with the consequences of their ideas. It occurs in three predictable steps. First, deny the facts (“Are you making this up?” he was asked by an elderly journalist mildly curious about Dalrymple’s essays). Second, deny the moral significance of the facts (after all, violence and vulgarity have always been a large part of British life). Third, deny that anything can be done without returning to the bad old days of unhappy marriages, rote learning in the schools, and unhealthy inhibitions.
The “natural man” of the liberal imagination has emerged in the British underclass, free of internal or external constraint, his manners now seeping upward into the middle classes. There’s one snag, however, over which the liberal intellectual stares vacantly: natural man has turned out to be a charmless psychopath.