September 2006By Michael S. Rose
Michael S. Rose is Book Review Editor and Web Editor of New Oxford Review.
Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses. By Theodore Dalrymple. Ivan R. Dee. 341 pages. $27.50.
For some 600 passengers traveling by train from Nice to Lyon, the year 2006 came in with a real bang. In the early hours of January 1, 30 teenage thugs terrorized recuperating New Year's Eve revelers on their return trip from the French Riviera. Agence France-Presse described the scene as a rampage of random violence and sexual assault. For five hours the gang of North African immigrants slashed seats, broke windows, robbed, and raped -- all in full view of other passengers, including a small police team that was rendered helpless. Even after reinforcements later boarded the train, authorities took another hour and a half before gaining control of the Arab mob. Despite the heavy police presence, all but three of the marauders escaped when the youths pulled the emergency cord just before reaching Marseille.
This Clockwork Orange-like binge of violence is becoming more common in France these days. No one knows this better than Theodore Dalrymple, a British physician who admits to an unhealthy preoccupation with the problem of evil. Evildoers, he writes in the introductory essay of Our Culture, What's Left of It, "merely make the most of their opportunities. They do what they can get away with." In today's France, thousands have devoted their lives to increasing that scope as widely as possible -- often with much success. Crime and general disorder are now even making inroads into prosperous French villages. When Dalrymple visited a seemingly peaceful town near historic Fontainebleau he was told that a recent burglary had been followed by a "rodeo" -- an impromptu race of youths in stolen cars around the village green, whose fence the car thieves had knocked over to gain access. By the time the police appeared two hours later, the rodeo had moved on, leaving behind burned-out and eviscerated carcasses of cars.
Setting fire to cars has become a common pastime among the permanently unemployed North African immigrants who hang out in the potholed open spaces of their Corbusian logements. Years before the concrete suburbs of Paris were set ablaze in 2005, making front page headlines around the globe, Dalrymple sounded the alarm about "the barbarians at the gate" of the eldest daughter of Christendom. Since then the problem has become so acute that France's Ministry of the Interior has instructed police to avoid some 800 "no go zones" where gang rapes and Molotov cocktails are part of daily life and where the professional robbers among them raid banks and armored cars with bazookas and rocket launchers while dressed in paramilitary uniforms.
An ordinary and respectable son of the English middle classes, with a proper profession, Dalrymple has put himself in many unusual and dangerous situations on par with exploring French neighborhoods where even the firemen need police escorts. He was formed by his experiences exploring the dark underside of life in some of the world's most volatile places; he witnessed civil wars and unrest in such political hotspots as Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, North Korea, and Rhodesia. Yet the subject of his most intriguing experiences is England, where he sees the social world of his native country from a unique vantage point. Much of the material in Our Culture, What's Left of It derives from his firsthand observations as a sort of "physician of the streets." Unlike his liberal counterparts, Dalrymple is not obsessed with making excuses for the people he serves in inner-city hospitals and prisons. But he does believe that their disastrous notions about how to live derive ultimately from unrealistic, self-indulgent, and often fatuous ideas of misguided social critics. More importantly, he states in frank language that the man on the street (or in prison or in the hospital) has chosen to live in a manner that does not produce a happy citizenry.
The examples given throughout this selection of incisive essays diagnose a societal affliction, what Dalrymple calls the "frivolity of evil": the elevation of passing pleasure for oneself over the long-term misery of others to whom one owes a duty. Dalrymple recounts some of the hundreds of conversations he's had with men who have abandoned their children for the sake of their own convenience, knowing that they are condemning the mother and the children to lives of brutality, poverty, abuse, and hopelessness: "They tell me so themselves. And yet they do it over and over again. The result is a rising tide of neglect, cruelty, sadism, and joyous malignity that staggers and appalls me." Complicating this social plague is the effect of the government on family life. The state in effect absolves the deadbeat dads of all responsibility for their children. Without financial and familial commitments, the biological fathers behave like spoiled children who become demanding, self-centered, and violent when they don't get their own way.
In his essay "The Starving Criminal," Dalrymple draws the connection between the destruction of the traditional family structure and the life of common criminals. In his work as a prison doctor, he has seen countless criminals enter the big house malnourished, dying a slow death of starvation. After a few months in the "health farm of the slums," the prisoner would recover his health simply by eating his regular ration of three meals a day. Talking with many of these starving criminals, he discovered that, lacking a normative family life, most of these men had never eaten a single meal -- sitting at a table with others -- outside of prison. Rather, food was consumed alone in purely pragmatic fashion. Many of these culinary loners subsisted largely on chocolate and potato chips; others ingested nothing but sugary soft drinks. This, he says, was a result of the kind of family breakdown made viable by Britain's extensive welfare system, a breakdown so complete "that mothers do not consider it a part of their duty to feed their own children once they have reached the age at which they can forage for themselves in a refrigerator."
Another important thread running through many of these essays is that modern Western society is comprised of a citizenry that jealously guards its right to pursue its own pleasures in its own way. Adhering to this doctrine, grown men and women believe they ought to be permitted to do whatever they please so long as they are prepared to accept the consequences of their own actions and that they cause no direct harm to others in the process. Dalrymple points out that this radical individualism eschews any kind of moral code and instead translates into a mere contractual agreement not to interfere with one another as we seek out private pleasures.
In his essay "All Sex, All the Time," he specifically address the pleasures of the sexual appetite, reminding us that the sexual revolution has been the catalyst for a change in moral sensibility in the direction of a thorough coarsening of feeling, thought, and behavior. In some ways, humans have become no more than farmyard animals. The mass denial that sexual relations are a proper subject of moral reflection has yielded confusion, contradiction, and conflict -- all of it quite predictable. The ill effects are, of course, not only private but public. He cites sexual abuse of minors as a case in point. If there's one sexual taboo left in society it is that of pedophilia -- or is it?
Dalrymple points out that, in one British city, local health authorities boast that 100 percent of local prostitutes routinely use condoms, in no small part due to the condom-distribution program funded by the equivalent of $135,000 of taxpayers' money. Each night a city van rolls through the streets "non-judgmentally" handing out free condoms to girls as young as 12 and 13. While patting themselves on the back for a job well done, the health authorities seem unmoved by the fact that they are aiding and abetting child prostitution. Anxiety about the sexual abuse of children subsists with an utter indifference to the age of consent. Once boundaries such as the age of consent are breached, they tend to erode entirely.
Personal encounters with many of his patients flesh out the rest of the story. Dalrymple was consulted, for example, by a young woman whose mother's live-in boyfriend had raped her habitually between the ages of eight and 15 -- with her mother's full knowledge! Unfortunately, this sort of situation is not an anomaly in British society, where a whopping 40 percent of children are born out of wedlock. In fact, he says, it is common to find teenage girls as young as 14 living in abusive domestic relationships with adult men who are in effect serial rapists -- often with the knowledge, if not consent, of the girl's mother.
The moral cowardice of the intellectual and political elites is partly responsible for the continuing social disaster that has overtaken Britain and other European countries. Dalrymple asserts that the state, through its laws and welfare provisions, encourages the fragmentation of the family. Long ago they bought into the ideas of semi-pagan ideological nudists such as Alfred Kinsey, who believed that sexual restraint was the cause of all human misery, and Margaret Mead, who claimed that adolescents are best off spending the years between puberty and marriage in uninhibited sexual activity, as much as possible and with as many partners as possible. It's no longer just the political and intellectual elite that accept these premises, but the public at large -- including the media, which has substituted spasms of self-righteousness for the moral life.
Dalrymple's answer to the grave societal woes of everyday life is to resurrect the idea of civilization, the sum total of all those activities that allows man to transcend mere biological existence and reach for a richer mental, aesthetic, material, and spiritual life. The first requirement of civilization, he suggests, is that men must repress their basest instincts and appetites. Without the acceptance of a basic moral code such as the Decalogue, man, because of his intelligence, becomes far worse than mere beasts.
Dalrymple is without a doubt a cultural critic par excellence: His blunt writing style is engaging and his subject matter riveting and even unique. Refreshingly, he eschews the style manual of political correctness, but without coming across as a hardhearted bigot, something he most certainly is not. Anyone concerned about the fate of the world will no doubt benefit from his unique insights and analyses of today's most pressing societal problems, and the informed reader won't fail to notice the prophetic messages found in every essay of this impressive collection.