"My work," writes Theodore Dalrymple, "has caused me to become perhaps unhealthily preoccupied with the problem of evil." For 14...
“Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses”
by Theodore Dalrymple
Ivan R. Dee, 341 pp., $27.50
“My work,” writes Theodore Dalrymple, “has caused me to become perhaps unhealthily preoccupied with the problem of evil.”
For 14 years Dalrymple was a government doctor in a prison and in a slum-area public hospital in Birmingham, England. He dealt with drug overdosers, battered women, con men and murderers. In “Our Culture, What’s Left of It,” he describes in a series of essays what Americans might label a ghetto culture — except that his subjects are mostly white, the product of British culture and the welfare state.
Dalrymple is a moral conservative. He believes that the cause of people’s behavior is what they think and what others encourage them to think. People do things, he believes, because they have an urge to do them and because we excuse them afterward. In his essays he does not so much argue these propositions as show them, mainly from profiles of people he sees every day.
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In “The Starving Criminal” the reader meets a malnourished young man, bony and hollow-eyed with paper-bag skin and loose teeth. The man is not broke: He has welfare money enough for illegal drugs. He just doesn’t eat much, and has lived mainly on chocolate bars and potato chips.
In his practice, Dalrymple saw several such men every day. In Britain, he says, there are thousands of them. Most use drugs that suppress their appetites and, furthermore, come from a culture where no one cooks a meal. The man will recuperate in prison because the prison feeds him, but once he is out he will begin shriveling away because he is unwilling to feed himself.
“From the dietary point of view,” Dalrymple writes, “freedom has the same effect upon [these men] as a concentration camp.”
Dalrymple also has a political point, which is that British intellectuals see the social phenomenon and misdiagnose it. They call it “food poverty,” and they blame it on the supermarket chains that, in their pursuit of profit, refuse to offer fresh, healthy food to the poor. Actually, Dalrymple says, the slum districts have little stores that sell fresh fruit, vegetables and meats. They are patronized by immigrants from India and Pakistan, who cook. The British underclass does not cook.
Not all the essays are about the British. “When Islam Breaks Down” is about South Asian Muslim men in Britain. “The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris” is about the young North Africans who live in “La Zone,” a gang-ridden area in which the government of France provides welfare and public housing but no police protection. In La Zone, these young men are excluded from jobs by French laws that ostensibly protect labor.
Whether you find Dalrymple refreshing or infuriating will depend on your political point of view. He has an erudite style, making use of words that seem harsh for a nonjudgmental age — words like folly, vice, pauperism and squalor.
The first part of this book is literary criticism, and is less immediate and shocking than the social essays, though as pointed in its views. Dalrymple defends Shakespeare and Turgenev, appreciates Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, despises Marx and eviscerates D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.
Here is a writer who denounces the “emotional incontinence” of Princess Diana and the “flippantly intellectualized coarseness” of an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art. He calls them as he sees them, and there is not an ounce of political correctness in him.
Bruce Ramsey is an editorial writer for The Seattle Times.