Friday, October 28, 2005

Britain's Lost Virtues

The mandarins and the masses
Theodore Dalrymple
341pp. Chicago: Dee. $27.50. | | 1 5663 643 4

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Thirty years ago, Isaiah Berlin wrote a tribute to his Austrian friend Raimund von Hofmannsthal, who had settled in London after the war. “England seemed to him”, Berlin wrote, “the embodiment of a quiet, honourable, humane existence, above all of a civilisation singularly free from violence, hysteria, meanness and vulgarity.” Hofmannsthal’s sense of England was not over-idealized or inexperienced (he had lived in the United States too) but could not possibly be upheld today. The civic virtues, good manners, ingrained personal habits of self-control and moderation, and the national mistrust of excess have all been jettisoned or destroyed. Violence, hysteria, meanness and vulgarity are surely
now among the leading traits of the prevailing English temper.

Few people have been better placed to record the catastrophic effects of the collapse of English manners and habits than “Theodore Dalrymple”, the pseudonym of a physician who until recently worked in a decayed district of the Birmingham conurbation and as a prison doctor. His essays – written mainly for American magazines – collected in Our Culture, What’s Left Of It set out to map “the moral swamp that is contemporary Britain” and to study the “low-level but endemic evil” that he says is an “unforced and spontaneous” effulgence in the British underclass. He admires that most aristocratic of virtues, fortitude; and he detests the way that “the hug-and-confess culture” is extirpating emotional hardiness and self-reliance from British national character “in favour of a banal, self-pitying, witless and shallow emotional incontinence”. Overall, he argues strenuously – irresistibly – for the reassertion of traditional English virtues: “prudence, thrift, industry, honesty, moderation, politeness, self-restraint”.

Dalrymple has, it must be stressed, written an urgent, important, almost an essential book. Our Culture, What’s Left of It needs to be read and acted on by policy-makers, by opinion-formers, and anyone who wants to grasp why Britain has become so much less pleasant a country in which to live. The book is elegantly written, conscientiously argued, provocative and fiercely committed: “one gets more real truth out of one avowed partisan than out of a dozen of your sham impartialists”, Robert Louis Stevenson said. Dalrymple’s information is often unpalatable, but always arresting. He reports, for example, that many young Muslim women come to his practice in suicidal despair at their enforced marriages to close relations, “usually first cousins”, and deplores how journalists, “for fear of giving offence”, seldom allude to “the extremely high rate of genetic illnesses among the offspring of consanguineous marriages”. His measured polemics arouse disgust, shame and despair: they will shake many readers’ views of their physical surroundings and cultural assumptions, and have an enriching power to improve the way that people think and act.

He approaches his themes by four different routes. Many chapters describe with implacable force the brutal, sordid living conditions and the abysmal existence of the English poor. Others comprise a detailed indictment of the irresponsibility and fecklessness of the pundits from the educated classes whom he holds responsible for creating “a growing underclass devoid of moral bearings”. By contrast, in other chapters of delicate sensibility, Dalrymple extols and commemorates some great creative minds whose works exemplify the redemptive powers of art. “Human understanding, except in purely technical matters, reached its apogee with Shakespeare”, he declares. These essays comprise a collective plea for the restoration of cultural discrimination: for the recognition, which is crucial for human intelligence and for social well-being, that sharp distinctions are drawn between what is first-rate and what is third-rate. Dalrymple enforces this point by drawing on his extensive travels in the Third World to show what barbarism is, what barbarism means, and how closely barbarism is encroaching on contemporary England. Among many arresting images, one is unforgettable: his discovery, during the Liberian civil war, of the Centennial Hall in Monrovia, completely empty except for a Steinway grand piano, from which the legs had been sawn off and deposited on the floor nearby, together with little heaps of human shit. There are enemies nearer home, though, of intelligence, education and cultural discrimination.

“In no country has the process of vulgarization gone further than in Britain: in this, at least, we lead the world”, Dalrymple insists. “A nation famed not so long ago for the restraint of its manners is now notorious for the coarseness of its appetites and its unbridled and anti-social attempts to satisfy them.”

The mass drunkenness every weekend which renders British town centres “unendurable to even minimally civilized people goes hand in hand with the appallingly crude, violent and shallow relations between the sexes”. In the course of a superb essay contrasting the dignity and humane pleasures of contemporary Italian life with the degradation and lack of self-respect of contemporary Britain, he recalls his experiences working in East Africa within a few miles of two construction projects, one Italian and the other British.

“The British construction workers were drunken, violent, debauched, and dirty, without shame or dignity. Utterly egotistical, yet without much individuality, they wrecked hugely expensive machinery when drunk, without a moment’s regret, and responded with outrage if reprimanded.” Dalrymple reckoned them “truly representative of a population which has lost any pride in itself or in what it does, and that somehow contrives to be frivolous without gaiety”.

The neighbouring Italians, by contrast, were “hardworking, disciplined and clean, and could enjoy themselves in a civilized way even in the African bush, drinking without drunkenness, or that complete lack of self-control characteristic of today’s British. Unlike the British, they never became a nuisance to the local population, and everyone saw them as people who had come to do a job of work”.

Part of the blame for this degeneration Dalrymple attaches to the Welfare State:
“Like French aristocrats under the ancient regime, [the underclass] are – thanks to Social Security – under no compulsion to earn a living; and with time hanging heavy on their hands, their personal relationships are their only diversion. These relationships are therefore both intense and shallow, for there is never any mutual interest in them other than the avoidance of the ever-encroaching ennui.”

Working in an English slum district, he sees what the sexual revolution has brought to the underclass: “No grace, no reticence, no measure, no dignity, no secrecy, no depth, no limitation of desire is accepted”. For Dalrymple, the proliferation of single-parenting among his patients has no benefits. “Britain’s mass bastardy is not a sign of an increase in the authenticity of our human relations but a natural consequence of the unbridled hedonism that leads in short order to chaos and misery, especially among the poor.”

He is appalled by the social irresponsibility and self-destructiveness of his women patients, who produce a series of children by different fathers, who are almost invariably violent, criminal or abusive. “The result is a rising tide of neglect, cruelty, sadism and joyous malignity” that leaves him “more horrified after fourteen years than the day I started”.

Dalrymple does not seem to be a Christian, but he regrets British secularization and its attendant social evils:

“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. The secular substitute – the belief in the perfection of life on earth by the endless extension of a choice of pleasures – is not merely callow by comparison but much less realistic in its understanding of human nature.”

He loathes the way that Christian ethics and community morality have been replaced by the puerile and fitfully livid morality of tabloid newspapers:

“To make up for its lack of a moral compass, the British public is prey to sudden gusts of kitschy sentimentality followed by vehement outrage, encouraged by the cheap and cynical sensationalism of its press. Spasms of self-righteousness are its substitute for the moral life.”

He suggests that the illimitable prurience of British newspapers, and their ruthless, sanctimonious targeting of public figures, “has an ideological aim: to subvert the very concept and deny the possibility of virtue, and therefore of the necessity for restraint”. Surely the collective intention of British smut-hounds is to deny or nullify any authority other than their own: to discredit specialized expertise, disinterested professionalism, educational superiority, technical precision, so that every over-emotional, stridently emphatic and ill-educated member of the public can believe that their opinions even on the most intricate subjects are as valuable as anyone else’s.

Intellectuals, writers and artists who frivolously or exploitatively play with images drawn from real-life cruelty, and who express mitigating admiration for violent ideas, self-immolation and sterile self-absorption draw Dalrymple’s sustained contempt. He cannot forgive “the unrealistic, self-indulgent, and often fatuous ideas of social critics” for ruining the British underclass with “disastrous notions about how to live”. He is an acute cultural commentator – as misanthropic at times as his fellow physician CĂ©line – with a powerful ability to make uncomfortable connections. “A crude culture makes a coarse people”, he stresses.

He approaches the sink of contemporary emotional squalor from many angles: his account of the trial of the Soham child-murderer Ian Huntley and his accomplice Maxine Carr, his retelling for American readers of the sadistic serial killings perpetrated by Fred and Rosemary West, and his scornful essay “Trash, Violence and Versace” about Sensation, the exhibition of Charles Saatchi’s collection at the Royal Academy in 1998, demonstrate how a millionaire’s art accessories are part of the same mental world as a mass murderer’s torture dungeon. . . .

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