Sunday, December 14, 2008

Barbarians within the gates

Theodore Dalrymple, onetime prison doctor, is a British essayist who has been quoted here more than once [here, here, here, and here], and someone who I obviously think is worth reading. Not a believer, he nevertheless has a profound understanding of human nature, and little patience with utopianism. A new collection of his essays has been published, Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline, and it has been reviewed by Patrick Keeney of the Canadian National Post. Excepts from the review:
He believes that man is a fallen creature and so is dismissive of the idea of perfection or utopian thinking of any kind. He is unmoved by Marxism, or indeed any other ideological system that posits causation by abstract social forces. For Dalrymple, the locus of moral concern falls on personal behaviour rather than on social structure, and he is caustic about any notion that negates the idea of personal responsibility, or that suggests that we are simply passive victims of our environment. And unlike so many of the intelligentsia, he is ever mindful that, in this world at least, we do not get something for nothing: Improvement usually comes at a cost. Ideas that arise from the very best of intentions often result in disastrous social consequences.

Dalrymple knows how potent and costly ideas can be. As a physician, he spent his working life among the poor, the imprisoned and the indigent. ....

...[E]ven as the welfare state ensures that no man goes hungry, we are met with new kinds of social pathologies, ones that result in what at best might be termed a sort of vulgar coarsening of the social fabric, at worst a senseless and random kind of violence that spares no one but that is particularly perilous for the poor. In an essay titled "Real Crime, Fake Justice," he references "the unholy alliance between politicians and bureaucrats and .... liberal intellectuals who pretend to see in crime a natural and understandable response to social injustice." The result of this "experiment in leniency" is that it has debased the lives of millions of citizens, especially the poor, who suffer disproportionately from rapes, murders, muggings and a general collapse of the criminal justice system.

Dalrymple's essays provide a kind of eulogy for those public virtues that the world once associated with Britain: reasonableness, honour, stoicism, fair-mindedness, civility and courteousness. His analysis of the British fall from grace also provides fair warning to those nations, such as our own, which, having travelled some way along the path pioneered by Britain, might yet avoid such a fate.
Decline, fall and then some

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