book review

Our Culture, What's Left of It
by Theodore Dalrymple
Ivan R. Dee Press, 2005, 341 pages
Reviewed By

A lthough this book, a collection of essays written by a prison doctor, is more a collection of stories than a political tract, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as 341 pages of "people stuff". The twenty-six essays in this book are not about the people he describes, except as a jumping-off point; the real subject is the decline of civilized behavior in Western societies, and especially his native Britain. Dalrymple uses obscure and not-so-obscure historical figures as a vehicle for conveying insights about the importance of civilization and the virtue of self-restraint.

Throughout the book, Dalrymple eschews all political ideology, regarding it as a "powerful scourge of human self-delusion." We are invited to experience his reactions to specific situations--a writer who committed suicide after WWII, the public spectacle in England after the discovery of a sensational mass murder, and an exhibit of self-indulgent modern art--and contemplate Dalrymple's philosophical musings on their broader social meaning. Dalrymple's authority comes not just from a vast knowledge of art and literature but from his first-hand experience of genocides in Africa and wars in Central America, and the thousands of smaller wars fought every day by his patients in the underclass of society.

Dalrymple believes the evil that is trivializing culture and corroding interpersonal relations in our society has two causes: the fashionable intellectuals who tell people that it's okay to behave irresponsibly, and the modern welfare state that allows them to survive while doing so. Dependence on the state, says Dalrymple, has destroyed the basis of self-respect in England, turning the people into uncivilized louts. He paints a picture of his beloved country as something between A Clockwork Orange and downtown Detroit. Those who still believe that England is a model for government-run health care will be disabused of that notion after reading this book.

Unlike the simple-minded political screeds we see lining the bookstores, Dalrymple realizes the world is too complex for a unidimensional ideology to provide answers. It's a point of view that can only be held by a professional criminal psychiatrist who has realized through long experience that his patients' problems, many times, are mostly their own fault. There are also stories of heroic people who, even as everything they valued was being destroyed, still recognized that the decisions they made were the only thing that determined whether their lives had any value. And there is the story of one Ray Honeyford, whose career was destroyed by multicultural maniacs for daring to suggest that Muslims needed to be integrated into British society.

Dalrymple's rejection of politics is based on hard experience. I have often been astonished at how little the political ideologues I have met, no matter how well-educated, knew that was actually true: to tell a liberal in this country (during the course of a casual conversation about abortion, politics, or war) of the statistical disparities in abortion rates among different races, or the fact that PETA kills animals, is to be met with an incredulous stare. They sincerely believe, not so much because of evidence, but because they were told that it is right and noble to believe, that all the world's problems are caused by poverty and inequality--for which there is only one solution: bigger government.

The same is true of those in the various branches of our academic resentment studies, in which history is, as Dalrymple puts it, "nothing but the backward projection of current grievances, real or imagined, used to justify and inflame resentment." But in my opinion, therein lies a more sinister purpose: to undermine the belief that a history is even possible, and that having a sophisticated culture is even worthwhile. Without a history, and with a culture consisting primarily of dreck, civilization cannot survive for long. Viewed in this light, the utilitarian purpose of these "studies" as a weapon against civilization is clear.

Civilization, says Dalrymple, is the only thing worth defending, because it is what gives meaning to our lives. To our artistic and literary elite, it seems, that fact alone makes it worth destroying. And to a considerable extent, they are succeeding. Ironically, those who think civilization is indestructible most fervently wish for its destruction, like children wishing their parents dead so they can eat candy all day. Those like Dalrymple, who possess imagination and a knowledge of history and human nature, and have seen a glimpse of the alternative to civilization that awaits us, can see how fragile civilization really is, and how essential.