Sunday, January 25, 2009

By Theodore Dalrymple
Ivan R. Dee, $26.95, 252 pages

Theodore Dalrymple is a prolific British author of wide-ranging interests whose previous book, “In Praise of Prejudice,” I reviewed on these pages in November 2007. He may best be described as a culture critic and essayist, but he has also written several unusual and riveting travel books, erudite literary criticism and books about health issues since he also happens to be an M.D. and psychiatrist. In the latter capacity, he worked in a British prison for many years and acquired firsthand knowledge of present-day social pathologies — a recurring topic in his writings. What makes his work especially original and informative is his grasp of the connections and interactions between between social, political and cultural pathologies.

The volume here reviewed, “Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline,” is divided into Part I “Artists and Ideologues” and Part II “Politics and Culture.” The former reflects the author’s literary interests and includes essays about Samuel Johnson, Arthur Koestler, Henrik Ibsen, J.G. Ballard and new books on atheism. The second part focuses on British social pathologies and their political and cultural sources that will strike the American reader as unexpectedly similar to their counterparts in this country. There are also outstanding essays on Islamic terror and multiculturalism.

A sense of decline of the Western world, especially Britain, colors these writings. The author moved to France two years ago prompted by his despair over conditions in his native country: “I have removed myself: not that I imagine things are much better, only slightly different, in France. But one does not feel the defects of a foreign country in quite the same lacerating way as the defects of one’s native land; they are more an object of amused, detached interest than personal despair.” He considers the growth of social pathologies and the decline of cultural, moral and aesthetic standards in Britain more far-reaching and alarming than similar processes in the United States. He believes that the policies of the British welfare state have made a large contribution to these phenomena leaving “many people in contemporary Britain with very little of importance to decide for themselves. … They are educated by the state (at least nominally) … the state provides for them in old age and has made savings unnecessary … they are treated and cured by the state when they are ill; they are housed by the state if they cannot otherwise afford decent housing. Their choices concern only sex and shopping.

“No wonder the British have changed in character, their sturdy independence replaced by passivity, querulousness, or even, at the lower reaches of society, a sullen resentment that not enough has been … done for them. For those at the bottom, such money as they receive is, in effect pocket money, … reserved for the satisfaction of whims. As a result they are infantilized. If they behave irresponsibly — for example by abandoning their own children … — it is because both the rewards for behaving responsibly and the penalties for behaving irresponsibly have vanished.”

These attitudes have also been stimulated by “an aggressive popular culture that glorifies egotistical impulsivity and denigrates self-control” in Britain as in the United States. Arguably, American-inspired popular culture is one of the major sources of the nonjudgmental entertainment orientation and the attendant, relaxed moral relativism that provides a supportive environment (if not direct inspiration) for a wide range of amoral or antisocial behaviors.

The broader and more universal processes of modernization have also promoted the rise and spread of what might be called a runaway individualism, including “the privatization of morality … so complete that no code of conduct is generally accepted, save that you should do what you can get away with.” Mr. Dalrymple finds early evidence of these trends in the plays of Ibsen in “the elevation of emotion over principle, of inclination over duty … of ego over the claims of others; [in] the impatience with boundaries and the promotion of the self as the measure of all things.” Ibsen himself, “like many modern intellectuals … had difficulty distinguishing his personal problems and neuroses from social problems.”

This is a crucial and prominent issue especially since the 1960s when radicals began to insist on the supremacy of the political over the personal realm and were inclined to attribute a wide range of personal problems to broader structural forces and social-political injustices and inequities. Mr. Dalrymple while not disputing the links between the personal and the political, sees a reverse causation that follows from “the grotesque inflation of the importance of personal existential problems leading to a sense of entitlement and the conviction that social-political forces are mainly responsible for an implausibly wide variety of personal problems and difficulties.

That is to say he believes (as does this reviewer) that there is a connection between the intensification of individualism and the politicization of personal grievances without denying that personal grievances can have political roots or determinants. He writes:

“It is not the personal that is political, but the political that is personal. People with unusually thick skins ascribe small insults, humiliations and setbacks consequent upon human existence to vast and malign political forces; and, projecting their own suffering onto the whole of mankind.” Multiculturalism (in Britain as in the United States) contributes to these relativizing trends: “If all cultures are equal, and one has the right to impose its standards on any other, what is wrong with the immigrant ghettoes that have emerged, where the population (that is to say the male population) enjoys de facto extraterritorial rights?”

At the same time, while much of the Western world and its influential intellectuals and cultural policy-makers wallow in multiculturalism, Islamic fanatics are possessed of unshakeable, dogmatic convictions and eager to impose them whenever possible. They believe that they are “already in possession of the final revealed truth, leading to an inherently superior way of life, inhibit[ing] adaptation to a technically more advanced society … when a system of ideas … claims eternal validity and infallibility, when people adopt that system as their primary source of identity and when … those people find themselves in a position of long-standing … technical and economic inferiority and dependence vis-a-vis people with very different ideas and beliefs, resentment is certain to result.”

These attitudes give rise to political violence. Terrorists of various stripes “act from a mixture of personal angst and resentment which easily attaches itself to abstract grievances about the whole of society … terrorism is not a simple, direct response to, or result of, social injustice, poverty or any other objectively discernible human ill.”

As in his earlier writings, Mr. Dalrymple illuminates with great clarity and precision some of the most difficult problems of our times. His reflections should contribute to renewed resistance to both moral relativism and political-religious fanaticism.

Paul Hollander’s most recent books are “The Only Super Power: Reflections on Strength, Weakness and Anti-Americanism” (Lexington Books 2009) and his edited “Political Violence: Belief, Behavior and Legitimation.” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

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