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The Decay and Fall of the West

Is our society losing its way? An interview with psychiatrist and thinker Dr. Theodore Dalrymple.

by
Bernard Chapin

Bio

December 10, 2008 - 12:00 am
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In terms of erudition and perspicacity, Dr. Theodore Dalrymple is one of the most accomplished conservatives in the world. Dr. Dalrymple recently retired to France after spending the majority of his career as a prison psychiatrist in Birmingham, England. He continues to write voluminously and has just authored Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline. In 2007, he published In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas and remains a regular contributor to The New Criterion, City Journal, New English Review, and The Spectator. Even whilst fully employed, Dr. Dalrymple was far more productive than the average writer. In recognition of his importance, a website now exists to celebrate his work.

BC: Dr. Dalrymple, congratulations on the release of your latest book. Most of its essays concern England but would you say that we, in the United States, are but a few years behind your native land in terms of societal degeneration? Is Western culture, on aggregate, on the brink of suicide?

Dr. Dalrymple: Thank you for your congratulations and support over the years. Certainly Britain appears to be suicidal, but I am more hopeful about other countries. Britain is performing a valuable service, by setting such an obviously bad example for others to avoid.

I am always worried about predicting decline and fall, because men of my age seem constitutionally liable to do so. Nevertheless, there certainly does seem a thinning out of our culture, and a terrible narrowing of horizons. Here is just one very small example: a friend of mine who teaches Cambridge medical students — the elite of the elite — tells me that in many years he has met about three who have heard of Chekhov. The tragedy is that, when he tells them to read some, they love it; in other words, our educational system has deliberately failed to inculcate an interest in literature in them, though they are more than capable of developing one, and indeed are probably avid for something of the kind. This has not come about accidentally; it is the result of an ideology that has insinuated itself into power.

BC: Many Americans are Anglophiles and find dispiriting the diminishment of Britain. In one of your later chapters you discuss the eradication of Britishness. You elucidate that its values include “a tradition of tolerance, compromise, civility, gentlemanly reserve, respect for privacy, individuality” and “a ready acceptance of and even affection for eccentricity.” Why is it that only a negative view of the past survives? For what reason do elites ignore the positive aspects of England’s history?

Dr. Dalrymple: I think a large part of it stems from disappointment: the disappointment that follows the loss of power. A world power for two or three centuries such as Britain is now reduced to the third rank. Incidentally, loss of power is a threat to American self-confidence as well, and in this situation babies get thrown out with bathwater.

The negative view of history is not unique to Britain. For very obvious reasons, it exists in Germany: all of German history and achievement being seen as but a prelude or preparation for Hitler. The same gloominess exists in France, which indeed has many skeletons in its historical cupboard, but which nevertheless has a record of achievement almost unequaled by any other country. And, of course, there are American historians with an entirely negative view of American history.

I think this negative historiography is extremely important and destructive. One of its functions, of course, is to aggrandize public intellectuals.

BC: In your analysis of the asylums that once housed the mentally ill you refer to Michel Foucault’s work and discuss power in general. Would you say that the will to acquire power and control others is indigenous to humanity? Or, contrarily, would you say that the need for pervasive control is only present within pathological persons?

Dr. Dalrymple: I think the drive to power is very common, though not universal. I also think that it has increased and spread among the population, as ideologies such as feminism have spread. Power is increasingly regarded as the only thing really worth having; if you have no power, then you are unimportant, oppressed, etc. I have noticed that, in institutions such as hospitals, power struggles, which have always existed, have become much more prevalent. Once they were confined to a relatively small number of people; now they have become universal. As the desire for power increases, so does the personality deformation that thirst for power brings with it.

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