The Decay and Fall of the West
Is our society losing its way? An interview with psychiatrist and thinker Dr. Theodore Dalrymple.
December 10, 2008 - 12:00 am
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.
BC: Why do we as a society automatically extend empathy and compassion to criminals rather than the victims of their crimes? There’s a phrase that you use in this context: “a preference for barbarism.” Why do our intellectuals rally to the cause of miscreants rather than that of good, honest citizens?
Dr. Dalrymple: Intellectuals need to say things that are not immediately obvious or do not occur to the man in the street. The man in the street instinctively sympathizes with the victim of crime; therefore, to distinguish himself from the man in the street, the intellectual has to sympathize with the criminal, by turning him into a victim of forces which only he, the intellectual, has sufficient sophistication to see.
Now the criminal often emerges from terrible circumstances, of that there can be no doubt; but it is not true compassion towards him to turn him into an inanimate object that could have reacted to those circumstances only in the way he did. If this were truly the case, incidentally, the case for drastically more severe penalties would be made; for if the connection between childhood circumstances and crime were like that between the earth and the falling apple, then the criminal is incapable of change. I do not think this is so.
BC: What is the doctrine of “social inclusion” and how has it corrupted modern education?
Dr. Dalrymple: Trying to understand the concept of social inclusion is like trying to catch a cloud with a butterfly net. Roughly speaking, it means or implies that the bad outcomes for certain social groups are the result of acts of exclusion by other, more privileged groups. The excluded then suffer from poor self-esteem, which can be boosted by telling them that they are doing very well, irrespective of what they actually do. In order to compensate for their alleged exclusion, they are included by not holding them to the standards of the rest of society. Of course, this keeps them exactly where they are; if you were a Marxist, you would think that the British and American public education systems were conspiracies by the bourgeoisie to keep the poor poor.
BC: Your treatment of the novel A Clockwork Orange (“A Prophetic and Violent Masterpiece“) was a standout in this collection. You mention that you recall seeing young men dressed up like the main character at a film showing, which leads me to pose a general question. How much do you think pop culture shapes and influences individual behavior? In my country we are irrationally obsessed with the vapid lives of celebrities.
Dr. Dalrymple: I suspect, though I cannot prove, that pop culture has an enormous effect. In the prison in which I worked, a warden of Jamaican origin noticed that if he played baroque music to the prisoners they calmed down; if he allowed them to play their rock music in its various forms it agitated them and made them quarrelsome and susceptible to violence.
One of the effects of the concentration on the lives of celebrities, who are often people of little obvious merit or achievement, is that it transforms ambition into daydreams. Constantly comparing your own life with the fairy-tale life of celebrities means that small but achievable ambitions appear trivial and meaningless; but actually civilization is maintained not only by major achievements and talents, but by the striving of millions of ordinary people. This is undermined, I believe, by celebrity culture.
BC: You are also the author of Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy, and I’ve heard previously the argument that there is something innate within humans that predisposes them to seek out mind-altering substances. What is your opinion of such a view?
Dr. Dalrymple: Yes, I do. I think people crave change, even when change is not for the better. That is to say, change is a reward in itself. I am often puzzled by the fact that people continue to take drugs that make them feel worse. I think the desire to escape and the desire for change must in part explain this.
BC: At the beginning of “The Marriage of Reason and Nightmare” you point out that “ever-rising consumption is not the same thing as ever-greater contentment.” Could it be that in 2008 an inverse relationship exists between spiritual contentment and material consumption?
Dr. Dalrymple: The current economic crisis might just have a silver lining, if it causes people to step back for a moment and think about what is really important in their lives. In my time, I have lived in places where there was very little choice about many consumables, including food. In itself, that did not worry me, indeed I found it liberating, so long as I had freedom to think and some access to intellectual life.
BC: Along the lines of my last question, you mention that the Second World War “was a time of material shortage, terror, and loss,” yet people who survived it in Britain remember it “as the best time of their lives.” Is modern man’s life of great bounty now marred by a void of meaning and purpose?
Dr. Dalrymple: Yes, I think that more or less captures it. Most people want to invest their lives with a meaning greater than the flux of everyday life, and can’t find it. The result is social pathology: for the crises brought about by that pathology act as a smokescreen to disguise the void.
BC: In your essay, “The Roads to Serfdom,” you refer to a famous quote by George Bernard Shaw, who said, “We are all socialists now.” Are we all on the brink of becoming socialists once again? Why do you think, given the oppressive and pernicious nature of this method of governance, it remains politically viable?
Dr. Dalrymple: I think it more likely that there will be an increase in corporatism than in socialism. America will not be socialist, but it might be corporatist (there is always a tendency to this deformation in modern societies). You will find an increase in public spending with an increase in contracts given to businessmen with political contacts or who are politically pliable. Mr. Obama strikes me as a Blair figure rather than, say, a Leninist. This will lead to a swamp of corruption very difficult to eradicate because it will be legalized corruption, which is very hard to eliminate once started. An important thing to look for will be the corruption of statistics; for once they are corrupted, no one can know what is going on in the larger picture, and this gives carte blanche for the looting of the public purse by private interests linked to politicians, all in the name of procuring benefits for the public.
BC: Thanks so much for your time, Dr. Dalrymple.