Slouching Towards Vichy: An Interview with Theodore Dalrymple

BC: What is “historical miserabilism”? Did you coin this phrase?

Dr. Dalrymple: I don’t know whether it has been used before, so I think I coined it. It is the view that in the past there is no achievement, only crime, folly, genocide, famine, ignorance, etc.

BC: How unique is America in comparison to Europe? In your final chapter you suggest that the same factors which presently imperil Europe may debilitate the United States as well.

Dr. Dalrymple: I think they already are debilitating it. America has one advantage, in that it was founded on a set of principles which are attractive if not metaphysically provable. It can, for example, incorporate immigrants more easily, therefore. With the possible exception of France, which was re-founded with the revolution, one cannot easily say what European countries "stand for" or what makes one, say, Danish, without having been born there. This is not to say that the freedom enjoyed in Britain, which was not formalized in any written set of principles, was not real. American observers of the 19th century often thought that people in Britain were freer than in the United States.

The past reluctance in the United States to cut expenditure along with taxes in my view points to the same kind of malaise as we have in Europe, and has led to the undoubted mess the U.S. is now in. The difference is therefore one of degree, not of kind.

BC: It’s a cliché that the old always disparage the young, but how unique is the present situation in our societies? Youth is celebrated religiously, and, as you put it, “They accept on authority that there is no authority.” Is idiocracy the inevitable result from elevating the opinions of the uninformed over those of the experienced?

Dr. Dalrymple: Although I disparage -- overall, not in every case of course -- the young of my own country, I do not disparage the young as such. The young of other countries seem much more attractive, intelligent, better-behaved etc. than those of my own country, who are rightly despised and hated in other European countries.

I think the basic problem is that people in Britain at any rate want individual license to do as they please without taking the responsibility for the consequences of what they do. In other words, I get drunk and vomit in the street, but you have to come along and clear it up, not I.

BC: Good judgment used to be a virtue yet now political correctness has rendered “being judgmental” an indicator of intolerance. In this fashion are we mass producing an immoral and deviant citizenry?

Dr. Dalrymple: Certainly we are producing a different citizenry. This is not a spontaneous change, but one brought about by ideology. Of course, you can’t escape from judgment: the idea that you should is itself a judgment. And indeed you have to make judgments in order to be tolerant, otherwise there is nothing to be tolerant of. The problem is that there has been a mass bohemianisation of society, such that the traditional role of the bohemians -- to transgress norms, break taboos etc. -- has become the moral imperative of a large part of society, with -- in my view -- unattractive consequences.

BC: Thank you for your time, Dr. Dalrymple.