Yesterday, I finally downloaded Life at the Bottom, Theodore Dalrymple’s 2001 anthology for the Kindle yesterday, after reading many of its chapters at City Journal and other sources where they first appeared as articles. In his introduction, Dalrymple (the pen name for retired British prison physician Anthony Daniels) mentions that he’s received his own variation of the boilerplate “you don’t really believe that, do you?” mantra that all successful conservative pundits eventually have to deal with from epistemically closed “progressives:”
Recently, for example, I was invited to a lunch at a famous and venerable liberal publication, to which I occasionally contribute articles that go against its ideological grain. The publication’s current owner is a bon vivant and excellent host who made several scores of millions in circumstances that still excite considerable public curiosity. Around the lunch table (from which, I am glad to say, British proletarian fare was strictly excluded) were gathered people of impeccable liberal credentials: the one exception being myself. On my right sat a man in his late 60s, intelligent and cultivated, who had been a distinguished foreign correspondent for the BBC and who had spent much of his career in the United States. He said that for the last ten years he had read with interest my weekly dispatches – printed in a rival, conservative publication – depicting the spiritual, cultural, emotional, and moral chaos of modern urban life, and had always wanted to meet me to ask me a simple question: Did I make it all up?
Did I make it all up? It was a question I have been asked many times by middle-class liberal intellectuals, who presumably hope that the violence, neglect, and cruelty, the contorted thinking, the utter hopelessness, and the sheer nihilism that I describe week in and week out are but figments of a fevered imagination. In a way I am flattered that the people who ask this question should think that I am capable of inventing the absurd yet oddly poetic utterances of my patients – that I am capable, for example, of inventing the man who said he felt like the little boy with his finger in the dike, crying wolf. But at the same time the question alarms me and reminds me of what Thackeray once said about the writings of Henry Mayhew, the chronicler of the London poor: we had but to go a hundred yards off and see for ourselves, but we never did. On being asked whether I make it all up, I reply that, far from doing so, I downplay the dreadfulness of the situation and omit the worst cases that come to my attention so as not to distress the reader unduly. The reality of English lower-class life is far more terrible than I can, with propriety, depict. My interlocutors nod politely and move on to the next subject.
After last week, I doubt that Daniels will be hearing “did you make it all up” all that often anymore from British elites.
Of course, since they’ll never heed his advance, gained from first-hand experience with those at the bottom, the problem will likely only get worse.