Theodore Dalrymple has produced a steady flow of articles and essays, published in The Spectator, The New Criterion, and City Journal. Denis Dutton has featured many of his essays at Arts & Letters Daily. In 2001, Dalrymple published a collection of his essays in City Journal, over the period from when he first wrote for City Journal in 1994 to 2000, as a book, Life at the Bottom, The Worldview that Makes the Underclass. I can’t handle online material for sustained reading, but the essays are available on line at City Journal. I will mention some of the essays, which can be found in the list generated by searching his name as author.
Dalrymple was a physician and psychiatrist who spent the last part of his medical career, practicing in Birmingham. Many of his essays reflect on the lives of the people he encountered. Some essays begin with a walk through the ward where people who have recently attempted suicide are being monitored (“Goodbye Cruel World”), or with a story of an anonymous interview with a battered woman, a tattoed hooligan, a frightened pensioner, a teenaged girl whose Indian immigrant parents are pushing her into an arranged marriage. “Festivity and Menace” begins with a walk through Birmingham, watching young people out for a good time on Saturday night – pasty young women crammed into tarty costumes, drunk or on ecstasy, convinced that they are the pinnacle of feminine sexuality.
His perspective is common sense, and essentially critical. Many of his patients, including all the criminals, are the victims of their own impulses and decisions – their own stubborn egos. No one seems to have any sense of responsibility for the consequences of their actions. People who have committed crimes discuss them in detached terms, as if unseen forces made them wield the knife (“The Knife Went In”). His observations cross the gender barrier. He asks if women involved in serial promiscuous relationships with dangerous men should think about their taste in men and their past judgments, and accept that they want a different life, they have to make different choices (“Tough Love”).
A more recent essay published in The Spectator on January 7, reprinted in The Australian on January 14, 2006 captures the main theme of his essays:
I am overwhelmed by a sense of the unfitness for life of all the participants in these sordid dramas: their main problem was that they had not the faintest idea how to live and yet – this is the hallmark of modernity – they were plentifully supplied with ego.
They had received no guidance from religion, naturally enough, since God is dead for them, and never has been very much alive. As for social convention, it has not so much been destroyed as turned inside out. The poor who once prided themselves on such things as respectability, cleanliness, honesty, orderliness and thrift, often in the most difficult circumstances, now pride themselves on their bohemianism. Disorder and chaos are a metonym for freedom and authenticity. But they are bohemians without being artistic, and the result is a squalor scarcely credible in times of supposed prosperity.
His essays address the failures of social policy for relieving poverty, and the implosion of values in Western middle class society. Poverty in an affluent society is a relative thing. The poor have less than they want, but more than most people in the world. Most poor people live ethical lives. Some people don’t govern themselves, and they terrorize the peaceful poor and the rest of society. The problem is governing the ungovernable while being nice, supportive and non-judgmental. Social policy supports the rights of women to have as many illegitimate children as they want, without interfering with how they raise their children. The public schools (“We don’t Want No Education”) are deliberately non-judgmental – criticizing children is bad for their self-esteem and judgmental toward the parents. A shocking number of children emerge from the school system as illiterate hooligans. At the same time popular culture demeans the entry-level jobs and working class jobs that provide the best route to self-sufficiency, and promotes the culture of the slum as the epitome of cool (“It hurts, therefore I am”.).
Dalrymple, not surprizingly, is no fan of practitioners of the so-called social sciences (“How criminologists foster crime”). Their ideology blinds them to the facts, and bureaucratic rules prevent them from applying any judgment. The teenage who wants to stay in school but cannot live with alcoholic parents doesn’t get welfare (“Lost in the Ghetto”), while the sexually active girl ready to pop out a couple of illegitimate babies automatically becomes a minor domestic goddess in her own household (“The Rush from Judgment”). The academic social sciences, social work, education, police work, and therapy, are largely job opportunities for members of the middle class, largely ineffective in getting the underclass to change. But their ideology has provided the members of the underclass with a whole new language of victimization and excuses.
In this respect, I think he has reached the same conclusions as Rieff and Lasch about the therapeutic culture, the growth of the professional class, and the rise of egoism in popular culture.
Much of his work restates familiar conservative critiques of liberal ideology, popular culture and the politics of the welfare state, but he brings the force of direct experience and observation, and formidable writing skills into play. His arguments are based on common sense, and they reflect a sense of compassion and righteous anger (“And Dying thus around us every day”) rather than a sense of contempt towards the underclass.