Anyone seeking a short tour of Hell would do well to browse through Life at the Bottom, a harrowing journey through Great Britain’s underclass, courtesy of tour guide Theodore Dalrymple. A doctor who works in an urban hospital and prison, Dalrymple describes a misery that is all-encompassing and unending, wholly uncalled for, and relates to no material cause. Rather, it is caused by a set of attitudes, bequeathed to members of the underclass by their patrons in academe and government, which renders its members not only unable to grasp any opportunities that may come their way but also unable even to order their lives.
Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass
by Theodore Dalrymple
Ivan R. Dee
256 pages, $28
Somehow, shortly after World War II ended, a curious notion became popular among the intelligentsia: Man, shorn of cultural strictures, is inherently gentle and sweet. Now admittedly, human beings can often be good and are sometimes generous and brave beyond expectation. But it is also true that they have to be made thus, socialized so that the natural human tendencies toward aggression and ego are channeled into acceptable venues. The institutions that do these good deeds include schools, the church, and the family, which teach self-control and generosity.
Once socialized, most people turn out well, and some become wonderful. But in any community there is a subset that cannot be cured of its aggressive instincts, and that, for the public security, must be threatened, punished, and now and then confined. The elites ignored these truths; in the secular liberal playbook, all restraints were believed to be harmful, and the revolutionaries set about to undermine, one by one, the institutions and agents that help people succeed. The sexual revolution broke up the family; the therapeutic revolution broke up the school (it was felt to be unkind to let children know they were failing), and the culture of victimhood put law enforcement in chains.
The result? The veritable Hell of Dalrymple’s depiction, in which children are raised in unstable settings, sent off to schools that only confirm and extend their ignorance, and emerge unfit to participate in society. When the British welfare state snapped the last links between conduct and consequence—it is possible to live fairly well, having earned nothing—nothing was left to force the poor to shape up to protect themselves. And those who do not themselves become criminals are prey to those who rob and harass them at will.
Every dotty idea that ever wafted through the faculty lounge has come out in force in the lives of these people, creating the chaos Dalrymple sees over and over: “the same violence, the same neglect and abuse of children, the same broken relationships, the same victimization, by crime, the same nihilism, the same dumb despair.” The reformers thought it was wrong to pass judgment, wrong to have standards, wrong to have rules:
They saw their society as being so unjust that nothing in it was worth preserving, and they thought that all human unhappiness arose from the arbitrary and artificial fetters that their society placed on the satisfaction of appetite. . .. [E]ducation had to become a form of childish entertainment . . . and self-respect being radically incompatible with failure, the very idea of failure had to go.
Ignored, of course, was the universal fact that only through self-discipline, family discipline, and rigorous schooling did the poor ever rise to power and consequence and that the comforts and certainties of bourgeois existence frequently served as a lure. The elites despised these comforts, romanticized the meanness and squalor of slum life, and made war on the idea of free will. Did the intelligentsia see man as shaped and molded only by vast social forces? Dalrymple’s patients assume a locution of utter passivity—the knife “went in,” the gun “went off,” they were “driven” to drugs, alcohol, and sequential abusive relationships—with no sense of responsibility at all for their personal actions. Did liberals dream of a sexual dreamland, free of the hand of restraint and convention? Well, they have it: illegitimacy rates of 70 percent in the British slums, people drifting in and out of uncommitted and frequently violent “relationships,” and families that can’t be called “broken” only because they were never whole.
Worst of all was the incredible impact of the elitist view of crime. “If crime was a problem,” says Dalrymple in describing the liberal mindset,“it was only because an unjust society forced people into criminal activity, and therefore punishment constituted a double injustice, victimizing the real victim. By what right could an unjust society claim to impose its version of justice? Empathy and understanding were what was needed, provided they absolved the criminal of his responsibility.”
Standards of law enforcement that favor the criminal soon led to the conditions the author details, in which repeat criminals hold sway in the street with no fear of reprisal, burglarizing some people over and over, assaulting others when they step out of their doors. Meanwhile, the elites bask in their rectitude, the consequences of which they do not have to live with. As Dalrymple writes, “These liberals pride themselves on their tenderheartedness, but the warm glow it imparts to them comes at the expense of the poor, who as a practical consequence live in a torment of public and private disorder, which I have trembled to behold every day of the last ten years of my professional life.“
Does this sound familiar? It should. The arguments made—and the people who make them—are the same ones who have been clucking about jingoism and xenophobia since September 11. Behind a disdain for decisive military action and a disdain for decisive law enforcement lie the same theories. “It is, at base, the mere existence of the police that offends the liberal conscience,” Dalrymple tells us. “Their function is, after all, to defend the social order, and since the social order is widely held to be responsible for the poverty of the poor, it follows that the police are responsible in part for their poverty.” So up is down, black is white; the way to help people is to help them destroy themselves; and the way to end evil is always to encourage it.
Dalrymple’s book has attained a new urgency. Written to warn us of the great harm these people and their ghastly ideas have done to some of the poor people of Britain, it now warns us, if inadvertently, of the harm they would do the whole world.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard.