“The lives, not only of men, but of commonwealths and the whole world, run not upon a helix that still enlargeth; but on a circle where, arriving at their meridian, they decline in obscurity, and fall under the horizon again.”
—Thomas Browne, Religio Medici I
There are few books I have read in recent years that I can more heartily recommend to Chronicles readers than Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline, the latest collection of essays by British physician and essayist Theodore Dalrymple (the pen name of Anthony Daniels). For many years, Dalrymple worked as a doctor in the Third World and the British penal system, where he came to disdain what liberalism had done to his country and made the journey to conservatism. Dalrymple brings his medical training to bear as he offers a grim diagnosis of the modern West, in general, and of his native Britain, in particular, a land Dalrymple left for France in 2006. But Dalrymple delivers his bad news in the best possible way, in clear, readable prose full of memorable phrases and sustained by deep and penetrating thought.
Dalrymple’s targets are many and well chosen: Steven Pinker’s reductionist critique of grammar, which he calls “characteristic of an intellectual climate in which the destruction of moral and social distinctions is proof of the very best intentions”; the “irredeemably adolescent” Voltaire; the plays of Henrik Ibsen, with their “elevation of emotion over principle, of inclination over duty, of rights over responsibilities, of ego over the claims of others, the impatience with boundaries and the promotion of the self as the measure of all things”; “the feverish vulgarity that for so many people in the modern world is the manifestation, prerequisite, and only meaning and value of freedom”; the new atheists and their “sloppiness and lack of intellectual scruple,” their “assumption of certainty where there is none,” and their “adolescent shrillness and intolerance”; “an aggressive popular culture that glorifies egotistical impulsivity and denigrates self-control,” including the rap music that “fills and empties the mind at the same time: fills it with debased notions and empties it of critical faculties”; multiculturalism, which rests on the “dishonest pretense . . . that all cultures are equal” and results in a “shared culture consisting of nothing but pop ephemera”; “the growth of the intellectual class whose livelihood depends on ceaseless carping,” especially in “an era that uncritically criticize[s] all institutions”; the belief that “any difference in economic and social outcome between groups is the result of social injustice,” a way of thinking that “can breed only festering embitterment”; an atmosphere in which “you can’t fail as a minority: you can only be failed by others”; and the “almost totalitarian uniformity of the sayable, imposed informally by right-thinking people in the name of humanity.” In sum, Dalrymple targets the leftism that grew in the West in the last century, whose stinking weeds have now all but overrun the garden of our civilization, leaving behind “the scores of millions who suffered and died in the twentieth century because of the destruction of moral boundaries” and bequeathing to us “a world in which the only freedom is self-indulgence.”
Dalrymple also sees many signs of what Sam Francis dubbed anarcho-tyranny. Britain has the highest rate of crime in the West, even though “the typical Briton finds himself recorded by security cameras three hundred times a day,” and “one new criminal offense was created every day except Sunday for ten years” during Tony Blair’s residence at Downing Street. But these new laws seek to restrict the freedom of law-abiding Britons, not to crack down on violent criminals who, indeed, are given a free rein by the police. Crimes like shoplifting have been decriminalized, and violent felons are soon released from prison so they can rob and rape and kill again. British police increasingly focus their attention on those violating the strictures of political correctness, such as the schoolgirl who was charged for asking to be reassigned to a study group where someone spoke English rather than Urdu, or the Oxford student who was arrested for asking a mounted policeman, “Excuse me, do you realize your horse is gay?” By contrast, when Dalrymple’s wife reported youths setting fire to a garbage dumpster, the police asked, “What do you expect us to do about it?” In today’s Britain, the “police do not devote attention to most real crimes, in which detection is difficult and very uncertain of success.” (This point was brought home in Danny Boyle’s delightful film Millions, in which a policeman tells residents of a suburb in the north of England that they should expect their homes to be robbed during Christmas, that they will never recover their property, and that the burglar will never be caught, but that they should call the police anyway so that they will be able to file an insurance claim.) And the British establishment is decidedly uninterested in hearing about this. A former parole officer, David Fraser, wrote A Land Fit for Criminals, in which he detailed the ways in which “liberal intellectuals and their bureaucratic allies have left no stone unturned to ensure that the law-abiding should be left as defenseless as possible against the predations of criminals.” Fraser’s book was turned down by 60 publishers, in a land that publishes 10,000 books per month. It did not become a best-seller until it was accepted by the 61st publisher, whose stepson had been murdered by a “drug-dealing Jamaican immigrant.” The murderer was not deported; he received an eight-year prison term, which means that he will be out in four or five years. (His defense attorney argued that the murderer had been a “victim of racial prejudice,” which was accepted as a mitigating factor.)
Anarcho-tyranny is not the only problem in modern Britain. Dalrymple presents Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange as “socially prophetic” and sees aspects of Burgess’s dystopia in today’s Britain, where “adults now routinely look away as youngsters commit anti-social acts in public, for fear of being knifed if they do otherwise” and “aggressive young drunks . . . congregate by the thousands in every British town or city on a Saturday night.” Higher up the social scale, Dalrymple sees reflections of the dark vision of the late British writer J.G. Ballard, a novelist “who first spotted that the bourgeoisie wanted to proletarianize itself without losing its economic privileges or political power.” Ballard’s work also suggests that “absent a transcendent purpose, material affluence is not sufficient—and may lead to boredom, perversity, and self-destruction.” The consequences of such empty affluence are profound:
The privatization of morality is so complete that no code of conduct is generally accepted, save that you should do what you can get away with; sufficient unto the day is the pleasure thereof. Nowhere in the civilized world has civilization gone so fast and so far into reverse as [in Britain].
Dalrymple also gives evidence that he is a true conservative, not a classical liberal. One of the few heroes in his book is Samuel Johnson, who knew that
most men, instead of reasoning from first principles on all occasions, need the aid of the accumulated wisdom of custom, precept, and prejudice most of the time if they are to live a moral life in reasonable harmony and happiness with one another.
In his discussion of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Dalrymple faces the fact that the social and cultural decline of Britain has continued apace during the economic liberalization that began with Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, although postwar Britain ignored Hayek until the Iron Lady came to power,
at no time could it remotely be said that Britain was slipping down the totalitarian path. The real danger was far more insidious, and Hayek incompletely understood it. The destruction of the British character did not come from Nazi- or Soviet-style nationalization or central planning, as Hayek believed it would. For collectivism proved to be not nearly as incompatible with, or diametrically opposed to, a free, or free-ish, market as he had supposed.
Instead, the danger was foreseen by Hilaire Belloc in The Servile State: a society in which the means of production remain in private hands but where the state compensates for the vicissitudes of capitalism by a growing plethora of programs until “the people lose ‘that tradition . . . of freedom, and are most powerfully inclined to [the acceptance] of [their servile status] by the positive benefits it confers.’” Thus, the British have replaced their traditional independence with
passivity, querulousness, or even . . . a sullen resentment that not enough has been or is being done for them. . . . Private property and consumerism coexist with collectivism, and freedom for many people now means little more than a choice among goods.
Although he is not a religious believer, Dalrymple also makes a conservative case against the new atheists, noting that “To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy.” With Pascal, he believes that “The heart has its reasons that reason knows not of,” and Dalrymple states that the attempt “to find a way of life based entirely on reason . . . leads at best to Gradgrind and at worst to Stalin.” He observes that the new atheists, despite their professed beliefs, cannot help but use teleological language in their writings, since “Metaphysics is like nature: though you throw it out with a pitchfork, it always returns,” and he concludes that their attempt to convince others that man is nothing more than a biological accident, acting out his evolutionary impulses in a cold, meaningless universe, is dangerous:
If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency.
Dalrymple remains too optimistic about the prospect of assimilating large numbers of non-Western immigrants, and he cannot quite bring himself to tie Britain’s secularization to her manifest decay. But these are quibbles. If the West is to recover from the many maladies Dalrymple so ably describes, part of the cure will be an acceptance of the unfashionable truths he tells in this remarkable collection of essays.
[Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline, by Theodore Dalrymple (London: Monday Books) 368 pp., $26.95]