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Saturday, May 12, 2007
I have just finished reading Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass by Theodore Dalrymple. First, a bit about Dr. Dalrymple (or Anthony Daniels if you prefer his real name). He is an English writer and retired medical doctor and psychiatrist who spent his entire career working in slums all over the world, eventually ending up at a hospital and prison in England. He has seen the degradation of humanity as few have. He writes in Life at the Bottom of his recent experiences in England.

While I am not very good at book reviews, I will at least attempt at one with this book, as it is probably one of the most important books that have been written in the last 20 years. Or as Thomas Sowell said: "A classic for our times. It is as fundamental for understanding the world we live in as the three R's." Besides using wonderful prose and language that can't be found in any Tom Clancy novel, Dalrymple's topic is one of earnest importance. His premise: the impoverished in the developed Western world (Europe, America, etc.) are not thus because of economics but due completely to a worldview and value system created by the liberal intelligentsia (i.e. the intellectual elite). While liberal elite may have invented these ideas, it was left to the poor and underclass to live them out. And the whirlwind has been reaped. Life at the Bottom is a collection of Dr. Dalrymple's accounts of his experiences from the mid-90's to 2001. They are broken down into two sections; "Grim Reality," in which he describes in vivid and eye-opening detail what he has seen in the slums of England, and "Grimmer Theory," in which he discusses the ideas and worldviews (or Weltanschauung, as he calls it) that have helped to foster that "reality." One note: Dalrymple's stories and accounts are likely to seem a little unbelievable, but this is due to the likelihood that Britain is just 20 years ahead of America with the modern liberalism experiment.

Primarily, Dalrymple focuses on the complete lack of willingness within the underclass (or culture at large, for that matter) to take responsibility for one's own actions. Everyone seems to be suffering from an addiction or syndrome or mental disorder these days which, to some extent or another, negates their responsibility for their deeds. However, as the doctor repeatedly shows, most of these "addictions" are nothing more than the underclass adopting the terminology it has heard from the intellectual community and acting accordingly. So, to combat that, he calls for a level of "tough love" that few have the courage to mete out. For example, he constantly had domestically-abused women as patients who were blind to their own role in getting abused. They knew the men that were abusing them were violent and yet, the women would not press charges and usually went right back into the abusive relationship as soon as the broken bones had healed. So the doctor called them on it. Rather than allow them to wallow in their victimhood, he asked them simple questions which would, if they were ready to do so, make them admit their culpability in the abusive situation. Thus freed of their "victim" mentality, they could then take responsibility for their lives and leave the abusers.

The doctor also discusses the decline of esteem for manners and education and its role in making the underclass what it is today. The cause: moral relativism. Nothing is better or worse, just different. For example, Dalrymple writes that
Our educational practices are now so bizarre that they would defy the pen of a Jonathan Swift to satirize them. In the very large metropolitan area in which I work, for example, the teachers have received instructions that they are not to impart the traditional disciplines of spelling and grammar... to assert that there is a correct way of speaking or writing is to indulge in a kind of bourgeois [upper-class] cultural imperialism; and to tell children that they have got something wrong is necessarily to saddle them with a debilitating sense of inferiority from which they will never recover... I was told of one school where the teachers were allowed... to make corrections, but only five per piece of work, irrespective of the number actually present. This, of course, was to preserve the amour propre [self esteem] of the children, but it seemed not to have occurred that... [the] five-correction rule was likely to have unfortunate consequences. The teacher might choose to correct an error in the spelling of a word, for example, and overlook precisely the same error in the next piece of work. How is a child to interpret correction based on this principle?
After a few more accounts of this "grim reality," the doctor dives into the worldview (and its features) from which this cultural perversion was born. The first aspect he dissects: society's extremely damaging "rush from judgment."
Experience has taught me that it is wrong and cruel to suspend judgment, that nonjudgmentalism is at best indifference to the suffering of others, at worst a disguised form of sadism. How can one respect people as members of the human race unless one holds them to a standard of conduct and truthfulness? How can people learn from experience unless they are told that they can and should change? One doesn't demand of laboratory mice that they do better: but man is not a mouse, and I can think of no more contemptuous way of treating people than to ascribe to them no more responsibility than such mice.

In any case, nonjudgmentalism is not really nonjudgmental. It is the judgment that... everything is the same, nothing is better. This is as barbaric and untruthful a doctrine as has yet emerged from the fertile mind of man.
In the last few "chapters," the doctor discusses the causes of crime as they pertain to worldview and ideas. One aspect of this is the utter lack of appropriate (or any, for that matter) punishment for criminals in England, and the personal examples Dalrymple gives will make you seethe at the injustices mentioned. Lastly, he closes with a few words regarding the liberal intelligentsia's complete disregard of the evidence proving their societal theories and worldviews to be rubbish.
The answer is to be sought in the causative relationship between the ideas that liberal intellectuals advocated and put into practice and every disastrous social development of the last four decades. 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. So dazzled were they by their vision of perfection that they could not see the possibility of deterioration.

And so if family life was less than blissful, with all its inevitable little prohibitions, frustrations, and hypocrisies, they called for the destruction of the family as an institution... It resulted instead in widespread violence consequent upon sexual insecurity and in the mass neglect of children, as people became ever more egotistical in their search for momentary pleasure.

If liberal intellectuals recalled their childhood experiences of education as less than an unalloyed joy, education had to become a form of childish entertainment
And if crime was a problem, it was only because an unjust society forced people into criminal activity, and therefore punishment constituted a double injustice, victimizing the real victim.
Every liberal prescription worsened the problem that it was ostensibly designed to solve. But every liberal intellectual had to deny that obvious consequence or lose his Weltanschauung [worldview]: for what shall it profit an intellectual if he acknowledges a simple truth and lose his Weltanschauung? Let millions suffer so long as he can retain his sense of his own righteousness and moral superiority. Indeed, if millions suffer they are additional compassion fodder for him, and the more of their pain will he so generously feel.

And so the prescription is: more of the same. The Liberal Democrat Party, Britain's third party, which is dominated by the middle-class liberal intelligentsia and is gaining an unthinking popularity born of disillusionment with the government and of the patent incompetence of the official opposition, recently held its annual conference. And what were the most important proposals put forward there? The legal recognition of homosexual marriage and shorter prison sentences for criminals.

Nero was a committed firefighter by comparison.
What an amazingly powerful book! Read it. I am now on to reading his more recent book: Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses.


sarah said...

very interesting book review!
I have a feeling that I would probably agree with most of his determinations about the current situation, but disagree with his recommended response :-)

Darius said...

Because it is a compilation of essays, he doesn't really get into how to combat these problems except to tell us what he did in his own practice (tough love, etc.). It is truly a fantastic read, yet very eye-opening and sobering.

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Darius' book montage

The Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel The Main Thing
Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God
Overcoming Sin and Temptation
According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible
Disciplines of a Godly Man
Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem
When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Ourselves
The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Respectable Sins
The Kite Runner
Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak
Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak
A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, ... anabaptist/anglican, metho
Show Them No Mercy
The Lord of the Rings
Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass
The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception
Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming
The Chronicles of Narnia
Les Misérables

Darius Teichroew's favorite books »