All because of a failure of nerve

Monday, June 19th, 2017

Theodore Dalrymple was recently accosted by a canvasser for the local Labour Party candidate:

The canvasser was a pleasant lady, and I stopped to discuss educational policy with her. Both main political parties think that more money should be allocated to schools. I said that I did not believe that the abysmally low level of education and culture in much of the country was caused by a lack of money. We spend, on average, $100,000 on a child’s education and yet an uncomfortably large proportion of our children leave school with reading and math skills below those stipulated for 11-year-olds. Moreover, the proportion of such people has remained more or less constant for the last 40 years, despite vastly increased expenditure. The problem, therefore, is not lack of funds, as the canvasser’s party pretended that it was, but something much deeper and harder to solve.

The canvasser was a retired teacher who had taken her retirement as soon as she was able, largely because of the immense number of irrelevant, time-consuming, boring, and intellectually dishonest bureaucratic procedures imposed upon teachers — procedures funded, as it happens, by the increases in education spending.

It also so happened that her daughter was a teacher but had quit after an unpleasant incident. She had given a 14-year-old boy a punishment for bad behavior — he was to stay in school for an extra hour. That night, the boy’s 19-year-old brother came to the teacher’s house and began to smash her car. She was frightened and called the police, who removed the perpetrator from the scene but otherwise did nothing — because, of course, nothing would have been done higher up the criminal- justice chain had they done something: so why bother?

The canvasser’s daughter did not return to teaching. She had undergone what psychologists call one-trial learning. She had taken the opportunity to get a master’s degree and find employment within the educational bureaucracy, into which no misbehaving child might obtrude.

I mentioned that many teachers who had been patients of mine had told me that if they complained to parents of their children’s behavior, the parents blamed the teachers and even became aggressive toward them. This was true in her experience, too, said the teacher.

We agreed, therefore, that there was a profound cultural and moral malaise in the country. The clear implication was that it had nothing whatever to do with insufficient government spending. The schools don’t teach and the police don’t protect, all because of a failure of nerve. We parted amicably, I to my shopping, she to canvassing on behalf of a political party that maintains that all problems arise from lack of government expenditure, problems that will somehow be solved by taxing the rich.

What tears the mask off the face of the past

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

No one who reads Qutb’s Milestones could doubt that the destruction of ancient monuments is perfectly in keeping with Islamist thought, Theodore Dalrymple says:

It was one of the founding texts of modern Islamic fundamentalism (if that is not an oxymoron) and is worth studying not for itself but for the light it sheds on a certain mentality, namely that of Moslems who believe themselves in possession of the highest truth yet find themselves permanently sunk in moral, economic and social squalor.

The book breathes hatred or contempt for all that is not Islamic and is a kind of Islamo-Trotskyist call to permanent revolution until the whole world accepts Islam:

When Islam strives for peace, its objective is not that superficial peace which requires that only that part of the earth where the followers of Islam are residing remains secure. The peace which Islam desires is that the religion (i.e. the Law of the society) be purified for God, that the obedience of all people be for God alone…

And since Islam is the one true religion, it follows that real as against pseudo- peace necessitates the acceptance everywhere of Islam. Just as Trotsky did not believe in socialism in one country, so Qutb did not believe in Islam in one country (and Trotsky was a much better writer that Qutb, of course).

Qutb makes it quite clear that no consideration at all is due the polytheists, against whom a merciless war not only could, but must, be fought. Moreover, in his view, all that existed before Islam was mere jahiliyyah, ignorance. These are not the kind of ideas propitious to the preservation of ancient monuments, to put it mildly.

Dalrymple contrasts this against Lord Curzon’s speech to the Royal Asiatic Society in Bengal in 1900:

If there be any one who says to me that there is no duty devolving upon a Christian Government to preserve the monuments of a pagan art or the sanctuaries of an alien faith, I cannot pause to argue with such a man. Art and beauty, and the reverence that is owing to all that has evoked human genius or has inspired human faith, are independent of creeds, and, in so far as they touch the sphere of religion, are embraced by the common religion of all mankind. Viewed from this standpoint, the rock temple of the Brahmans stands on precisely the same footing as the Buddhist Vihara, and the Mohammedan Musjid as the Christian Cathedral. There is no principle of artistic discrimination between the mausoleum of the despot and he sepulchre of the saint. What is beautiful, what is historic, what tears the mask off the face of the past and helps us to read its riddles and to look it in the eyes — these, and not the dogmas of a combative theology, are the principal criteria to which we must look.

Beguiled by Europe

Monday, March 18th, 2013

We are building in Europe not a United States, but a Yugoslavia, Theodore Dalrymple says:

We shall be lucky to escape violence when it breaks apart.

I passed over the fact that Europe is, so far, the consequence of peace, and not its cause; that multilateral agreements between countries have always been possible without the erection of giant and corrupt bureaucratic apparatuses that weigh like a peine forte et dure on most Western European economies; that the maintenance of peace does not require or depend upon regulating the size of bananas sold in the marketplace; and that the notion that were it not for the European Union, there would be war, is inherently Germanophobic — because no one believes, for instance, that Estonia would otherwise attack Slovenia, or Portugal Slovakia.

It always seems strange to me that in Belgium, of all countries, people should be unable to see the European Union’s dangers. After all, the country is composed of only two main national communities — the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish — and the division between the two is now sharper than at any previous time, to such an extent that the country recently had no government for more than 500 days. (Honesty compels me to admit that Belgium seems to have come to no great harm during that period.) No one in Belgium explains, or even asks, why what has not proved possible for 189 years — full national integration of just two groups sharing so much historical experience and a tiny fragment of territory — should be achievable on a vastly larger scale with innumerable national groups, many of which have deeply ingrained and derogatory stereotypes of one another.

I also pointed out that “Europe” lacks almost all political legitimacy, which will make it impossible to resolve real and growing differences. The results of the subsequent Italian general election — wherein two anti-European demagogues collected between them more than half of the votes — would seem to confirm my prognostication. Anti-German feeling runs high in Italy, and not only there. Matters weren’t much improved by the insensitive remarks of the German minister of labor in a recent edition of Der Spiegel, to the effect that the ongoing economic crisis is lucky for Germany because, with high youth unemployment elsewhere on the continent — 50 percent in Spain, for example — young people, especially the best-qualified, will increasingly seek jobs in Germany. “And that,” she said, “will rejuvenate the country, making it more creative and international.” In other words, the continent’s high unemployment is the solution to Germany’s demographic decline.

Silly Questions

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

Theodore Dalrymple discusses silly questions:

When I was a small boy adults used to say to me, ‘If you ask a silly question you’ll get a silly answer.’ This irritated my nascent sense of logic: for if I genuinely did not know the answer to my question, how could I possibly be expected to know that it was silly? And could anything be silly in the absence of knowledge that it was? This was my childish equivalent of Socrates’ or Plato’s doctrine that no one does wrong willingly: a doctrine that does not accord with my clinical experience as a doctor, let alone with my experience of life. But at the time, the accusation of silliness seemed to me worse than merely wrong: it was unjust. I did not appreciate at that age that there could be such a thing as a responsibility to know, even if one did not.

One of silliest questions I have ever heard, and heard often, is why some or many countries are poor. This is to get everything exactly the wrong way round, as if Man were born rich and had somehow to achieve poverty. Of course, it is possible for those who were formerly rich to become poor, for example by improvidence or the spoliation of others; but immemorial poverty requires no explanation. It is wealth that needs explaining, mankind not having been born in marble halls with a silver spoon in its mouth.

I once bought a slender volume entitled Why Bad Dogs? This set out to explain why some dogs barked incessantly, bit the postman, wouldn’t walk to heel and so forth. I am such a dog-lover that I find it difficult to put myself in the place of those who dislike dogs, but still I wondered whether the question asked by the title was the correct one. Dog-lover as I am, I am not the Rousseau of dogs; I do not think that canine nature, untouched by association with humans, is good; and if I were writing the Social Contract for Dogs, I should not begin ‘Dogs are born good, but everywhere they bark.’

Modern French Architecture

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

Theodore Dalrymple is not in favour of the guillotine — except prophylactically for modern French architects:

They should, of course, be given the choice between the guillotine and the fate of the architects of St Basil’s Cathedral and the Taj Mahal. The latter had their eyes put out so that they would not build anything as beautiful again. Modern French architects should have their eyes put out, but for precisely the opposite reason. They do not use them anyway.

Just as in England you cannot bring up the question of public drunkenness without someone piping up about Gin Lane, as if nothing had happened in England between 1740 and 2010, so you cannot mention the depredations of modern French architects without someone mentioning Baron Haussmann who, at the behest of Louis Napoleon, refashioned a lot of Paris, in the process pulling down a huge number of ancient buildings, mainly so that troops could take easy pot-shots at revolutionary rabbles gathering in the new boulevards. Whether the Haussmannian reconfiguration of Paris was a good thing or not, an important, indeed vital, distinction between him and modern French architects is that he not only had taste but humanity, in the sense that he knew what a civilised urban life consisted of and required. He didn’t pull down old Paris in order to build Rostov-on-Don or Pyongyang.

Words and phrases have hinterlands

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Words and phrases have hinterlands, Theodore Dalrymple says:

In the late 1970s, people in Britain who received money from social security would say ‘I get my giro on Friday.’ (The giro was in effect a cheque.) Nowadays, however, they almost always say ‘I get paid on Friday.’

This new form of words is very revealing, and signifies (to adapt slightly a Gramscian formulation) the long march of dependence through the mentalities: for to get paid, in normal parlance, is to receive money in return for something that one has done for another person or entity. What is it, then, that they are paid for having done? The answer is and can only be: for having continued to exist since the receipt of the last money.

Let me add, lest I should be misunderstood, that I do not consider the position of people who are in this position of dependence to be enviable. Often not of the highest intelligence, they have been badly educated by the state and then supplied with, one might almost say contemptuously tossed, a bare material sufficiency; if they work they are scarcely better off than if they do not, for their labour is worth hardly more to any possible employer than the subventions they already receive. Their only luxury is time, oceans of it. It is not to be wondered at that they lack self-respect, that they self-destruct, that their choices are often of a fantastically unwise nature, for nothing much hangs on them except the most immediate consequences. They have seen the future, and it is more of the same.

My point, however, is that the language that they use is an important clue, or entry, into their mentality. In the 1970s, the term ‘I get my giro’ was a neutral description of a fact; it did not imply that the receipt of the giro was in return for anything. Thirty years later, continuing to exist, that is to say not having died, had become existentially equivalent (for people in this state of dependence) or even superior to going out to work and earning a living. Such a state of mind is not conducive to individual effort: the man who goes out to work five or six days a week and is no better off than such a person, but does so in the mere hope of bettering himself or even just to retain his self-respect, is more likely to be seen as a fool rather than a hero or someone worthy of imitation.

Perhaps it is inevitable that large-scale, de-industrialising societies will result in a class of people such as I have described, essentially paupers whose pauperisation is at a much higher standard of living than that of Victorian paupers because of the vast increase in our overall productivity and wealth; perhaps any alternative, for example a nearly complete absence of any form of subvention to the unemployed, would be worse (more than one opinion is possible on this subject, and it is almost always possible for situations to get worse as well as better).

What I think it illegitimate to doubt, however, is that there is a mentality of dependence brought about by the current system, at least in Britain; and that the things that they say — such as ‘I get paid on Friday,’ and I could cite other locutions — virtually proves it. Words and phrases have hinterlands.

Time Past

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Theodore Dalrymple looks back:

From time to time, for reasons that I cannot explain, an episode returns to me from when I was almost sixteen. I was hitch-hiking in Scotland with a French friend; it now seems almost incredible that two boys of such an age should have been allowed by their parents to fend for themselves in this fashion, when communications were so much more difficult. We had a tent, and camped by the side of the road wherever we were when night fell. It wasn’t comfortable – tents in those days were not the suburban home from home that they are now – and many a time the rain leaked through the canvas because we had touched it on the inside, which meant that we lived in a state of chronic dampness. We thought nothing of it.

In those innocent days, it never crossed our mind that those who picked us up might harm us, or the minds of those who picked us up that we might harm them. When we arrived late one night in a northern English industrial town and could find no accommodation we went to the police station where we were allowed to stay overnight in the cells; in the morning the police brought us bread and tea. How gentle the world seemed then, when people trusted one another!

This is a reminder that wealth and its consequent increased range of consumer choice (which have increased enormously since then) are not the same as freedom tout court: youngsters today do not have the freedom that we had, when no one thought it was negligent of parents to allow us to do what we did. Whether the anxiety of parents that would prevent them from allowing children to do as we did is objectively justified by the condition of the world, or whether the manacles are mind-forged is beside the point: an important freedom has declined greatly.

There’s more to that story. He concludes that paternalism has its place — which leads him to this story:

I have an example in my own family history of a surgeon who acted in a way that would now be deemed ethically reprehensible, and perhaps even actionable, but which seems to me to have been in the very highest tradition of his profession. His name was Cox, and I don’t know whether he is still alive: by now he would be very old. I thanked him insufficiently at the time.

I was in Africa when I telephoned my mother (by no means the easy thing to do then that it is nowadays). She was about to go to America on a visit, but she told me that she had been bleeding intestinally. I told her she must abandon her visit and see a surgeon at once, which she did.

It was cancer; she underwent an operation within the week. I returned home before the operation.

My mother said that she wanted nothing hidden from her; she wanted to be told everything, and made me promise that I would hide nothing. She exuded a kind of pride in her own rationality.

After the operation, the surgeon spoke to me. Whether he was franker with me than he would have been with a son who was not a doctor I do not know; but he told me that, while he had excised all the cancerous tissue that he could see macroscopically, histology demonstrated that my mother’s prognosis was very bad. There was an eighty per cent chance of recurrence within a year.

I told the surgeon that my mother had made me promise that I would tell her everything. The surgeon said that, on his estimate of my mother’s character and personality, this would not be a good idea. He advised me against this course of action; and since he was clearly a man of experience and integrity, I took his advice.

My mother asked me, when she had recovered sufficiently from the operation, what the surgeon had said. I told her that, as far as he could see, he had cut out all the cancerous tissue. This was the truth, but of course not the whole truth, and I rather dreaded further questions, to which I might have to reply with outright lies: and I might not prove to be a very convincing liar. My mother was perfectly well aware that removing all cancerous tissue to the naked eye was not the whole of the matter, but to my surprise – and relief – she enquired no further. Despite her protestations beforehand, she did not want to know everything.

In the event, she lived another nineteen years without recurrence and relatively free of anxiety about her cancer because the surgeon had ‘cut it all out.’

I was very impressed by the surgeon. It seemed to me then, and seems to me still, that he had acted as the very model of a fine medical practitioner. He was technically accomplished, it goes without saying; the operation went smoothly, with no avoidable complications. But more than that, he had given consideration to my mother as a person, as a human being; and on the basis of limited acquaintance with her – at most, a few examinations in the clinic – he had come to a shrewd and, I believe, accurate assessment of what was best for her, better indeed than my assessment. Surgeons are often accused of being brash, mere technicians without human subtlety, but this was certainly not the case with him.

From the standpoint of modern medical ethics, he committed two cardinal sins: he broke medical confidentiality and he was not entirely truthful with his patient. If he had acted in accordance with modern precepts, or obsessions, he would have done neither; with the peculiar result that, if he had acted ethically, he would have acted worse.

British Degeneracy on Parade

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

I was waiting for Theodore Dalrymple to weigh in on the British degeneracy on parade in his homeland:

The ferocious criminality exhibited by an uncomfortably large section of the English population during the current riots has not surprised me in the least. I have been writing about it, in its slightly less acute manifestations, for the past 20 years. To have spotted it required no great perspicacity on my part; rather, it took a peculiar cowardly blindness, one regularly displayed by the British intelligentsia and political class, not to see it and not to realize its significance. There is nothing that an intellectual less likes to change than his mind, or a politician his policy.

The Guzman Parallel

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Theodore Dalrymple draws some parallels between Osama bin Laden and Abimael Guzmán of the Maoist Shining Path of Peru:

Had it attained power (which looked quite possible at one point), Guzmán’s movement would have produced a Khmer Rouge–type catastrophe on a much larger scale than in Cambodia. Guzmán was captured in a comfortable house in the capital city, Lima, virtually under the eyes of the Peruvian military and government.

The two leaders remind us that it is not a lack of personal opportunity that drives men to found and lead large-scale terrorist movements that claim to be working toward the perfection of the world. Guzmán, true, was not the son of a billionaire, like bin Laden, but as a professor of philosophy he could hardly claim to have been one of his country’s downtrodden: rather, he was on the fringes of its elite. Guzmán’s movement was every bit as millenarian as bin Laden’s. More than any other factor, unbounded egotism drove both men, a fear of personal insignificance. You can’t inscribe yourself on world history by writing about Kant (Guzmán) or by continuing daddy’s construction business (bin Laden).

Of course, Guzmán was caught (and not killed) by the armed forces of the country where he was hiding, not by those of a foreign power. Nor was his millenarian movement in practice quite as multi-national as al-Qaida’s, though it had forged links with the PKK of Turkey and had ambitions every bit as great — and ridiculous — as al-Qaida’s. More importantly, the Shining Path’s collapse was almost total after Guzmán’s capture, thanks to the fanatical personality cult he had engendered and encouraged; no such collapse of al-Qaida, unfortunately, is likely now that bin Laden is dead.

But the parallels remain. Anyone who reads one of the formative intellectual influences on bin Laden, Sayyid Qutb, will be struck by how much he appears to be reading a mildly theologized Lenin or even Nechaev, the ruthless nineteenth-century Russian psychopath. Qutb is distinctly this-worldly, more exercised by politics than by the state of his, or anyone else’s, soul. He pours secular hatreds into a theological vessel; and in a way, bin Laden’s appearance bore this connection out. He was half Mohammed, half flak jacket and AK-47. It was a toxic combination.

How the Irish Bubble Burst

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

If you want to study the economic crisis of the last few years, Theodore Dalrymple says, go to Ireland, where you will find it in its purest form:

The madness that gripped the country can be gauged from a few examples. A 25-acre piece of land on the edge of Dublin on which a derelict factory stood sold in 2006 for $550 million. After the banking collapse two years later, it was valued by the National Asset Management Administration, the public-sector organization set up to handle the banks’ toxic assets, at $80 million, a sum itself arbitrary in the absence of a flourishing market.

The Anglo-Irish Bank, which eventually collapsed and left taxpayers a legacy of approximately $40 billion of debt, lent an average of $1.7 billion to each of six property developers; it lent more than $650 million each to another nine. A house in Shrewsbury Road, Dublin, sold for $80 million in 2005 but, now standing empty, is on the way to dereliction, and no house on the road — a millionaires’ row — has sold for the last two years, despite a fall in prices of at least 66 percent.

During the boom, taxi drivers and shop assistants would tell you about the third or fourth house they had bought — on borrowed money, of course — and of their apartments in Europe, from Malaga to Budapest to the Black Sea Coast of Bulgaria. It was not so much a boom as a gold rush, or a modern reenactment of the Tulipomania.

All this would not have been possible were it not for the insouciance of foreign banks. The Royal Bank of Scotland alone lent $50 billion in Ireland. German banks extended $140 billion in credit and the British banks as much again. The champions, on a per capita basis, were the Belgians, weighing in at $57 billion. (The cautious Americans lent only $70 billion.)

The gross external debt of Ireland is just a fraction less than half a million dollars per head, that is to say, more than $2 trillion in total. It is not difficult to see why a rescue was needed, or who was being rescued: not the Irish, but all of us.


Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

It’s nice to know that the world is drawing closer together, Theodore Dalrymple says:

When I saw pictures of the young rioters in Tunisia and Algeria, I thought I was looking at pictures of young rioters in England or France. The Tunisian and Algerian rioters made the same gestures as their Western European counterparts — perhaps there are not all that many ways to riot — and dressed in precisely the same fashion, that is to say, in international slum-youth costume. It’s nice to know that the world is drawing closer together.

Different as the societies of the Maghreb and Western Europe might at first appear to be, they share at least some important features — for example, high rates of youth unemployment — and for the same reasons. In fact, when one considers that about half of the population of Tunisia and Algeria is under 25, it is possible that they do better than European countries such as Spain, France, and Britain in absorbing young people into the labor market.

Societies on both sides of the Mediterranean suffer from what one might call diplomatosis. This dangerous disease is caused by the assumption that, since a modern economy requires educated people, the more educated people it can call upon — as measured by the average number of years in school — the more productive that economy will be. On this view, education is in itself the motor of growth, and the demand for educated labor will automatically keep up with, if not outstrip, the supply.

The story of the young Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi, whose suicidal self-immolation was the spark that set Tunisia aflame, is instructive. He was 26 and had a degree in computer science. Like 200,000 other university graduates in Tunisia (in a population of 10 million), he could not find a job. He then tried selling fruits and vegetables from a stall. However, he did not have bureaucratic permission to do this — such permission being bestowed by other university graduates, lucky or well-connected enough to have found jobs in the public-sector bureaucracy. The police constantly harassed him because he didn’t have the requisite licenses. It is said that he set fire to himself when a policeman spat in his face.

No policy could be more dangerous, more certain ultimately to produce a social explosion, than to educate young people for many years and deny them first the opportunity to earn a living that they believe is commensurate with their education, and then the opportunity to earn a living at all. But this is the policy that many countries persist in following on both sides of the Mediterranean.

This is also one of Peter Turchin’s points, that having too many elites leads to instability.

What’s Really Wrong with WikiLeaks

Friday, December 10th, 2010

Theodore Dalrymple offers his unusual take on what’s really wrong with WikiLeaks:

The idea behind WikiLeaks is that life should be an open book, that everything that is said and done should be immediately revealed to everybody, that there should be no secret agreements, deeds, or conversations. In the fanatically puritanical view of WikiLeaks, no one and no organization should have anything to hide. It is scarcely worth arguing against such a childish view of life.

The actual effect of WikiLeaks is likely to be profound and precisely the opposite of what it supposedly sets out to achieve. Far from making for a more open world, it could make for a much more closed one. Secrecy, or rather the possibility of secrecy, is not the enemy but the precondition of frankness. WikiLeaks will sow distrust and fear, indeed paranoia; people will be increasingly unwilling to express themselves openly in case what they say is taken down by their interlocutor and used in evidence against them, not necessarily by the interlocutor himself. This could happen not in the official sphere alone, but also in the private sphere, which it works to destroy. An Iron Curtain could descend, not just on Eastern Europe, but over the whole world. A reign of assumed virtue would be imposed, in which people would say only what they do not think and think only what they do not say.

The dissolution of the distinction between the private and public spheres was one of the great aims of totalitarianism. Opening and reading other people’s e-mails is not different in principle from opening and reading other people’s letters. In effect, WikiLeaks has assumed the role of censor to the world, a role that requires an astonishing moral grandiosity and arrogance to have assumed. Even if some evils are exposed by it, or some necessary truths aired, the end does not justify the means.

Modernity’s Uninvited Guest

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Theodore Dalrymple is fascinated by evil and by books that feature the word “evil” in the title, like Soame Jenyns’ A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, which was first published anonymously in 1756. Dalrymple considers evil to be modernity’s uninvited guest:

For Jenyns, as for all writers of his time, the word “evil” conveyed something much wider than it does today. It meant all that caused mankind suffering. It included “moral evil” — extreme human wickedness — but also “natural evil,” the suffering brought about by epidemics, earthquakes, droughts, floods, and the like. It is not surprising that the word should have undergone a change of meaning, for in the intervening period the proportion of human suffering caused by moral, as against natural, evil has increased dramatically, thanks to our growing mastery of nature. When Jenyns wrote, for example, half of all children died, principally from infectious disease, before they reached the age of five; the causes of every known disease remained utterly mysterious, notwithstanding the pedantic flummery of the epoch’s physicians.

A Free Enquiry appeared the year after the Lisbon earthquake, which killed some 30,000 people and destroyed in five minutes what it had taken centuries to build. The earthquake caused a philosophical crisis throughout Europe, for it was difficult to see the divine justice in this catastrophe, visited alike upon the virtuous and the vicious, the provident and the improvident, the humble and the proud. Earthquakes still happen, of course, but their effects have become attenuated in countries where many people are rich, educated, or leisured enough to worry about the origin of evil. The recent Chilean earthquake, many times more severe than its predecessor in Haiti, killed under half of 1 percent as many people because of Chile’s farsighted precautions against earthquakes. We have reached the stage when the harm done by what once would have been called acts of God seems as much the effect of moral as of natural evil.
The Enlightenment held out the hope that with enough of this “proper study,” man would come to know himself sufficiently to eliminate the evil and suffering that had always beset his existence. Man would obtain something like a Newtonian knowledge not only of the universe but of himself, with all the predictive and mechanical advantages that such understanding had brought in the study of inanimate nature.

And in a certain sense, the promise of the Enlightenment has been triumphantly fulfilled in our modern societies—surely as regards natural evil. Thanks to rational inquiry, to take but one instance, the infant-mortality rate since Jenyns wrote has fallen 98 percent. We live lives cleaner, more comfortable, and freer from pain than those of any people who have ever existed. Nobody today has to endure one-hundredth of the physical tortures, brought by illness and the efforts to treat it, that Philip II of Spain and Charles II of England had to endure.

Nor can one say that no moral advance occurred because of the Enlightenment. Just as we are freer from disease, so, too, our mental lives are freer. Of course, dictatorships over thought still exist in the world, but they are on the defensive and have come to seem somehow unnatural. Freedom is now the default setting of human thought. No one can tell us what to think, say, or write, at least not without our consent.

But an uninvited guest has arrived at this banquet of human advancement: evil. Whether men behave better or worse, individually or in the aggregate, than they did before the Enlightenment, is probably a question that we cannot answer approximately, let alone definitively. But what is certain is that moral evil has not only failed to disappear but has taken on a more deliberate, calculated character. Whereas the torturers of Damiens did their evil unself-consciously because it was the natural or preordained thing to do, modern evil is done after intellectual reflection, divorced from any tradition that might guide conduct.

The two greatest moral catastrophes of the twentieth century, wrought by Lenin and Hitler, were perverse effects of the Enlightenment. Lenin and Hitler were creatures of the Enlightenment not in the sense that they were enlightened, of course, but in the sense that they believed they had the right and the duty to act in accordance with their own unaided deductions from their own first principles. Everything else they regarded as sentimentality. Lenin preached no mercy to the non-proletarian, Hitler none to the Jew. The truth of their theories, supposedly rational and indubitable, was more evident to them, more real in their minds, than the millions killed as a consequence of those theories. If a syllogism ended in a command to commit unspeakable evil, you did not doubt the premises or the argument but obeyed the command.

Mumbai’s The Word

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

After the terrorist attack on Mumbai a few years ago, William Dalrymple asserted in The Observer that the well-dressed, clean-shaven killers were thoughtfully fighting oppression:

These were not poor, madrasah-educated Pakistanis from the villages, brainwashed by mullahs, but angry and well-educated, middle-class kids furious at the gross injustice they perceive being done to Muslims by Israel, the US, the UK and India in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kashmir respectively.

It’s pretty clear now that the killers were poor, madrasah-educated Pakistanis from the villages, brainwashed by mullahs.

Theodore Dalrymple, no relation to William, doesn’t make that point.  Instead he takes issue with the shock and surprise that violent guerrillas would be well off:

The assumption underlying this surprise is that there is some direct connection between poverty and ignorance on the one hand, and extreme political violence or terrorism on the other. Well-to-do people are not driven to the desperation of terrorism. And this view, it seems to me, genuinely implies an almost total absence of knowledge of world history, to say nothing of an inability to make fairly obvious connections.

Although I am not an historian, it has long seemed to me that some acquaintance with the history of Nineteenth Century Russia is absolutely crucial to understanding the modern world, for it was there that the various forms of modern revolutionary terrorism, and politics as the pursuit of an ideological end, first developed. And the first terrorists were certainly not downtrodden peasants brainwashed by religious or other leaders: they were either aristocrats suffering angst at their own privilege in the midst of poverty, or members of the newly-emerged middle classes, angry that their education had not resulted in the influence in society to which they thought themselves entitled by virtue of their intelligence, idealism and knowledge.

This pattern has been repeated over and over again. Latin America is a very good example. Castro was the spoilt son of a self-made millionaire who had a personal grudge against society because he was illegitimate and sometimes humiliated for it; in other words, he was both highly privileged, with a sense of entitlement, and deeply resentful, always a dreadful combination. Ernesto Guevara was of partially aristocratic descent, whose upbringing was that of a bohemian bourgeois, who was too egotistical and lacking in compassion for individual human beings to accept the humdrum discipline of medical practice.

The leaders of the guerrilla movement in Guatemala (a country, oddly, with many parallels to Nineteenth Century Russia) were of bourgeois and educated origin; one of them was the son of a Nobel-prize winner, not exactly a true social representative of the population. The leader and founder of Sendero Luminoso of Peru, a movement of the Pol Pot tendency (and Pol Pot himself, of course, studied in Paris), was a professor of philosophy, and his followers were the first educated generation of the peasantry, not the peasants themselves. Peasants are capable of uprisings, no doubt, even very bloody ones, but they do not elaborate ideologies or undergo training for attacks on distant targets.

From what I can tell, the actual attackers were poor and desperate — in some cases sold into Lashkar-e-Taiba — while their handlers matched Theodore Dalrymple’s description of guerrilla leaders.

Poisoned By Celebrity

Friday, August 27th, 2010

In his work as a doctor in a prison, Theodore Dalrymple came across a number of poisoners, who tended to be more interesting as a group than other murderers. Dalrymple shares the story of one famous English poisoner:

A man called Graham Young poisoned several people, some to death and others only to near-death, in the 1960s and 70s in England without any pecuniary motive, indeed without any obvious motive at all, starting when he was thirteen or fourteen years of age. Among his victims (who did not die) were his father and his sister. It is probable that he poisoned his step-mother (who was devoted to him) to death.

His sister, Winifred Young, who was eight years older than he, and whom he had tried to poison, wrote a book about him, published in 1973 entitled Obsessive Poisoner. It is a remarkable book in several ways, and not only because there can have been few memoirs by people who survived attempted poisonings. It is a valuable document of social history, for it implicitly records a period of great cultural change, not only in Britain but I suspect throughout the world.

Graham Young was born in 1947, to parents of the aspiring lower middle class. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was very young, and his father re-married in 1950, to the woman whom he was almost certainly to poison to death nearly twelve years later.

From an early age, Graham Young showed marked peculiarities. He did not make friends easily, or at all, and in so far as he sought out the company of other human beings it was of people considerably older than himself. He was almost emotionless, apart from a love of dogs. He was highly intelligent and looked down on people who were less intelligent than he, which was most people, but, while good at his schoolwork, was not perseverent in subjects that did not interest him. From about the age of eleven he displayed an obsessive interest in two subjects: the Nazis and poisons. He talked about them incessantly. One of his great heroes was Dr William Palmer, who was known as the Prince of Poisoners, who is suspected of having poisoned a great many of his close relations and friends in the 1850s for financial reasons.

He put belladonna in his sister’s tea in 1961, which she was prepared, out of an inability to imagine evil of her brother, to believe was an accident.

Their stepmother died in 1962 of symptoms that, in retrospect, were compatible with thallium poisoning. He put thallium in a sandwich that her brother-in-law ate at the post-funeral collation.

At the same time, Graham Young administered antimony to his father and to a friend of his, so-called, at school, as well as his ‘favourite’ aunt. With horrible cunning, he sought to console them as they suffered from what he had given them, as he had consoled his dying stepmother.

The penny finally dropped, he was arrested, tried aged 14 for attempted murder (unfortunately, his stepmother had been cremated and her ashes were not available for forensic examination, so he could not be charged with murder itself), and sent — as a psychopath — to Broadmoor, an institution for the criminally insane.

What shines through his sister’s narrative is the complete absence of motive for his crimes, and indeed the ordinary and even banal goodness of everyone by whom he was surrounded. Whatever else might be said, it could certainly not be said that his background had anything to do with what he did. His father was a steady, hardworking man, without obvious character defects, not very interesting or exciting perhaps, who for years did overtime in order to pay off the mortgage on his house — which he did, in fact, in 12 years — to secure the future of his children. He was the very archetype of the reliable, modest, industrious, law-abiding citizen upon whom the maintenance of civilisation partly, but importantly, depends.

Furthermore, the goodness of the author herself is obvious, precisely because she is herself so unaware of it. Not only was she reluctant to believe evil of her brother, but even when that evil became manifest to her she did not cast him into outer darkness. Her love, the ordinary love of a sister for a brother, exceeded her condemnation of him: which did not mean, however, that she sought any legal exculpation for him, or made any excuses for him. She loved him as a brother, but as a citizen she knew that he had to be punished and the public protected from him.

It is worth pointing out here that this morally sophisticated attitude was not that of an exceptionally-educated person: she was a secretary, without tertiary education. In other words, her moral sophistication was absorbed from the general culture, not from explicit teaching.

(Incidentally, but not coincidentally, her book was extremely well-written, far, far better written than many people with postgraduate degrees could write such a book today).

Graham Young spent ten years in Broadmoor, before being released in 1972. Between the time of his arrival and his departure the whole ethos of society had changed. He arrived shortly after a man died there in his eighties, having been sent to the institution (for a crime which could hardly have been more serious than Young’s) more than seventy years before. But, despite the fact that two psychiatrists at the time of his trial had asserted that it was unlikely that his perverse interest in poisons would ever decline, he persuaded his psychiatrist at Broadmoor, by then probably seeing himself in the role of Graham’s St George against the dragon of society, that he was ‘cured.’ And this, despite the fact that a patient at the institution in the meantime had almost certainly been poisoned to death with cyanide distilled from laurel leaves in the hospital grounds (though admittedly, this had not been proved to be Young’s handiwork) and that — beyond doubt — he had attempted to poison the tea of nearly a hundred fellow-inmates. By now, it seems, the need to think well of humanity in general trumped altogether the disinterested and objective examination of particular instances of it.

So Graham Young was released. He was sent to a government rehabilitation centre. Within two months, he was buying dangerous poisons again. But no one who dealt with him was informed of his background or his previous history, not even the probation officers whom he was told to visit every two weeks. Was he not cured? Did not the director of Broadmoor say that, if they thought there was any risk at all, they would not have released him in the first place? It would therefore be unfair to him, unduly prejudicial, to let people — anyone — know what he had been up to all those years ago.

A job was found for Graham Young in a photographic factory. His employers knew that he had had ‘mental problems’ that accounted for his lack of an employment history, but they took the laudably unprejudiced view that everyone deserved a chance, and that no one’s past should be held against him. The employers were not told that he had been a poisoner or an inmate of an institute for the criminally insane for ten years, and so when members of their staff began to suffer mysterious symptoms shortly after his arrival, they did not connect him with them.

So many of the staff, in fact, began to suffer from such symptoms as nausea and polyneuritis that the public health authorities were called in. The most likely explanation seemed to be a virus, especially as the factory was searched high and low for heavy metals that might equally have caused the symptoms, and none was found. Two of the staff died, and it was largely because Graham Young himself asked the local doctors at a meeting that they convened in the factory whether they did not think that the illness from which the deceased had died might not be thallium poisoning that he was first suspected and then arrested.

Stores clerks are not normally expected to be knowledgeable about toxicology, but so eager was he to prove his superiority over the doctors in public that he over-reached himself. Phials of thallium were found among his possessions in his lodgings.

Two things struck me about the narrative, apart from the literacy and goodness of his sister. The first was the deeply old-fashioned stoicism and devotion to duty of the staff of the company for which he worked.

Many of them were made desperately ill by his addition of poison to their tea (he again used two poisons, as he had when he was fourteen years old, antimony and thallium which, because they caused rather different symptomatology, confused the public health doctors), but despite being hardly able to walk or to hold anything down, they insisted that they would soon be all right, and continued to try to work. Above all, they did not want to make a fuss, until some of them were admitted as emergencies to hospital.

The other thing that struck me was the obvious and sometimes openly expressed desire of Graham Young to achieve celebrity by his poisonings. He wanted to be known and remembered as the greatest poisoner in history; he took great pleasure in the publicity that he received, and he was more concerned with the newspaper coverage of his first trial than with the medical condition of his blameless father whom he had poisoned.

He lived at a time of a fundamental shift in our culture. On the one hand he was very old-fashioned; he dressed conservatively, always in a shirt and tie, and with a handkerchief in the breast pocket of his suit. In writing to his future employers to accept the job they had offered him, he ended his letter as follows:

I shall endeavour to justify your faith in me by performing my duties in an efficient and competent manner.

Until Monday morning, I am,

Yours faithfully,

Graham Young

This is the language of an era soon to be as bygone as that, say, of the Etruscans.

On the other hand, he matured at the time when the cult of celebrity, for celebrity’s sake, was fast gaining ground. It was a new form of celebrity, disconnected from any solid form of achievement, of which an ability to attract publicity became the sine qua non. Graham Young was highly intelligent, without the character to stick at anything to achieve something solid, but with a burning desire to be acknowledged as superior, important and outstanding.

When trying to explain why he could not get close to people, he once said to his sister (and she ends her book with these words), ‘You see, there’s a terrible coldness inside me.’ Could a spread of that coldness not help to explain our contemporary preoccupation with celebrity?