[Paleopsych] LAT: Pinpointing civilization's shortcomings

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Pinpointing civilization's shortcomings


Pinpointing civilization's shortcomings

Our Culture, What's Left of It The Mandarins and the Masses Theodore
Dalrymple Ivan R. Dee: 344 pp., $27.50

    By Anthony Day
    Special to The Times
    May 27, 2005
    In his new book of essays on political, social and artistic aspects of
    modern life, Theodore Dalrymple falls upon his victims with singular
    ferocity, raging against modern British life in general and Labor
    Prime Minister Tony Blair in particular, as well as multiculturalism,
    the welfare state, modern art (Joan Miro and contemporary British art
    especially), D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.
    What? Mrs. Woolf a menace to civilization? Yes indeed, Dalrymple
    contends in "Our Culture, What's Left of It."
    Were Woolf around today, he writes, "she would at least have had the
    satisfaction of observing that her cast of mind -- shallow, dishonest,
    resentful, envious, snobbish, self-absorbed, trivial, philistine, and
    ultimately brutal -- had triumphed among the elites of the Western
    Was the Bloomsbury circle really so powerful? Dalrymple, a physician
    who works in British prisons and inner-city hospitals, believes it
    was, and that the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" are
    novelists, playwrights, film directors, journalists, artists and even
    pop singers under the influence of "outdated or defunct ideas of
    economists and social philosophers."
    Woolf's primal error, Dalrymple argues, was to confuse the domineering
    English male to whom she objected in the early 1930s with Adolf
    Hitler, who was even then threatening English liberty.
    In one essay he improbably juxtaposes writer Ivan Turgenev and
    political philosopher Karl Marx. Both, he notes, were born in 1818 and
    died in 1883; both attended Berlin University at overlapping times and
    were affected by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and
    his dialectic method of reasoning (thesis, antithesis, synthesis);
    both were in Brussels at the outbreak of the 1848 revolution, and both
    were spied upon by the secret police. Each had an illegitimate child,
    each lived and died in exile.
    The point of his comparison? The aloof and difficult Marx claimed to
    know the common people, but it was the gentle Turgenev who really did,
    as his sympathetic writings about Russian serfs and other members of
    the lower classes prove.
    This is not a new idea about Marx, but Dalrymple writes as if it were
    and hammers it relentlessly, slashing away at Marx as he does at
    Woolf. And poor Turgenev, who does not need Marx as a foil to be
    celebrated for his compassion and wisdom.
    By this point in his essays, Dalrymple has revealed that his mother
    fled to England to escape the Nazis, a fact that may help to explain
    his contempt for "elitists" like Woolf, who were safe in their languid
    upper-class self-absorption. He also discloses that his father was "a
    Communist by conviction." That may account for Dalrymple's zeal for
    annihilation, which he demonstrates toward his intellectual opponents.
    It resembles nothing so much as one communist intellectual's accusing
    another of misunderstanding the true Marxian faith. And perhaps that
    is behind Dalrymple's posture as implacable reactionary.
    He plays the part well. He believes that "an oppositional attitude
    toward traditional social rules is what wins the modern intellectual
    his spurs, in the eyes of other intellectuals.... What is good for the
    bohemian sooner or later becomes good for the unskilled worker, the
    unemployed, the welfare recipient -- the very people most in need of
    boundaries to make their lives tolerable or allow them hope of
    improvement." And the result, he argues, is "moral, spiritual and
    emotional squalor, engendering fleeting pleasures and prolonged
    Dalrymple protests that not all criticism of social conventions is
    wrong, but that critics, "including writers of imaginative literature,
    should always be aware that civilization needs conservation at least
    as much as it needs change ... and that immoderate criticism ... is
    capable of doing much, indeed devastating, harm."
    Dalrymple's conservative credentials are impeccable. Most of the
    essays in this collection are drawn from the City Journal, the
    publication of the Manhattan Institute of New York, for which he is a
    contributing editor. His previous collection of essays, "Life at the
    Bottom," was widely praised. And he has written for the London
    Spectator for more than a dozen years. Readers who enjoy those sorts
    of publications will be enthralled with these essays.
    But just as Marx should not be rejected altogether, neither should
    non-conservatives reject everything Dalrymple has to say. Having
    worked in the Muslim world and among Muslim immigrants in Britain, he
    has some provocative ideas about the conflict between Islam and the
    West. He passionately denounces the frequent cruel treatment of Muslim
    women by Muslim men and argues that modern Muslims must "either
    abandon their cherished religion or ... remain forever in the rear of
    human technical advance."
    And surely one need not be a right-wing reactionary to find
    objectionable the appearance of the punk rocker, in all his
    skin-pierced glory, who is pictured on the dust jacket of "Our
    Culture, What's Left of It."

    Anthony Day, former editorial page editor of The Times, is a regular
    contributor to Book Review.

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