Societies have always had their bad sides, and the stories Dalrymple tells of violence, inhumanity, and ignorance are not in themselves signs of decline. “The poor you shall always have with you,” Jesus tells his disciples. And with poverty come despair, depravity, and desperation.
But today there is a difference. Our prosperous elites do not grind the poor under their heels. Instead, as Dalrymple illustrates again and again, our elites often curse the poor with good intentions.
Consider the poverty of their language. Dalrymple’s patients, he writes, “often had no words to describe what they were feeling, except in the crudest possible way, with expostulations, exclamations, and physical displays of emotion.” This puts them at a huge disadvantage in life, when the welfare state runs on regulations and memos and petitions for services. But even more painfully, this poverty of language exacts an existential penalty. “As Montaigne tells us, there is no torture greater than that of a man who is unable to express what is in his soul.”
Ah, but hasn’t a great modern achievement, the publicly funded system of universal education, been the answer? Look more closely. Among our educational theorists a tender concern for justice trumps something so pedestrian as education. “Attempts to foster alleged grammatical ‘correctness’ on native speakers of an ‘incorrect’ dialect are nothing but the unacknowledged and oppressive exercise of social controlthe means by which elites deprive whole social classes and peoples of self-esteem and keep them in permanent subordination.”
With this grand insight into the inner workings of oppression, our educational theorists inveigh against “standard English” and counsel respect for “alternative dialects.” Our tender postmodern consciences don’t want anybody to feel “unworthy, humiliated, and disenfranchised.” The result, however, is obvious: The people most in need of a rigorous training in the use of language are deprived of it.
Dalrymple sees the pattern repeated over and over again. He looks at elite attitudes to crime and mental illness. In both a supposedly more progressive and inclusive sensibility prevails, undermining the older, paternalistic culture of care and responsibility. The result is always the same: The people at the bottom of society bear the brunt of disorder and dysfunction.
Our goofy educational theories and bad social policies are symptoms. Like any good doctor, Dalrymple wants to diagnose the underlying disease. How, then, did we get to the present state of affairs in which elite high-minded do-goodism makes life worse and not better for the poor, and everyone else as well?
The essay “Ibsen and His Discontents” comes closest to an answer. Henrik Ibsen is often viewed, rightly in Dalrymple’s mind, as the father of modern theater, in which the quotidian realities of bourgeois household take on tragic weight. In his most famous plays, A Doll’s House, Ghosts, and Hedda Gabler, the constraints of marriage are juxtaposed to the human need for happiness. By Dalrymple’s reading, these plays portray traditional norms for marriage, children, and family as invariably producing soulless men and unhappy women. The alternative is clear: Cast aside the dead inheritance of the past and live freely according to one’s desires.
Ibsen’s plays are paradigmatically progressive. This explains why they continue to be performed. “The elevation of emotion over principle,” Dalrymple writes, “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: What could be more modern or gratifying to our current sensibility?” Ibsen became and remains The Great Modern Dramatist, because he depicted the superiority of the Bohemian Ideal over Bourgeois Reality.
Therein lies Dalrymple’s theme: We live in a moral climate in which our fallible, imperfect inheritance must be overthrown for the sake of the perfection and felicity of an imagined future. “One definition of decadence,” he writes, “is the concentration on the gratifyingly imaginary to the disregard of the disconcertingly real.”
Do away with oppressive standards and conventions! Free people so that they can live by their own lights! Find their own meaning! Vive la difference! These imperatives has become the new conventions, so much so that we now have elaborate speech codes, some legally enforced, but most sanctioned by social censure. It’s “partner” now, not “spouse.” It’s the “differently-abled,” not “disabled,” “gay” not “homosexual.” Dalrymple tells an amusing story of a slightly drunken Oxford student who called a policeman’s horse “gay”and ended up spending the night in jail and being fined for making a “homophobic remark.”
All of us have our own stories of jackbooted political correctness. It’s easy to write off most as zealotry gone awry. But the zealotry itself suggests a perverse impulse, one that animates the progressive mentality across the board. We live, Dalrymple accurately observes, in “an intellectual climate in which the destruction of moral and social distinctions is proof of the very best intentions.”
Aside from a winsome essay on the lasting greatness of Samuel Johnson, and an essay that tries to rehabilitate Arthur Koestler, Not With a Bang but a Whimper stays focused on the failures of the postmodern West. A fine essay on A Clockwork Orange reminds us how widespread the originally shocking nihilism it depicts has become. An insightful meditation on the psychology of British-born suicide bombers suggests, correctly I think, the links between the modern Western revolutionary mentality and Islamic terrorism. An essay on the novels on J. G. Ballard shines a spotlight on our middle class romance with barbarism.
The book ends with a sad tale. A teenage girl stabs her even younger lesbian lover. The murderess had lived a horrible life. Sexually abused by one of her mother’s criminal boyfriends, whom the justice system seemed always to parole, alcoholic before age thirteen, she lived in a state-provided apartment with her lover. In prison she finds herself confronted, for the first time, with the consequences of her actions. She sees her punishment as justified, and she comes to cherish the self-possession that she gains in the painful acknowledgment of her responsibility for the death of another human being.
Dalrymple admires the young girl’s self-awareness. To see one’s character as base is the first step toward nobility. Indeed, to overcome the temptations of our therapeutic age is itself a sign of courage and fortitude. Yet he reflects on her situation with searing clarity:
This murder, exceptional in some circumstances as it undoubtedly was, took place in a social universe that liberals have wrought, and whose realities they are too guilty or cowardly to acknowledge. It is a universe that has no place for children or childhood in it. Believing that man is the product of his environment, they have nevertheless set about creating an environment from which it is truly difficult to escape, by closing off all avenues and bolt-holes as far as possible. They have destroyed the family and any notion of progress or improvement. They have made a world in which the only freedom is self-indulgence, a world from whichmost terrible of allprison can sometimes be a liberation.
Modern liberalism has achieved many things that any conservatism worth its name should embrace. But modern liberalism also has a great deal to be ashamed of, as Dalrymple’s powerful indictment reminds us. A debased culture created by the moral idealism of self-proclaimed progressives now destroys countless lives. It may be too late in Britain. But for the sake of the weak and the vulnerable, I hope that the American liberalism of the future distances itself from the insane progressive fantasy of a culture without judgment, a society without standards, and desires without moral constraints.
R.R. Reno is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University and features editor at First Things.