Theodore Dalrymple reflects, in Taki’s magazine, on the modern state’s law enforcement priorities and their deeper meaning.
A couple of American filmmakers came to Paris to interview me—it always surprises me that anybody would take so much trouble to interview anybody, let alone me—and decided that the little park opposite my flat, with a pretty little bandstand, would be a good place to do so. They set up the camera, but a few seconds later, before they could ask me a single question, a municipal policeman arrived. They were not allowed to film here without a permit from the mairie of the arrondissement, he said. I explained that these were Americans, come all the way from Texas expressly to interview me. He, a very pleasant and polite man of African origin, phoned his chief to see whether an exception could be made. As I suspected, it could not.
I told the film crew that we should make no fuss; the man was only doing his job, silly as that job might be. As it happens there were several drunks in another part of the park making aggressive-sounding noises and breaking bottles, but them he did not approach, perhaps wisely, as they were several and he was only one. He thought he would have more luck with someone wearing a tweed jacket and corduroy trousers as I was. We found a café willing to accommodate us.
The contrast between the authorities’ alacrity on one hand in preventing innocent filming for a matter of a few minutes (the policeman said authorization was necessary because it might cause a disturbance, and, being kind, I refrained from laughing), and on the other their slow response to a nasty incident that might have ended in murder, was emblematic of the modern state’s capacity to get everything exactly the wrong way around, to ascribe importance to trivia and to ignore the important. There are, of course, many more employment opportunities in trivia, since there is much more that is trivial in the world than is important.
France is not unique in this respect, or even the worst example I know. In London I once parked outside a hotel where I proposed to stay. Parking was forbidden outside, but I stopped only to take my baggage inside. I received a parking ticket within sixty seconds, a miracle of efficiency (I genuinely admired it in a way), though it was perfectly obvious from my car’s open doors that I did not propose to stay long and was only taking my luggage into the hotel. But on another occasion when my wife telephoned the police to inform them that youths were committing arson in our front garden before her very eyes, they had no time to attend to it. A more senior officer, however, did find the time a quarter of an hour later to complain to my wife that she had wasted police time by complaining in the first place.
It often seems, then, as if modern state authorities live in a looking-glass world: What normal people regard as important is for them of no importance, while what they regard as of supreme importance normal people regard as of no importance. For them the respectable are suspect and the suspect respectable. A tweed jacket is a sign of menace, while a broken bottle is a sign of harmless intent.
One must not exaggerate the degree to which official idiocy impinges on our lives. The exaggeration of misery is one of the royal roads to political disaster. Still, I have seen the future, and it is idiocy.
Old fogey, white male Theodore Dalrymple reviewing hip, young black chick Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW (as in North West London, specifically, apparently, NW6, Kilburn, once a working-class Irish neighborhood, now a lower-class varied multicultural district) promises an entertaining clash of values and perspectives.
According to Dalrymple, the celebration of the glorious diversity of it all—
Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. . . . Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life-size porcelain tiger, gold taps. . . . TV cable, computer cable, audiovisual cables, I give you good price, good price. Leaflets, call abroad 4 less, learn English, eyebrow wax, Falun Gong, have you accepted Jesus as your personal call plan? . . . A hundred and one ways to take cover: the complete black tent, the facial grid, back of the head, Louis Vuitton–stamped, Gucci-stamped, yellow lace, attached to sunglasses, hardly on at all, striped, candy pink; paired with tracksuits, skin-tight jeans, summer dresses, blouses, vests, gypsy skirts, flares. . . . Security lights, security gates, security walls, security trees, Tudor, Modernist, postwar, prewar, stone pineapples, stone lions, stone eagles. Face east and dream of Regent’s Park, of St. John’s Wood. The Arabs, the Israelis, the Russians, the Americans: here united by the furnished penthouse, the private clinic. If we pay enough, if we squint, Kilburn need not exist. Free meals. English as a second language. Here is the school where they stabbed the headmaster. Here is the Islamic Center of England opposite the Queen’s Arms. Walk down the middle of this, you referee, you!
—is tempered by the story of two black sisters, Keisha and Cheryl Blake. The former studies hard and becomes a wealthy and successful lawyer, the latter becomes an unwed mother living on the dole.
Keisha (who’s changed her name to Natalie) is unhappy, finding she has traded her life for a career and living only to work, while worrying about having relinquished her identity, her “authenticity.” Her sister Cheryl rejects her offers of assistance (and implicitly her familial connection and authority) preferring “independence” based upon state support.
All of which understandably lights Dalrymple’s fuse.
Natalie may not feel authentic, but this [fictional situation] certainly does. It illustrates how completely the state has smashed up family solidarity. Cheryl and the rest of Natalie’s impoverished family neither look for nor need Natalie’s help, though she is becoming a wealthy woman; they look to the state to provide. At one point, when Natalie criticizes the public housing where Cheryl lives, her sister responds, “If I wanted to get out of here I’d get another place off the council before I come to you.” For Cheryl, independence means being independent of people close to her and dependent on a bureaucratic apparatus. Nothing could be more socially atomizing, more promotional of the raging egotism exemplified in the [1995 murder of a Roman Catholic headmaster who tried to stop an interracial gang beating].
Dalrymple also has a few harsh words to say about Natalie’s class neuroses.
Natalie’s unease about her authenticity, with its undertow of guilt about her success, seems to me plausibly and truly delineated. The fact that she should feel this guilt means that she has thoroughly absorbed an egalitarian ideology, for there can be only one reason why to rise in a meritocratic society by your own efforts should occasion guilt. That reason is that one feels that everyone ought to be equal—equal in outcome—whatever one does or does not do. Though she has risen by her own merits, though what sixties radicals called “the system” has put no formal obstacles in her path, though her sister’s manacles are all mind-forg’d, Natalie cannot believe that she deserves her good fortune or that her newfound wealth is evidence of social justice rather than its opposite.
Dalrymple considers the kind of multiculturalism that Zadie Smith reflexively tries to celebrate as a social and cultural disaster featuring little mutual benefit, but rather the addle-pated surrender of Western civilization to barbarism on the basis of left-wing sentimentality and bad ideas. According to Dalrymple, Zadie Smith’s NW really offers
a bleak assessment of multicultural society, which ends not in cross-fertilization, as in fusion cooking, but in paranoia as a way of life, mutual incomprehension, egotism, and solipsism. A day-to-day tolerance of one another’s existence is an insufficient basis for an attractive or even a productive society. Something more is needed.
Interestingly, Dalrymple compares Smith’s community of fashion perspective to that of Catholic, anti-modernist French author Richard Millet, who recently published Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik [A Literary Elegy on Anders Breivik], who killed 77 promising young leftists at a Labor summer camp, as a kind of personal protest against the multicultural remodeling of Norway. Millet said that, though he did not approve of Breivik’s crimes, his opinion was that “Norway got what it deserved.”
I am quite interested in reading that essay, which is available, I find, only in French (via Amazon UK) in a collection of three essays titled Langue Fantôme. I have ordered a copy.
Theodore Dalrymple, in New English Review, deplores the estrangement of contemporary art from tradition, technique, values, and beauty.
From having talked to quite a number of art students, it seems that art school these days resembles a kindergarten for young adults, where play is more important than work. The lack of technical training is painfully obvious at the shows the students put on. Many of the students have good ideas, but cannot execute them successfully for lack of technical facility. Indeed, their technical incompetence is only too painfully obvious.
It is very striking, too, how few art students have any interest in or knowledge of the art of the past. Do you visit galleries, I ask them?
No, they reply, a little shocked at the very suggestion, and as if to do so would inhibit them in their creativity or to condone plagiarism.
As for art history, they are taught and know very little. This is all part of the programme of disconnecting them radically from the past, of making them free-floating molecules in the vast vacuum of art.
It is true that they are sometimes taught just a little art history. I had what was for me a memorable conversation with an art student when she was my patient. She was in her second year of art school, and told me that one of the things she enjoyed most about it was art history. I asked what they taught in art history.
‘The first year,’ she said, ‘we did African art. But now in the second year we’re doing western art.’
I asked what particular aspect of western art they were doing.
In the waning decades of the 19th century, Western societies experienced a wave of panic over the idea that various intoxicating substances offered pleasures so exquisite and seductive as to overcome the will and corrupt and enslave their users. One intoxicant after another became the target for prohibition efforts by ameliorist do-gooders.
All forms of prohibition make whatever is banned more desirable, and result in black markets. Black markets provide an opportunity for large profits by criminals, and typically lead to violence as rival gangsters fight over territories. The association of large profits with victimless forms of crime commonly results in the corruption of law enforcement.
Theodore Dalrymple draws on his medical experience as usual, in today’s Wall Street Journal, to debunk opiate addiction.
In 1822, Thomas De Quincey published a short book, “The Confessions of an English Opium Eater.” The nature of addiction to opiates has been misunderstood ever since.
De Quincey took opiates in the form of laudanum, which was tincture of opium in alcohol. He claimed that special philosophical insights and emotional states were available to opium-eaters, as they were then called, that were not available to abstainers; but he also claimed that the effort to stop taking opium involved a titanic struggle of almost superhuman misery. Thus, those who wanted to know the heights had also to plumb the depths.
This romantic nonsense has been accepted wholesale by doctors and litterateurs for nearly two centuries. It has given rise to an orthodoxy about opiate addiction, including heroin addiction, that the general public likewise takes for granted: To wit, a person takes a little of a drug, and is hooked; the drug renders him incapable of work, but since withdrawal from the drug is such a terrible experience, and since the drug is expensive, the addict is virtually forced into criminal activity to fund his habit. He cannot abandon the habit except under medical supervision, often by means of a substitute drug.
In each and every particular, this picture is not only mistaken, but obviously mistaken. It actually takes some considerable effort to addict oneself to opiates: The average heroin addict has been taking it for a year before he develops an addiction. Like many people who are able to take opiates intermittently, De Quincey took opium every week for several years before becoming habituated to it. William Burroughs, who lied about many things, admitted truthfully that you may take heroin many times, and for quite a long period, before becoming addicted…
Why has the orthodox view swept all before it? First, the literary tradition sustains it: Works that deal with the subject continue to disregard pharmacological reality, from De Quincey and Coleridge through Baudelaire, Aleister Crowley, Bulgakov, Cocteau, Nelson Algren, Burroughs and others. Second, addicts and therapists have a vested interest in the orthodox view. Addicts want to place the responsibility for their plight elsewhere, and the orthodox view is the very raison d’être of the therapists. Finally, as a society, we are always on the lookout for a category of victims upon whom to expend our virtuous, which is to say conspicuous, compassion.
The myth of addiction has a powerful appeal to the human imagination, and is enormously useful in exculpating personal misbehavior. But a society which holds more than a million people in prison for victimless crimes is paying a terrible price in order to cling to its illusions.
Connoisseurs of Theodore Dalrymple’s regular columns heaping scorn on contemporary demotic Britain will enjoy his latest: From stiff upper lip to clenched jaws, in which the good doctor examines the consequences of modern rights-inflation:
WHAT a human catastrophe is the doctrine of human rights! Not only does it give officialdom an excuse to insinuate itself into the fabric of our lives but it has a profoundly corrupting effect on youth, who have been indoctrinated into believing that until such rights were granted (or is it discovered?) there was no freedom.
Worse still, it persuades each young person that they are uniquely precious, which is to say more precious than anyone else; and that, moreover, the world is a giant conspiracy to deprive them of their rightful entitlements. Once someone is convinced of their rights, it becomes impossible to reason with them; and thus the reason of the Enlightenment is swiftly transformed into the unreason of the psychopath.