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Book Review. The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism

The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism
Theodore Dalrymple
Encounter Books, $23.95

During the Vichy Republic, Marshal Philippe Petain and others collaborated — to their everlasting shame — with the Nazis after the military fall of France. In The New Vichy Syndrome, Theodore Dalrymple, one of the most delightful purveyors of gloom and doom around, details how Europe today is collaborating with her enemies-within and without-at a time when there is no outward and visible reason for this collective failure of nerve. "There is something rotten in the state of Europe," Dalrymple writes in the first sentence, "but it is not easy to say what it is or where it comes from.

"It is strange," Dalrymple continues, "that Europe should be the sick man of Europe. In many ways, things have never been better on the old continent." Life expectancy, prosperity, and the physical standard of living that prevail in Europe today would have amazed previous generations. But Europe suffers from malaise. Her workers lack a sense of purpose, she fears the rise of China and India, and she is militarily weak. Such weakness has consequences. When a Muslim mob outraged over a newspaper cartoon attacked the Danish embassy in Damascus, Dalrymple recalls, Denmark could muster no response other than acquiescence.

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Europe has developed what Dalrymple calls a "miserabilist historiography." The only response to what miserabilists see as history devoid of decency is guilt. Guilt for the past thus becomes "a diploma of righteousness." "A kind of miserabilist historiography has become the mark of the sensitive and well-informed, proof against any facile optimism about the past," Dalrymple writes. Europeans feel less inclined to defend a thoroughly rotten civilization. And the reach of miserabilism is extensive: Science, the methodical investigation of nature, which has produced so many material benefits, was developed in Europe; for this reason, science itself is under attack. Science is seen by many advanced Europeans as being irrational, provisional, and not objective. While most discoveries are provisional and can be revised on further experimentation, this advanced view attacks the very idea of objective research. This means that Europe's scientific contributions aren't really that important. European art is no longer beautiful. Belief in God is out of the question. There is nothing worth preserving. No more gloire, only self-hatred.

Figuring out the crux of how this happened-"Why are we like this?" Dalrymple asks at the beginning of several chapters-is the gist of this book. There are a number of causes, including the rise of moral relativism. In this, Dalrymple, a retired British physician who is himself not a religious believer, sounds like Pope Benedict XVI. Ironically, the claim of relativists is advanced with great confidence. "They accept," Dalrymple writes, "on authority that there is no authority: except, of course, what they themselves think, which is as good as what anyone else thinks. Intellectual weight is replaced by egotism." Philosophers have long debated the question of ultimate meaning, many in the modern era concluding that there was no such thing. What was once an academic nihilism largely confined to university ghettos has, in an era of widespread but shallower education, entered into general circulation. Being exposed to other cultures, Europeans also have developed "practical relativism of everyday life" to go along with philosophical relativism. "Choice as a good in itself, even as the only good in itself, is now almost an unthinking orthodoxy in the West," the author writes.

Read the entire article on the In Character website (new window will open).

Published: April 21, 2010

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