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Our Culture, What's Left Of It: Interview with Theodore Dalrymple

Jamie Glazov

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Frontpage Interview's guest today is Dr. Theodore Dalrymple, a contributing editor to City Journal and the author of his new collection of essays Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses.

Frontpage: Dr. Theodore Dalrymple, welcome to Frontpage Magazine. It is a pleasure to have you with us.

Dalrymple Thank you very much for having invited me.

Frontpage: It's hard to know where to start Dr. Dalrymple, as your essays evoke so many profound themes.

I guess we can begin with your observations on the root causes of many of our social ills. You discuss how in your practise as a doctor you have confronted a growing pathology in our culture within which there is an assumption that "one's state of mind, or one's mood, is or should be independent of the way one lives one's life." You connect this to people confusing unhappiness with depression. Can you talk a bit about this?

Dalrymple I have noticed the disappearance of the word 'unhappy' from common usage, and its replacement by the word 'depressed.' While unhappiness is a state of mind that is clearly the result of the circumstances of one's life, whether self-inflicted or inflicted by circumstances beyond one's control, or a mixture of both, depression is an illness that is the doctor's responsibility to cure. This is so, however one happens to be leading one's life. And the doctor, enjoined to pass no judgement that could be interpreted as moral on his patients, has no option but to play along with this deception. The result is the gross over-prescription of medication, without any reduction in unhappiness.

As you put it, there is a complete disconnection between one's state of mind and the way one lives. Moreover, one does not have a right to the pursuit of happiness, one has a right to happiness itself.

I decided, as a matter of experience, that these attitudes are very destructive and - not surprisingly - lead to a lot of misery about which a mere doctor can do nothing, at least without making judgements.

Frontpage: In your discussion of evil, you observe one central phenomenon: "the elevation of passing pleasure for oneself over the long-term misery of others to whom one owes a duty." Kindly give us some of your thoughts on this reality.

Dalrymple The idea that one's pleasure or desire of the moment is the only thing that counts leads to antisocial behaviour. Let me give a small and seemingly trivial example of this.

About half of British homes no longer have a dining table. People do not eat meals together - they graze, finding what they want in the fridge, and eating in a solitary fashion whenever they feel like it (which is usually often), irrespective of the other people in the household.

This means that they never learn that eating is a social activity (many of the prisoners in the prison in which I worked had never in their entire lives eaten at a table with another person); they never learn to discipline their conduct; they never learn that the state of their appetite at any given moment should not be the sole consideration in deciding whether to eat or not. In other words, one's own interior state is all-important in deciding when to eat. And this is the model of all their behaviour.

Young patients now eat in doctors' offices; they eat above all in the street, where of course they drop litter as unselfconsciously as horses defecate. This is not evil, though it is antisocial, but you can easily see how people who attach such importance to their own desires, and lack any other criteria to help them decide to behave, come to do evil.

Frontpage: Your observation about humans' thrill for danger and how this interrelates with humans' pattern of self destruction and the voluntary choosing of misery is very profound. Could you share your thoughts with us about this?

Dalrymple It is clear to me that people often want incompatible things. They want danger and excitement on the one hand, and safety and security on the other, and often simultaneously. Contradictory desires mean that life can never be wholly satisfying or without frustration.

I think it was Dostoyevsky who said that, even if the government were 100 per cent benevolent and arranged everything for our own good, as judged by rational criteria, we should still want to exercise our freedom by going against its dispensations.

One reason for the epidemic of self-destructiveness that has struck British, if not the whole of Western, society, is the avoidance of boredom. For people who have no transcendent purpose to their lives and cannot invent one through contributing to a cultural tradition (for example), in other words who have no religious belief and no intellectual interests to stimulate them, self-destruction and the creation of crises in their life is one way of warding off meaninglessness. I have noticed, for example, that women who frequent bad men - that is to say men who are obviously unreliable, drunken, drug-addicted, criminal, or violent, or all of them together, have often had experience of decent men who treat them well, with respect, and so forth: they are the ones with whom their relationships lasted the shortest time, because they were bored by decency. Without religion or culture (and here I mean high, or high-ish, culture) evil is very attractive. It is not boring.

Frontpage: You mention that your dad was a communist. Tell us about his world view and how this affected your family and your own intellectual journey.

Dalrymple My father was a communist though he was also a businessman. Our house was full of communist literature from the 1930s and 40s, and I remember such authors as Plekhanov and Maurice Hindus and Edgar Snow. It was always clear that my father's concern for humanity was not always matched by his concern for men, to put it mildly, for whom (as individuals) he often expressed contempt. He found it difficult to enter an equal relationship with anyone, and preferred to play Stalin to their Molotov. We had The Short Course in the house, incidentally, and one of my favourite books (which I used to leaf through as a child) was a vast picture book of the Soviet Union in 1947.

I think the great disjunction between my father's expressed ideas (and ideals) and his everyday conduct affected me, and made me suspicious of people with grand schemes of universal improvement.

Frontpage: You mention how Lenin did not want to hear Beethoven because it made a person want to pat children on the heads, a behaviour that is not synonymous with running a death cult. I have always been interested in what music represents and how it poses a great danger to totalitarianism. Today, in facing Islamism, we know that this deadly enemy also despises music (the Taliban) or most kinds of music (Khomeini). What do you think it is about music that so threatens totalist ideologies?

Dalrymple Music escapes ideological characterisation. Just as there are some social scientists who believe that what cannot be measured does not truly exist, and some psychologists used to believe that consciousness does not exist because it cannot be observed by instruments, so ideologists find anything that escapes their conceptual framework threatening - because ideologists want a simple principle, or a few simple principles, by which all things may be judged. When I was a student, I lived with a hard-line dialectical materialist who said that Schubert was a typical petit bourgeois pessimist, whose music would die out once objective causes for pessimism ceased to exist. But I suspect that even he was not entirely happy with this formulation.

Frontpage: You mention how 19th century French aristocrat, the Marquis de Custine, made several profound observations on how border guards in Russia wasted his time pushing their weight around in stupid and pointless ways, and that this is connected to the powerlessness that humans live under authoritarianism. Tell us a bit more of how this dynamic works in Russia.

Dalrymple With regard to Russia, I am not an expert, but I have an interest in the country. I believe that it is necessary to study 19th century Russian history to understand the modern world. I suspect that the characteristic of Russian authoritarianism precedes the Soviet era (if you read Custine, you will be astonished by how much of what he observed prefigured the Soviet era, which of course multiplied the tendencies a thousand times).

I suppose that people who feel little control over their own lives or destinies can obtain a slight sense of agency by interfering in the lives of others, in tiny ways. I have noticed that many of the men who are violently dictatorial at home often count for little once they pass their own threshold. They are the Stalins of their own home.

Incidentally, Custine called Nicholas I an 'eagle and insect.' I think this is a brilliant characterisation of dictators which aspire world power but who also need to enter into the tiniest and most intimate details of their citizens' existence.

Frontpage: You make the shrewd observation of how political correctness engenders evil because of "the violence that it does to people's souls by forcing them to say or imply what they do not believe, but must not question." Can you talk about this a bit?

Dalrymple Political correctness is communist propaganda writ small. In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to co-operate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to.

Frontpage: You discuss how Custine noted the "wide streets" of St. Petersburg and that these spaces were built this way intentionally to negate the possibility of spontaneity among the citizens and of crowds appearing to be large. It was a way to thwart the possibility of revolution. Can you expand on this a bit?

Dalrymple Custine thought that the architecture - or rather town planning - of St Petersburg made the gathering of any crowd very conspicuous, and therefore a target. He thought that people could not gather spontaneously there as they could in, say, cities with narrower streets and vistas. He also thought that the grandeur was an attempt to impress upon the citizen how small and insignificant he was, and how powerful and important the state was. Whether he was right or not with regard to Petersburg (other explanations of its grandeur are possible), it was definitely a lesson learnt by the builder of modern Pyongyang, for example, who had the fole de grandeur all right, but not the taste of the builders of Petersburg.

Frontpage: You have a fascinating essay in your collection "Why Havana Had to Die". Can you summarize the main thesis in a few sentences?

Dalrymple Havana is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and it has perhaps the most harmonious ensemble of architecture, from the 16th to (most unusually) the middle of the 20th century. Moreover, the area over which this harmony extends is very large (i.e. it is not that enjoyed by a tiny population or elite). Hence, the city contradicts entirely the orthodox communist historiography of Cuba as an undeveloped society with a tiny rich class and everyone else deeply impoverished. Thus it was safer from Castro's point of view to let it fall into ruins than to maintain it (quite apart from an inability to do so).

It must be admitted that ruins have a charm of their own (for visitors).

Frontpage: Islamists and leftists have many things in common. One of them is that they are miserable, hate life and see cheer and joy as a dangerous enemy. You make the comment that "the acceptance of the inherent limitations of existence that is essential to happiness." Can you illuminate this a bit about life in general and also connect it to the toxic nature of Islamism and leftism?

Dalrymple I take it as given that man, having contradictory desires, is always subject to frustration, even when happy. For example, we want both adventure and safety, and when we have the one we long for the other. All forms of human happiness contain within themselves the seeds of their own decomposition.

Modern man particularly - or so it seems to me - is particularly bad at recognising that much of his unhappiness or discontent stems from this inevitable source. Rather, he blames the structure of society and thinks that a perfection that will resolve all contradictions and eliminate all frustrations can be achieved, if only we abolished private property or followed the example of the 7th century followers of Mohammed. The attempt to force people to do so gives meaning to their existence, and of course a lot of sadistic pleasure into the bargain.

Frontpage: You note that Alfred Kinsey had pierced his own foreskin and had put metal wires up his urethra. I had heard echoes of this throughout my life but didn't investigate it -- as the very idea of this reality terrifies me. But now I can't help from asking: why did he do this? Who in their right mind would do this? What was the objective?

Dalrymple Alfred Kinsey was a very strange man. He was repressed sexually until quite a late age, and then expressed his sexuality in more and more bizarre forms as he grew older. His was a classic case of the appetite increasing with the feeding. Once you are on the treadmill of exploring sensation as the key to contentment, you have to experience more and more extreme things. I think this explains the logic of artistic production and how 'transgressive' becomes a term of praise.

Frontpage: You have a fascinating essay in this collection: "Who Killed Childhood?" In it you profoundly illuminate the "egotistical inability to feel, compensated for by an outward show." You connect this to the death of childhood. Could you talk about this?

Dalrymple Childhood in large parts of modern Britain, at any rate, has been replaced by premature adulthood, or rather adolescence. Children grow up very fast but not very far. That is why it is possible for 14 year olds now to establish friendships with 26 year olds - because they know by the age of 14 all they are ever going to know.

It is important in this environment to appear knowing, or street wise, otherwise you will be taken for a weakling and exploited accordingly. Thus, feelings for others does not develop. Moreover, the model of discipline in the homes has changed, with the complete breakdown of the family (in my hospital, were it not for the Indian immigrants, the illegitimacy rate of children born there would be 100 per cent). Children grow up now in circumstances in which discipline is merely a matter of imposing the will of one person on another, it is raw power devoid of principal. Lenin's question - Who Whom or who does what to whom - is the whole basis of human relations.

Frontpage: You discuss the horrifying suffering that women endure under the vicious and sadistic structures of Islam's gender apartheid. You touch on the eerie silence of Western leftist feminists on this issue, noting "Where two pieties -- feminism and multi-culturalism -- come into conflict, the only way of preserving both is an indecent silence."

To be sure, the Left has long posed as a great champion of women's rights, gay rights, minorti rights, democratic rights etc. Yet today, it has reached out in solidarity with the most fascistic women-hating, gay-hating, minority-hating and democracy hating force on the face of the earth -- Islamism.

What gives? It's really nothing new though is it? (i.e. the Left's political pilgrimages to communist gulags etc.)

Dalrymple I think the problem here is one of a desired self-image. Tolerance is the greatest moral virtue and broadmindedness the greatest intellectual one. Moreover, no decent person can be other than a feminist. People therefore want to be both multiculturalist and feminist. But multiculturalism and feminism obviously clash; therefore, you avoid the necessity to give up one or the other merely by disregarding the phenomena. How you feel about yourself is more important to you than the state of the world.

Frontpage: How do you see the future in the context of the terror war in general and the Iraq war in particular? Are you optimistic or pessimistic? Give us some hope please.

Dalrymple I am not in fact very optimistic in the short term. At best we shall make an accommodation with the possibility of extremist action, in other words we will learn to live with it. I think the conditions that produce terrorism are not going to disappear, and I don't believe in final victory, only attrition and the fact that all things pass in the end.

In a sense, I am optimistic in that I do not beleive terrorism of the type we saw in London will ever achieve its goal. Unfortunately, it can cause a huge amount of damage in the meantime.

Frontpage: Mr. Dalrymple, I must say that it is a true pleasure and honor to speak with you. You are a fascinating individual with infinite wisdom. Thank you for gracing us with your presence.

Dalrymple Thank you for having asked me. It has been a great pleasure and an honor.

Read the entire article on the Frontpage Magazine website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of Frontpage Magazine.


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