Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses
Ivan R. Dee, Publisher (May 25, 2005)
Theodore Dalrymple's collection of twenty-six essays in Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses recalls Russell Kirk's definition of conservatism. "Conservatism is not an ideology, but stands against ideologies," wrote Kirk. "The conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: Human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent."
A doctor by trade and an astute social critic by avocation, Dalrymple laments the rise of the welfare state. Gone is any humility about the complexity of human nature and the recognition that man needs a touchstone of enduring moral truth, in its place is the hubris of the modern utopian dreamer and social bureaucrat (the "mandarins") that, with their grandiose plans for the administrative state, have initiated a cultural decline of catastrophic proportion.
This book is not a work of abstract social theory. Dalrymple recounts the events of his patients' lives with an empathy that is shaped by a deep moral sensibility, unencumbered by sentimentality. He puts a human face on the calamitous consequences of the modern welfare state.
Neither is this book for the faint of heart. Dalrymple's stories, particularly those about the abuse of children, can be brutal. Children need fathers, but when welfare destroys fatherhood by destroying the need for fathers, there is no one left to protect women and children. The neighborhoods where Dalrymple works have descended into a Lord of the Flies society where thugs and gangsters rule. The weak are little more than prey.
Dalrymple argues that the ideas that shaped the modern welfare state and the cultural attitudes that support it had their genesis in the cultural rebellion of the last century. He raises our cultural heritage as a mirror that reflects how alien the ideas are to the wisdom of earlier generations, and explains how artists impregnated them into the culture aided by cultural elites that praised their rebellion as progress.
This makes Our Culture, What's Left of It an illuminating journey through recent cultural history as well. We meet Virginia Woolf, Marcel Duchamp, Le Corbusier, and scores of other luminaries who elevated the vandal as hero and the deconstructionist as saint. Their arrogance helped foster the ideological pathology that would cripple the next generation.
Dalrymple is at his best when analyzing recent events to show how truncated our cultural sensibility has become. The inexorable outpouring of public sentiment at the death of Princess Diana (and the ludicrous spectacle of Elton John as cathedral troubadour) for example, the descent into tribalism by British football fans or Parisian Muslim youths (or American gangs for that matter), win approving nods by cultural elites whose notions of the social good reference nothing beyond their own experience.
Dalrymple's ideas are not new, but it's rare to find such a morally coherent, historically informed, and humane account of the costs that welfare socialists impose on society. Sober-minded readers will benefit from Dalrymple's work but the moral clarity will also disturb them -- enough perhaps to move them against the utopians just as Dalrymple has.
Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is a Greek Orthodox priest and edits the website www.OrthodoxyToday.org.
This review was published on the Town Hall website.