Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses
Ivan R. Dee
341 pages. $27.50
For some 600 passengers traveling by train from Nice to Lyon, the year 2006 came in with a real bang. In the early hours of January 1, 30 teenage thugs terrorized recuperating New Year's Eve revelers on their return trip from the French Riviera. Agence France-Presse described the scene as a rampage of random violence and sexual assault. For five hours the gang of North African immigrants slashed seats, broke windows, robbed, and raped -- all in full view of other passengers, including a small police team that was rendered helpless. Even after reinforcements later boarded the train, authorities took another hour and a half before gaining control of the Arab mob. Despite the heavy police presence, all but three of the marauders escaped when the youths pulled the emergency cord just before reaching Marseille.
This Clockwork Orange-like binge of violence is becoming more common in France these days. No one knows this better than Theodore Dalrymple, a British physician who admits to an unhealthy preoccupation with the problem of evil. Evildoers, he writes in the introductory essay of Our Culture, What's Left of It, "merely make the most of their opportunities. They do what they can get away with." In today's France, thousands have devoted their lives to increasing that scope as widely as possible -- often with much success. Crime and general disorder are now even making inroads into prosperous French villages. When Dalrymple visited a seemingly peaceful town near historic Fontainebleau he was told that a recent burglary had been followed by a "rodeo" -- an impromptu race of youths in stolen cars around the village green, whose fence the car thieves had knocked over to gain access. By the time the police appeared two hours later, the rodeo had moved on, leaving behind burned-out and eviscerated carcasses of cars.
Setting fire to cars has become a common pastime among the permanently unemployed North African immigrants who hang out in the potholed open spaces of their Corbusian logements. Years before the concrete suburbs of Paris were set ablaze in 2005, making front page headlines around the globe, Dalrymple sounded the alarm about "the barbarians at the gate" of the eldest daughter of Christendom. Since then the problem has become so acute that France's Ministry of the Interior has instructed police to avoid some 800 "no go zones" where gang rapes and Molotov cocktails are part of daily life and where the professional robbers among them raid banks and armored cars with bazookas and rocket launchers while dressed in paramilitary uniforms.
An ordinary and respectable son of the English middle classes, with a proper profession, Dalrymple has put himself in many unusual and dangerous situations on par with exploring French neighborhoods where even the firemen need police escorts. He was formed by his experiences exploring the dark underside of life in some of the world's most volatile places; he witnessed civil wars and unrest in such political hotspots as Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, North Korea, and Rhodesia. Yet the subject of his most intriguing experiences is England, where he sees the social world of his native country from a unique vantage point. Much of the material in Our Culture, What's Left of It derives from his firsthand observations as a sort of "physician of the streets." Unlike his liberal counterparts, Dalrymple is not obsessed with making excuses for the people he serves in inner-city hospitals and prisons. But he does believe that their disastrous notions about how to live derive ultimately from unrealistic, self-indulgent, and often fatuous ideas of misguided social critics. More importantly, he states in frank language that the man on the street (or in prison or in the hospital) has chosen to live in a manner that does not produce a happy citizenry.
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