Sunday, July 30, 2006

Our Culture, What's Left of It

Update below

I believe this is Theodore Dalrymple's most recent book, a collection of essays. I had read a third to a half of them elsewhere (primarily New Criterion and City Journal), but sometimes it is good to have things all in one place.

Dalrymple is a great deplorer, perhaps the Great Deplorer, in observing the British cultural scene. He is very attentive to what we are losing in all our changes, and skillful in noting how changes in art, architecture, and intellectual fashion have borne bitter fruit in society decades later. He is not merely making the connections retrospectively, but has shown some predictive power as well. He predicted that something like the riots outside French cities was poised to occur some months before they actually happened.

A Glenn Reynolds or other libertarian will paint for you the potential gains we can anticipate from technical advances and freer markets. Dalrymple will remind you that similar predictions in past eras have not always turned out so felicitously. I believe both of them.

Dalrymple (a pseudonym for Anthony Daniels) has been a physician in 3rd World countries, but more recently a psychiatrist at a prison and an inner-city British hospital for two decades. He compares types of poverty, cross-cultural attitudes, the effect of drugs or Islamic culture on a people, and relates these back to Shakespeare, Bauhaus, and educational practice. Fascinating really, but you may not want to read it straight through. His but-for-the-shortage-of-handbaskets outlook is entertaining, but its cumulative effect is mild despair.

Especially because one has strong suspicions that he is essentially right.

Sample essay titles:
"The Goddess of Domestic Tribulations" (Princess Diana)
"The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris"
"How - and How Not - to Love Mankind."

Update: I really should have mentioned how often, when reading Dalrymple, one has the urge to underline a passage and send it to a particular friend or group of friends. Nearly every page has an important declaration which one will find in few other places, stated better than one will find in a month of reading.

When prisoners are released from prison, they often say that they have paid their debt to society. This is absurd, of course: crime is not a matter of double-entry bookkeeping. You cannot pay a debt by having caused a greater expense, nor can you pay in advance for a bank robbery by offering to serve a prison sentence before you commit it.

It is often said, for example, that African states were artificial, created by a stroke of a European's pen that took no notice of social realities; that boundaries were either drawn with a ruler in straight lines or at a natural feature such as a river, despite the fact that people of the same ethnic group lived on both sides.

This notion overlooks two salient facts: that the countries in Africa that do actually correspond to social, historical, and ethnic realities - for example Burundi, Rwanda, and Somalia - have not fared noticeably better than those that do not...

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