Life at the Bottom

I’m currently reading Theodore Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass (Ivan R. Dee, 2001), a collection of essays written through the 1990s.  Dalrymple (pseudonym for Anthony Daniels) is a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist who spent a good portion of his career working in Great Britain’s National Health Service among the underprivileged. His experiences there gave him a unique insight into the circumstances that created and sustains the permanent underclass that exists in many Western countries.

Dalrymple argues that the source of the misery that plagues the underclass is not genetic, economic, political, or racial, but intellectual. People create their own hell out of the poor decisions they make, decisions based on a faulty view of how life works. He explains in the Introduction:

Human behavior cannot be explained without reference to the meaning and intentions people give to their acts and omissions. . . . It is the ideas my patients have that fascinate—and to be honest, appall—me; for they are the source of their misery.

Their ideas make themselves manifest even in the language they use. . . . An alcoholic, explaining his misconduct while drunk, will say, “the beer went mad.” A heroin addict, explaining his resort to the needle, will say, “Heroin’s everywhere.” It is as if the beer drank the alcoholic and the heroin injected the addict.

Dalrymple is not blaming the victim here, at least not entirely. He points to a deeper problem that has led to this twisted thinking:

Most of the social pathology exhibited by the underclass has its origin in ideas that have filtered down from the intelligentsia. . . . The climate of moral, cultural, and intellectual relativism—a relativism that began as a mere fashionable plaything for intellectuals—has been successfully communicated to those least able to resist its devastating practical effects.

Those “devastating practical effects,” in turn, take their revenge on the rest of society, as sloppy decision-making percolates through the entire culture.

. . . If blame is to be apportioned, it is the intellectuals who deserve most of it. They should have known better but always preferred to avert their gaze. They considered the purity of  their ideas to be more important than the actual consequences of their ideas.

A civilization collapses when those responsible for its cultural heritage fall asleep on their watch. The darkness that descended upon our intellectual class several generations ago is now bearing its ugly fruit.

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