Friday, August 15, 2008

More About Life at the Bottom

Dalrymple's Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass is his second book I've read. I assure you, I will read more. He's not only a wonderful writer; he writes about important things and says things of import about them.

The book is divided into two sections: 1) Grim Reality, and 2) Grimmer Theory. The chapters that make up both sections are, as was Our Culture, What's Left of It, primarily reprints of articles he has written for the magazine, City Journal. In the Grim Reality section, he describes the misery and degradation of the London underclass who make up the patients to whom he ministers as both physician and psychiatrist in a hospital and a prison located in the slums of the city. In the Grimmer Theory section, he illustrates how these social conditions, as are similar conditions in the inner cities of the United States, not the result of racism or poverty (in the classical sense of the word, such as one encounters in the third world), but rather a direct consequence of leftist ideas that have permeated the popular culture: ideas such as multiculturalism, moral relativity, post modernism, radical egalitarianism, "social" justice, and the theory that poverty causes crime.

One of the most striking aspects to this book is how he illustrates behavior--by white London underclass males--that almost perfectly mimics the look and attitude of minority ghetto-dwellers in an American city. Consider this excerpt from the chapter entitled, Tough Love:
I can now tell at a glance—with a fair degree of accuracy—that a man is violent toward his significant other. (It doesn't follow, of course, that I can tell when a man isn't violent toward her.) In truth, the clues are not particularly subtle. A closely shaven head with many scars on the scalp from collisions with broken bottles or glasses; a broken nose; blue tattoos on the hands, arms, and neck, relaying messages of love, hate, and challenge; but above all, a facial expression of concentrated malignity, outraged egotism, and feral suspiciousness—all these give the game away. Indeed, I no longer analyze the clues and deduce a conclusion: a man's propensity to violence is as immediately legible in his face and bearing as any other strongly marked character trait.

In another chapter entitled Choosing to Fail, Dalrymple tells of the growing phenomenon of the male children of Indian immigrants who, despite being raised in respectable middle class homes by parents successful in business (and whose siblings for the most part follow their parent's wishes to become professionals or business people), nevertheless, and against all reason, choose to imitate the worst cultural aspects of the worst districts of their adopted city and descend into crime and violence.
There are many other outward signs of the acculturation of Indians into the lower depths. Although their complexions are by no means well-adapted to it, tattooing is fast on the increase among them. Other adornments—a ring through the eyebrow or the nose, for example—are membership badges of the clan. Gold in the front teeth, either replacing an entire incisor or framing it with a rim of gold, is virtually diagnostic of heroin addiction and criminality. Such decorative dentistry is imitative of the black underclass and is intended as a signal of both success and dangerousness.

Young Indians have adopted, too, the graceless manners of the class to which they aspire to belong. They now walk with the same self-assured vulpine lope as their white compatriots, not merely as a way of locomotion but as a means of communicating threat. Like the whites, they shave their heads to reveal the scars upon their scalps, the wounds of the underclass war of each against all.

They have made the gestures and postures of their white and black mentors their own. When a member of the developing Indian underclass consults me, he slouches in the chair at so acute an angle to the floor that I would not have thought it possible, let alone comfortable, for a man to retain the position. But it isn't comfort he is after: he is making a statement of disrespect in the face of what he supposes to be authority. His fragile ego demands that he dominate all social interactions and submit to no convention.

He also adopts a facial expression unique to the British underclass. Asked a question, he replies with an arching and curling of half his upper lip, part snarl, part sneer. Expressive both of disdain and of menace, it is by no means easy to achieve, as I proved to myself by trying it without success in the mirror. It simultaneously demands, "Why are you asking me that?" and warns: "Don't push me too far." It is the response to all questions, no matter how innocuous: for in a world in which every contact is a jostling for power, it is best to establish straightaway that you are not to be trifled with.

In the Grimmer Theory section of the book, in a chapter named Zero Intolerance, he recounts the absurdity that London policing has become:
Far from having adopted a policy of zero tolerance, as in New York, they have adopted one of zero intolerance; and their approach to crime is almost as abstract—as ethereal—as that of liberal criminologists. It is therefore of some interest, both practical and theoretical, to examine whether the quality of life of the poor has improved or deteriorated under this lax police regime.

The policy of zero intolerance appears to have sprung from the brains of the city's most senior policemen, increasingly indistinguishable in their public pronouncements from senior social workers. Their constituency is not the people of the city but the liberal intelligentsia. A policeman on the beat who had occasion to visit my ward recently told me that he and his colleagues were under orders not to arrest and charge anyone who was previously unknown to the police for crimes up to and including attempted murder. As an old hand nearing an eagerly anticipated retirement from a job he had once loved, he found this instruction deeply demoralizing. It was, he knew, a virtual incitement to crime.

The policy of zero intolerance is no mere local aberration. The chief of police of another force explained recently in an essay why it was necessary to keep arrests to a minimum. It takes four hours to process each one, he wrote, and therefore such arrests distracted the police from their other duties. He never explained what police duties could be more important than the apprehension of lawbreakers, nor did he call for a streamlining of the process of arrest (which requires, on average, 43 forms). Besides, he added, mere repression of criminality, whenever the police chanced to catch a criminal, would never on its own put an end to crime. Much better, he seemed to imply, to let the criminals get on with it.

I'm so energized by the lucidity of writing and the pertinence of his ideas in this book that I could go on quoting Dalrymple until I had reproduced the entire book, but let me end with this, from his chapter named, Seeing is not Believing:
On my right sat a man in his late sixties, intelligent and cultivated, who had been a distinguished foreign correspondent for the BBC and who had spent much of his career in the United States. He said that for the last ten years he had read with interest my weekly dispatches—printed in a rival, conservative publication—depicting the spiritual, cultural, emotional, and moral chaos of modern urban life, and had always wanted to meet me to ask me a simple question: Did I make it all up?

Did I make it all up? It was a question I have been asked many times by middle-class liberal intellectuals, who presumably hope that the violence, neglect, and cruelty, the contorted thinking, the utter hopelessness, and the sheer nihilism that I describe week in and week out are but figments of a fevered imagination. In a way, I am flattered that the people who ask this question should think that I am capable of inventing the absurd yet oddly poetic utterances of my patients—that I am capable, for example, of inventing the man who said he felt like the little boy with his finger in the dike, crying wolf. But at the same time the question alarms me and reminds me of what Thackeray once said about the writings of Henry Mayhew, the chronicler of the London poor: we had but to go 100 yards off and see for ourselves, but we never did.

On being asked whether I make it all up, I reply that, far from doing so, I downplay the dreadfulness of the situation and omit the worst cases that come to my attention so as not to distress the reader unduly. The reality of English lower-class life is far more terrible than I can, with propriety, depict. My interlocutors nod politely and move on to the next subject.

My advice: go the 100 yards and see for yourself.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Life at the Bottom

I've just started reading another book by the remarkable essayist and social commentator Theodore Dalrymple. In Life At The Bottom: The Worldview That Makes The Underclass, Dalrymple chronicles his first hand observations of the English underclass whom he has seen as physician and psychiatrist in both a London hospital serving the poorest area of the city, and a prison, as well as addresses the ideas which he sees as the cause of the social horror he describes. Here are a few brief excerpts from the introduction and the first chapter:

Their ideas make themselves manifest even in the language they use. The frequency of locutions of passivity is a striking example. 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.

When a man tells me, in explaination of his anti-social behavior, that he is easily led, I ask him whether he was ever easily led to study mathematics or the subjunctives of French verbs. Invariably the man begins to laugh: the absurdity of what he has said is immediately apparent to him.

Another burglar demanded to know from me why he repeatedly broke into houses and stole VCRs. He asked the question aggressively, as if "the system" had so far let him down in not supplying him with the answer; as if it were my duty as a doctor to provide him with the buried psychological secret that, once revealed, would in and of itself lead him unfailingly on the path of virtue. Until then he would continue to break into houses and steal VCRs (when at liberty to do so), and the blame would be mine. When I refused to examine his past, he exclaimed, "But something must make me do it!" "How about greed, laziness, and a thirst for excitement?" I suggested. "What about my childhood?" he asked. "Nothing to do with it," I replied firmly.

Statistical association has been taken indiscriminately as proving causation: thus if criminal behavior is more common among the poorer classes, it must be poverty that causes crime... Here the subliminal influence of Marxist philosophy surfaces: the notion that it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. If this were so, men would still live in caves; but it has just enough plausibility to shake the confidence of the middle classes that crime is a moral problem, not just a problem of morale.