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.

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