Theodore Dalrymple’s Life At The Bottom

Life At The BottomOne of the more insidious of Marxism’s dictums, implicitly subscribed to by most of today’s self-styled liberals, is that “class determines consciousness,” and not the other way around – though, to be fair to modern partisans of this idea, it has undergone an expansion: class/race/gender/sexuality determine consciousness, except of course for those enlightened few who, having accepted this fact, achieve a measure of transcendence. The basic thesis of Dalrymple’s book Life At The Bottom: The Worldview That Makes The Underclass is that a malignant relativism has crept its way from the halls of academia, where it was merely foolish, into the streets of England, where it has done much damage. This relativism manifests itself in a destruction of culture: the standards of behaviour, thought and even speech that were once markers of refinement, universally aspired to, are annulled in favor of the more democratic “anything goes.” In theory, this means an end to “cultural imperialism” and the bullying of nonconformists; in practice, it has restricted horizons, enslaved men and women to their basest desires and, in Dalrymple’s clever phrasing, transformed the poor “from a class into a caste,” for it is exactly those same banished virtues – among them temperance, thrift and industry – that allow people to better themselves, economically, intellectually and spiritually.

The first of Dalrymple’s aims is to make us see what he, as a doctor in an English slum, sees every day of his life: the drug use, the violence, the sexual abuse and family breakdown, the illiteracy and ignorance – in short, the despair of the lower classes. But, Dalrymple is quick to point out, this despair is spiritual in nature, not material. Life’s barest necessities, even modern comforts and conveniences such as satellite television and smartphones, are available to most of his patients. What they lack is education, not in the strictly formal sense of schooling (though, by any objective standards, what little schooling they get is abysmal in quality) but in its more esoteric sense: the knowledge of history, art and literature that allows us to situate ourselves in the universe, expand our interests and reach for something more than the transitory satisfactions of mere entertainment. I thought immediately of a section of W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls Of Black Folk, in which he describes the joys of his belated encounter with the giants of English literature and reflects on what a cruelty was inflicted on black Americans in their being denied this pleasure beyond pleasure:

I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?

What does it mean to be wed with Truth, to dwell above the veil? For DuBois, for me, for anyone so lucky to have experienced this pleasure, it means freedom, a transcendence of time and place, an escape into the sublime. Contrast DuBois’ comments with Dalrymple’s description of the English lower classes:

The lamentable fact is that a considerable proportion of the English population is simply unaware of the need for education. It seems stuck with the Victorian idea that England is by right and divine providence the workshop of the world, that Englishmen by virtue of their place of birth come into the world knowing all that is necessary for them to know, and that if there are no jobs to employ their unskilled (and, it must be said, rather reluctant) labor, it is the fault of the government in league with the plutocrats in top hats and tails who have conspired to exploit cheap Japanese labor.

One of the important consequences of an education is, per Socrates, humility: you become aware of how the sum total of what you know pales in comparison to all that you do not know, and I have seen this same unflinching self-confidence in generations of college students similarly convinced of their own moral rectitude.

Life under what Dalrymple calls the “regime of zero intolerance” is violent and unpleasant, but the intelligentsia responsible for propagating these foolish beliefs have (for the most part) escaped the worst of these consequences, largely because, while they have preached toleration, they have continued to hold themselves to the standards of the past (for a fuller account of this behavioural gap, see Charles Murray’s Coming Apart). In this respect they are not merely fools but hypocrites as well. If they kept their self-righteousness in check long enough to hear their conscience, it would speak in Theodore Dalrymple’s voice: “It is the prerogative of the unthinkingly prosperous to sneer at the bourgeois virtues.”