The Magazine

Harm's Way

The roads in Britain are paved with good intentions.

Apr 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 30 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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Not with a Bang but a Whimper

The Politics and Culture of Decline

by Theodore Dalrymple

Ivan R. Dee, 246 pp., $26

The British sociologist Frank Furedi has hailed the victory of Barack Obama last November as meaning "the disintegration of silent-majority populism" in America. In other words, Richard Nixon's "silent majority" is now not only a minority but more silent than ever.

I have my doubts about the truth of this diagnosis of American politics, but it is much more true of Britain since the watershed victory of New Labour in the 1997 election--with what results you may discover in the writings of Theodore Dalrymple. That is the pen name of Anthony Daniels, a recently retired prison doctor who, for more than 30 years, has spoken up for the ever more silent minority of Britons opposed to the liberal-progressive and multicultural consensus--and is one of the few such voices still able to make itself heard as he warns of a moral and social breakdown in Britain that the rest of the media and the government collude in hiding from general view.

His new book, when compared with such hard-hitting earlier works as Life at the Bottom and Our Culture, What's Left of It is a more relaxed and reflective collection of essays on literature, history, and culture as well as politics--a demonstration of his considerable range of reference as well as a polemic. He is also a sort of anthologist, like all the best essayists and men of letters, with a wide store of reading to draw on. This book includes essays on Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, Ibsen, Arthur Koestler, J. G. Ballard, and Anthony Burgess, but he often applies his literary insights to the social problems that are always intersecting with the cultural ones, just as they do in real life.

One of the best things here is its takedown of Steven Pinker on the assumption that "grammatical latitudinarianism is the natural ideological ally of moral and cultural relativism." He calls upon his long experience as a prison doctor to document the ways in which social problems and poor language skills go together.

But there is plenty here, too, to make the blood of Americans run cold when they reflect on the similarities between the Obamaniacs of today and the Blairites of 1997. The many hypocrisies and deceptions on which the New Labour coalition was built are typified by the system of criminal justice with which, in his prison job, Daniels had an intimate acquaintance. Citing the work of a whistle-blowing policeman named David Fraser, he compares the British police to

a nearly defeated occupying colonial force that, while mayhem reigns everywhere else, has retreated to safe enclaves, there to shuffle paper and produce bogus information to propitiate its political masters. Their first line of defense is to refuse to record half the crime that comes to their attention, which itself is less than half the crime committed. Then they refuse to investigate recorded crime, or to arrest the culprits even when it is easy to do so and the evidence against them is overwhelming, because the prosecuting authorities will either decline to prosecute, or else the resultant sentence will be so trivial as to make the whole procedure (at least nineteen forms to fill in after a single arrest) pointless.

The real question is, why isn't this clearly appalling state of affairs a scandal in Britain? I think the answer is that the media consensus there--and to a large extent here--includes certain core principles, such as that crime is caused by something other than criminals and that imprisonment is society's shame, rather than that of the incarcerated, which can only be protected by maintaining these hypocrisies and deceptions, and with them, the illusion that nothing can be done about most crime. Therefore, the media are complicit in pretending that these problems don't exist--because they shouldn't exist.

That is also the point, I think, of the doctor's quotation from T. S. Eliot to the effect that "half the harm that is done in the world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't want to do harm--but the harm does not interest them .  .  . or they do not see it .  .  . because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves."