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Dalrymple's on target with dyspeptic view of humanity

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"Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses" by Theodore Dalrymple; Ivan R. Dee ($27.50)


In this engrossing, surgically incisive book, Theodore Dalrymple, the pen name of British physician and psychiatrist Anthony Daniels, establishes himself as the George Orwell of the right.

Like Orwell, he's intelligent, witty, uncommonly perceptive about human affairs, and scathingly honest about human folly. He's also a writer of rare literary grace, a pleasure to read even if you don't always agree with his somewhat dyspeptic view of humanity.

Dalrymple might sound like a curmudgeon at times, but at heart I think he's really that rarest of animals, a compassionate conservative whose experience has taught him that society is held together not by government nannyism and mushy permissive rhetoric but by personal restraint and responsibility, buttressed by long-standing cultural conventions and taboos.

When individual and communal inhibitions are discarded, when standards are abandoned as "elitist," as they have been in Western cultures, then those cultures become coarse, violent and fragmented, he says.

Specifically, Dalrymple argues, rejection of traditional cultural mores produces a proliferating underclass that lives for the short term, often criminally and violently.

Dalrymple knows the underclass intimately; he worked for years as a prison doctor in Britain. His short essays for London's Spectator magazine usually recounted professional encounters with feckless, drugged-out, abused and angry social incompetents.

These pathetic unfortunates populated Dalrymple's last, equally engrossing book, "Life at the Bottom," a collection of essays originally published in the American quarterly City Journal.

"Our Culture, What's Left of It" consists of 26 more City Journal essays that explore more expansively the state of what is often jokingly referred to as "Western civilization."

Based on what he has seen in Europe, Dalrymple concludes that the West is coming apart at the seams because of misguided social legislation and a paternalistic mind-set that values "victimhood" over responsibility.

Dalrymple's range in this collection is impressive, from arts and letters to society, religion, politics and history.

He establishes the tone of his book in the first sentence of the preface: "The fragility of civilization is one of the great lessons of the twentieth century." He then proceeds to discuss how and why such fragility manifests itself in the Western democracies.

He begins with an inquiry into the nature of evil: Why do so many people commit evil acts? The author ultimately blames the "moral cowardice of the intellectual and political elites," especially in Britain, whose beliefs and policies encourage "libertinism."

Dalrymple is a great admirer of Shakespeare, who he believes has delineated humanity's moral and ethical conflicts more succinctly and poetically than anyone before or since.

He's particularly inflamed by the mounting coarseness, sexual and otherwise, of contemporary culture. He opens the chapter titled "What's Wrong with Twinkling Buttocks" by observing that "A crude culture makes a coarse people, and private refinement cannot long survive public excess." He could be describing "reality" television.

In the essays dealing with social and political issues, Dalrymple argues persuasively against legalizing drugs and for curbing licentiousness. Societies need taboos and conventions as well as personal restraint, he writes, otherwise they become chaotic and dangerous.

His essay on Islam is perhaps the most timely. He argues that "the unassailable status of the Qu'ran in Islamic education, thought and society is ultimately Islam's greatest disadvantage in the modern world.

"Islam in the modern world is weak and brittle, not strong: that accounts for its so frequent shrillness," he adds.

Such bluntness is typical of Dalrymple's response to life around him, which he concludes is characterized by shrill ideological debates, emotional shallowness (see the essay on the death of Princess Diana) and the general vulgarity of modern culture. Elitist? Perhaps, but certainly on target.


(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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