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Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass
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604 of 617 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 20, 2005
Format: Paperback
I got this book after listening to Mr. Dalrymple interviewed by Dennis Prager, a radio host based in Los Angeles. I was raised in a lowerclass family which fell from the middle class when my dad would not stop drinking and spending money on "toys" for himself rather than things like the rent and the electric bill. We moved from cheap apartment complex to cheap apartment complex. Like many of the individuals described in Life at the Bottom, my own father found blame for his "misfortunes" in everyone and everything but himself and his lack of selfcontrol when it came to alcohol, money, and his temper. I have watched friends raised in middle class homes end up on welfare or living hand-to-mouth because they have not one or two, but three or more children with three or more men (who, of course, pay no support and never marry the women), and their low-level office jobs cannot possibly pay for the needs of a family of 4. Yet without exception the women blame "men" as the foundation of their problems, not their own promiscuity or their apparent lack of knowledge concerning the rudiments of birth control.
It was with these experiences in mind that I read Life at the Bottom.
Mr Dalrymple shows in essay after essay how the choices the underclass in Britain make determines their destiny. There are countless parallels to American life - the rampant gambling that goes on in casinos and in bingo parlors (and those who cannot stop then blame the casino for their problem!); the spending of needed cash on lottery tickets; the horrible standard of education that graduates illiterate young adults who can barely add in their heads; the ignorance of science, history and math that students display; women who go from one violent man to another, making baby after baby with them and then saying they "love him" and cannot leave him. The stories are pathetic and frustrating because the "victims" are their own hindrance. They live in some sort of parallel universe where they have no more control over their emotions or actions than a squirrel or a worm, and blame their problems on the government, the bureaucracy, their parents, the pubs, the casinos, their teachers... everyone carries the victim's sin on their own shoulders, because the underclass itself is not responsible for anything.
One story that has stayed with me was one in which Mr. Dalrymple says the patients he sees often refer to their violent, brutish, immoral behavior as "not really me," as though inside the skin of a drunken, gang-banging wife-beater beats the heart of a noble knight that is too deeply imbedded to be truly exercised.
Some reviewers have noted that the author does a lot of complaining, yet has no answers. That is the point of the book, isn't it? There is no one outside of these people who can change them. More government agencies? More welfare money? More policemen? What? The entire theme of the book is the relinquishing of personal responsibility by the underclass so that they can live and die as they see fit and someone else can foot the bill. How many young men in Britain are forced to rob cars, rape women, steal food, skip school, have numerous children by numerous women, tattoo and pierce themselves, drink themselves silly in pubs, etc? What magic pill is there for these miscreants that does not come from inside the individual himself?
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275 of 289 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2002
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
The review from Publisher's Weekly makes many points, but begins with a fallacy: Dalrymple's repeated claim is precisely that these people are NOT 'trapped in destructive behaviors and environments' but that most of them, while they may well feel trapped, are there as a consequence of their own choices. His examples and insights are particularly useful for Americans who naturally associate these behaviors with our own experience, where they correlate with race. Dalrymple makes it clear that they do correlate with culture (e.g. different populations from India now residing in Britain have very different crime and drop-out rates,though they all look 'Indian' and so should all have the same experience of racism or non-inclusion). The book is a collection of shorter pieces and could have used some editing of content (to reduce repetition) and of style (the vocabulary editing for the U.S. reader is inconsistent), but the cumulative evidence of Dalrymple's experience cannot be waved away. As he points out early on, if a person's fate in life is pre-determined by his social and physical environment, then we should all still be living in caves... Certainly in a modern and liberal society, citizens have the right to pursue their own lives and their own visions (and versions) of 'happiness.' But whether the rest of us should subsidize the layabouts is another question. Publisher's Weekly is quite wrong in saying that he 'offers few conrete or theoretical solutions.' Dalrymple is crystal clear on that: take responsibility for your own life; the greater community will help in an emergency, but will not provide a home and a meal ticket for years. This book is worthwhile reading for everyone.
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52 of 53 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2005
Format: Paperback
Some books you either love or you hate. This is one of those books. I myself thought it was one of the greatest I've read all year. 'Life at the Bottom' touches on a variety of topics, and it is to Dalrymple's credit that such a coherent, clear-eyed critique emerged. Something is rotten in the state of modern times. You know it; I know it. At the bottom of all this is a desire to be excused from any restraint and responsibility.

Dalrymple cites from his personal experiences of what well-meaning social theories have wrought on those it meant to help. The results are plainly hideous, but at the same time are glossed over behind talk of sensitivity, diversity and tolerance. Each essay is meandering but interesting - there is no filler. The incoherence of multiculturalism is highlighted in 'Reader, she married him-Alas'. The darker side of freedom is portrayed in 'Freedom to Choose'. My personal favorite was 'Tough Love', which shows the fruits of the sexual revolution in mature bloom. The results seem a mixed blessing at best, and not only because of the unwanted children, the abortions and the broken homes. We demand sexual freedom for ourselves but fidelity from others. A recipe for jealousy if ever there was one, and it is noteworthy that jealousy is the most frequent trigger for violence between the sexes. This incoherence is a large cause for the ever-growing surrealism in our society.

In the end, this book shows that our attitudes author our destiny. Dalrymple says what is considered heresy in many circles - that the poor are there because of life choices. But having spent my childhood among the poor, there are many things in Dalrymple's Britain I immediately recognize. A lack of responsibility, a sense of entitlement, and a vague anger toward any example that would otherwise force them to ask: "why did he make it and not me?" Sadly, they rarely look at the most likely culprit for their failures: themselves. Everyone else is to blame, not me. One must wonder when Dalrymple's essays cease to be anecdotes and start to show the deeper flaws of our progressive ideals. As I read 'Life on the Bottom', I kept hearing myself think: Finally the truth. We've fought the battle for human rights; the battle for human obligation lies ahead.
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101 of 110 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 2005
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Sometimes quotes do a book the greatest justice, and since Dalrymple is a far better writer than I am, I'll give you a few excerpts.

"The combination of relativism and antipathy to traditional culture has played a large part in creating the underclass, thus turning Britain from a class to a caste society. ... Henceforth what they had and what they did was as good as anything, because all cultures and all cultural artifacts are equal. Aspiration was therefore pointless: and thus they have been immobilized in their poverty -- material, mental, and spiritual -- as completely as the damned in Dante's Inferno. Having in large part created this underclass, the British intelligentsia, guilty about its own allegedly undemocratic antecedents, feels obliged to flatter it by imitation and has persuaded the rest of the middle class to do likewise."

"The designs of [professional tattooists] are elaborate and often executed with exquisite skill, though I am reminded of an old medical dictum that if a thing is not worth doing -- radical mastectomy, for instance -- it is not worth doing well."

"Very few of the sixteen-year-olds whom I meet as patients can read and write with facility; they do not even regard my question as to whether they can read and write as in the least surprising or insulting. ... One can tell merely by the way these youths handle a pen or a book that they are unfamiliar with these instruments."

"I cannot recall meeting a sixteen-year-old white from the public housing estates that are near my hospital who could multiply nine times seven (I do not exaggerate). Even three by seven often defeats them. One boy of seventeen told me, 'We didn't get that far.'"

"Even in behavior, the new orthodoxy for all classes is that, since nothing is better and nothing is worse, the worse is better because it is more demotic."

Even quotes can't really do the book justice; you really need the full context to appreciate the depth of Dalrymple's thought and insight. If you only have $12 left in your bank account, spend it on this book.
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35 of 35 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 10, 2004
Format: Paperback
Anyone familiar with the web magazine City Journal has already heard of Theodore Dalrymple. City Journal is one of the best magazines on the web and probably the single best for issues relating to urban concerns. Given the high standards of City Journal, it says something that Dalrymple's writing is probably the best on that site. As a doctor in a British prison and at a hospital in a British slum, he comes into daily contact with members of the underclass and, even more important, with the ideas that guide (or more appropriately, misguide) their lives.

LIFE AT THE BOTTOM is a collection of articles Dalrymple has previously published on the underclass. Many books that republish articles revolving around a central theme often hang together rather loosely. Fortunately that is not the case here. LATB provides a very coherent and very powerful snapshot of the mentality and psychology at play in the slums. The ideas overtly expressed by Dalrymple's patients are painfully seen by people not of the underclass as far more responsible for keeping people mired in poverty than any economic woes that they may be experiencing.

There are many stengths to this book. One of the most important is simply that the essays are so incredibly readable. Dalrymple's essays are very realistic and his subjects vividly portrayed. This ability to portray those in the underclass so well is particularly important given that many others in society refuse to even recognize that the underclass exists. One of the more frightening things I have read in Dalrymple's essays (though I must admit I cannot remember if it was in this book or one of his other published pieces) is when he told of a man at a dinner party who asked Dalrymple, in all seriousness, whether the essays he writes are true!

Another strength of this book was noted by Thomas Sowell. Many factors which keep the underclass in perpetual poverty and turmoil are internal factors such as how one thinks about crime and education rather than external factors such as economics. As most of the underclass in Britain are white, this book allows us to examine those internal social pathologies without the typical howls of racism for even raising the issue. (Though on the down side, this may be used to deny the applicability of Dalrymple's observations to Americans. One friend of mine, a standard leftist whose vision of race has typically been sucked into an ideological vortex, flatly rejected any statement I made about this book because of this.)

Dalrymple unfortunately does not spend much time with the question of what is to be done. The obvious answer is to look at what is being done wrong and then stop doing it. There is a significant problem with this, however. It is true that maladaptive behavior keeping one mired in poverty often seems obvious to those not in the underclass. Yet such people are not in the underclass specifically BECAUSE it is obvious to them. It is not obvious to those in the underclass itself.

Because of this, LATB, while very good in its own right, cannot be read in isolation. Other source material should be read. One excellent book is THE DREAM AND THE NIGHTMARE by Myron Magnet, which discusses how many of the ideas that have had such a devastating impact on the underclass originated among the rich and elite to distance themselves from the rubes of the middle class. The rich, however, usually have a social context preventing them from going off the cliff and also have large safety nets for those few who do. Yet when the same ideas are communicated to the poor, in a further attempt to marginalize middle class morality, the results are far more disastrous, both for the individuals involved and for society as a whole. This helps us to understand that one powerful way of addressing the problems of the underclass is to focus not simply on the underclass itself (though certainly this must be done) but also on the elites whose ideas have helped create this problem but whose finances have allowed them to live comfortably away from it.

If nothing else, LATB provides an excellent service by instructing us that the underclass does exist and that the problems attendant with it are due more to attitudes and opinions rather than lack of cash. To Dalrymple's dinner guest, the answer is yes, these stories are unfortunately all too real.
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41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on August 18, 2006
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
In this fascinating collection of essays, Dr. Dalrymple proposes a compelling thesis. Over the last twenty-five years a new type of underclass has emerged in western societies, an underclass that uses the welfare system in all its forms, subsidised housing, free by-weekly pay checks, child support and free medical benefits. From a liberal political standpoint, this support for the nation's "have nots" is a compassionate gesture to take care of its own poor. One would logically assume that providing the poor with life's essentials would bring the crime rate down and provide incentive for these people to further their standing in society. In fact, as Dalrymple proposes, it has had an opposite effect: crime in his native England has skyrocketed; drug use is at an all time high and domestic violence is a wide spread common occurrence. Why? Liberal values not economics has created individuals that deny any responsibility for their own lives, it is always the rich, the government or societies institutions that is to blame, thus crime continues to rise while England's Welfare State has grown into an unwieldy Goliath.

Dalrymple has worked in numerous countries and has been an attending physician and psychiatric consultant in London's prisons for many years. Thus his thesis is not born from some abstract social theory about human behaviour. He has treated thousands of victims of domestic violence, consulted thousands of prisoners who have been incarcerated for petty crime to murder. The common thread that runs through all these cases is a pathological denial of responsibility for their own circumstances or conditions.

As Dalrymple explains:

"Like so many modern ills, the coarseness of spirit and behaviour grows out of ideas brewed up in the academy and among intellectuals - ideas that have seeped outward and are now having their practical effect on society. The relativism that has ruled the academy for many years has now come to rule the mind of the population." (P.85)

In other words, this post modern notion that there is no high and low art, no good and bad, no subtlety and crudeness, only relative perspectives; taking this further, our behaviour too is not individually determined, but society and its oppressive inequalities that make me who I am, and a biological predisposition which causes me to steal from the old lady next door, beat my wife beyond recognition and consume drugs and alcohol like there is no tomorrow. The trickling down of these academic theories, biological determinism, Marxism and the post modern theory that there are no levels of hierarchical values, only difference, has created an underclass of victims who believe they should get something for nothing and commit crime because society has created them as victims as self-determinism does not exist.

Dalrymple provides numerous real life examples from his practice working in a hospital in London. His writing style is straight forward, at times literary but never sentimental. The arguments in these essays are persuasive and push the reader to examine the underlying modern ideologies that have created and sustain a well provided for underclass of criminal "victims".
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32 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2003
Format: Hardcover
He's young. He's quit school. He never works but has enough money to go to the clubs. His mother is on welfare, his dad hasn't been seen for ages. He's head is shaved, his arms are tattooed, he scorns education or anyone who wants to rise above the place where he lives. He's been to jail and will probably go again. He's also white and lives in London. Welcome to the underclass.
Dr. Theodore Dalrymple's book is unflinching and describes underclass life without sentiment or excuses. He shows what underclass life is and offers no encouragement at all to anyone who thinks that the government can somehow save all these people from themselves.It's an extremely sobering book.
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I just finished reading Theodore Dalrymple's brilliant look at underclass British life, "Life at the Bottom." The author outlines in almost brutal detail the life and "code" of the underclass world of crime, senseless violence, drugs, poverty, illegitimacy, nihilism, and most importantly, a total (and sometimes scary) refusal to accept even a shred of responsibility of one's lot in life. One particular example of this that really struck me is when the author describes why men who physically abuse their live-in girlfriends or common-law spouses attempt suicide:
1. To induce the girlfriend to call an ambulance rather than the police;
2. To warn her not to leave him because he might kill himself, thus applying extreme emotional blackmail on the battered woman; and
3. To present themselves as victims of their own abusive behavior - and therefore not responsible for it - and in need of treatment.
(It doesn't help that in most cases the battered women almost never leave their abusive significant others, and will always forgive and forget after the man "promises" never to do it again.)
Compounding the underclass way of life in Britain are the ideas developed and propogated by Britain's liberal intelligensia which support it. To quote the author: "The intellectual's struggle to deny the obvious is never more desperate than when reality is unpleasant and at variance with his preconceptions and when full acknowledgement of it would undermine the foundations of his intellectual worldview." Dalrymple examines the mental mechanisms of the liberal elite as pertaining to the underclass as follows:
1. Outright denial (e.g. "It's not so much that crime is increasing as people's willingness or ability to report it...");
2. Historical comparisons with periods hundreds of years ago as opposed to thirty, or even ten years ago (e.g. "Violence and vulgarity have ALWAYS been a part of modern British life.");
3. Once intellectuals begrudgingly admit the facts, they immediately deny or pervert their moral significance (e.g. "Vulgarity is liberty from unhealthy and psychologically deforming inhibition,... those who oppose it are elitist...").
Furthermore, as the author explains, liberal elites are knee-jerk quick to blame the plight of the British underclass on the "elitist, bourgeouis, establishment society" from which it was supposedly spawned, viewing underclass pathology as a kind of rebellious self-expressiveness against upperclass culture. Again, personal responsibility does not enter into the equation.
In his own review of the book, Thomas Sowell said it best that "The fact that the setting is a white underclass community in Britain may enable some people to see and acknowledge a pattern of self-destruction that they may be reluctant to acknowledge in America, for fear of being considered racist." I couldn't agree more.
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2002
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Dalrymple has written a book in simple, direct prose that every conservative should read. The suggestion that ideas have consequences, and that the left-liberal intellectual establishment excepts itself from any but the ornamental adoption of these ideas, is not just deeply unpopular but completely ignored by the media and the educational establishment. In short, behaviors that work fine for the priviliged (the educated, the financially secure, the intelligent, and the focussed) are a disaster for the underclass.
And, to be frank, don't always have benign results for the priviliged, either. One of the most appalling effects of turning 50 is the sheer weight of accumulated anecdotal evidence that, as it was once put, that "the wages of sin are death". Or perhaps more mordantly by parents everywhere, "You fool around and fool around and someone always gets hurt."
I look forward to reading more of Theodore Dalrymple's work. Not only can he write with pungency and style, but he tells stories that need to be told anew, since Aesop and Plutarch have gone out of fashion.
And I hope he survives the rigors of his profession.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 2002
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
_Life at the Bottom_ is divided into two sections, entitled "Grim Reality" and "Grimmer Theory", each consisting of a number of essays which were originally published in City Journal. There's not a huge qualitative difference between the two sections -- the essays in "Grimmer Theory" have perhaps a more explicit theoretical content, but they're still anecdote-laced and far from mere analysis.
Dalrymple is a physician in a hospital and nearby prison in urban Great Britain. Each essay explores how various patients of his wreck their own lives with stupid and self-destructive behavior. A recurring theme of the essays, made more explicit in the "Grimmer Theory" essays and in the introduction, is that these people (the "underclass" of the book's title) destroy themselves by adopting and living on the principles of elite intellectuals. Sexual freedom, the unsanctity of family, the specialness of victims, the victim status of criminals, moral relativism, nihilism, and similar ideas cut great bloody swathes in the lives of those that try to live by them.
This is Dick Weaver's _Ideas Have Consequences_, volume II.
Dalrymple is a good, clear writer who displays compassion for his patients but no willingness to whitewash their abysmally stupid decisions. _Life at the Bottom_ is occasionally a depressing read, but is very illuminating and worth reading.
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