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Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline
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179 of 183 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2008
Theodore Dalrymple's newest book, a collection of essays chiefly written for the magazine "City Journal," documents beneath the author's trademark wit and irony the sad decadence of contemporary Britain and the resultant loss of "Britishness," a grand tradition of civility and "common decency."

"Britishness," as Dalrymple understands it, once widespread throughout the English populace, though, of course, never universal, was a set of manners marked by "tolerance, compromise..., gentlemanly reserve, respect for privacy, individuality, a ready acceptance and even affection for eccentricity, a belief in the rule of law, [and] a profound sense of irony...." Principal famous - and diverse - models of this behavior Dalrymple convincingly identifies as Dr. Samuel Johnson, Joseph Conrad (the Pole become properly assimilated Englishman), and, his economic views notwithstanding, the incomparable George Orwell.

The loss of "Britishness" began with the post-World War Two decline of British power in the world. Politicians, careerist bureaucrats, and a growing "progressive" intelligentsia hastened its demise. Proponents of the welfare state, for instance, inadvertently or by design, encouraged a formerly self-reliant populace to adopt a sense of entitlement and expect the government to be responsible for its happiness or lack of same. Crime was redefined by police department bureaucrats eager to show its reduction. It was no longer an attack on the safety and welfare of the law-abiding but now an understandable reaction against oppressive external forces, and therefore more deserving of therapeutic reponse than of punishment in the form of lengthy jail sentences. Finally, the growing intelligentsia, fond of "ceaseless carping," made its fatal contribution to this social disaster by introducing and holding with complete uncritical dogmatism theories of multiculturalism, thus inadvertently keeping hordes of new immigrants self-satisfied in parochial enclaves while closing to them the actual routes of social advancement. A high Western culture to be shared was now ignored, if not denied, so that all the disparate groups newly composing Britain wound up with little more in common than a debased "pop" culture and perhaps a lust for shopping. Dalrymple's dire observation is that by offering such emptiness to new immigrant groups many young people among them are left defenseless against the sophistry of fundamentalist preachers of hate and terrorism.

Far from being a curmudgeon, Dalrymple is a profoundly serious essayist who challenges frivolous British politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals to examine their own dogmas and the stereotypes they have promoted over the last decades, if only to see squarely and directly what they have wrought. As a genuine disturber of complacency, he can hope for no warmer a welcome than such types usually receive. In our age, he will not, of course, be given hemlock to drink. Rather, he will most likely be ignored by those who place a pride and a merit in refusing to see the obvious.
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111 of 113 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2008
As a disclaimer, I think that Dr. Theodore Dalrymple possesses one of the most important and insightful minds in all of conservadom. He's one of five men whom immediately command my attention whenever I discover that they have authored a new article or essay. I've read most of what this retired English psychiatrist has written since 2001 due to my having a subscription to The New Criterion (since that time). I've also devoured all of his City Journal pieces since the new millennium began. Therefore, I figured that I would simply skim this book; a notion that lasted until I got to page 2. At that point, I gave it my full focus as the opinions of Dr. Dalrymple are unlike those you will find elsewhere.

In these pages our narrator acts like a private Oxford Don instructing us both on the ways of humanity and the world. The one thing that the political left will never understand is that the doctor's detached voice is drenched in compassion and kindness. He offers us reality which is far more empathic than any gesture you'll receive from a utopian. Dr. Dalyrmple is appalled by what his native Britain has turned into but never lets his emotions interfere with the telling of the truth. His entire oeuvre is rooted in common sense but accentuated by erudition. Dr. Dalrymple thinks many of the same thoughts that the rest of us do but is better able to elucidate them due to his superior intelligence and breadth of experience.

The strongest essays here are "The Roads to Serfdom" [how pertinent this could be after next week's election], "A Murderess's Tale," "In the Asylum," "Multiculturalism Starts Losing Its Luster," and an analysis of A Clockwork Orange called "A Prophetic and Violent Masterpiece." Basically, political correctness--along with its corresponding effluvia concerning sensitivity, tolerance, multiculturalism, and the multivariate isms of sex, race, and class--is chiefly concerned with one thing: lying. PC demands we lie as a means to relate to one another. We have to be obsessed by the feelings of "the other"--even if it necessitates our not communicating at all. Dr. Dalrymple refuses to be the drone of our academic elites so he peers his exacting eyes into the culture as a whole, including topics ranging from the methodology of the English justice system to the faculty of language. This is a masterful work by one of our greatest masters.
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77 of 79 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2008
"Liberals ... have destroyed the family and any notion of progress or improvement. They have made a world in which the only freedom is self-indulgence, a world from which -most terrible of all- prison can sometimes be a liberation."

A keen observer and one who can write so concisely, and express himself this well, has to be treasured by anyone who enjoys the art of reading: "I miss, for instance, the sudden illumination into the worldview of my patients that their replies to simple questions sometimes gave me." This simple idea would have cost me a whole to explain. The author has now retired from his psychiatric work in the slums of Britain, and has moved to the hardly safer land of France.

I specially enjoyed the chapters on Anthony Burgess's The Clockwork Orange, the futuristic story that proved so true in today's Britain. One of the sentences that describes in a nutshell the state of the Western world is: "So thoroughly have we drunk at the wells of collectivism that we see the state always as the solution to any problem, never as an obstacle to be overcome. One can gauge how completely collectivism has entered our soul -so that we are now a people of the government, for the government, by the government."

And how about this one for the state of our education system: "The intelligent are not taught what they could learn, while the unintelligent are taught what they cannot learn."

Dalrymple pinpoints the hypocrisy of the left, and how easily they get away with it among our modern bread-and-circus lovers: "One consequence of the liberal intelligentsia's song march through the institutions is the acceptance of the category of Thoughtcrime. On the other hand, political correctness permits genuine incitement to murder -such as the BEHEAD THOSE WHO INSULT ISLAM placards ? to go completely unpunished. Other people, other customs."

And how the state of of law -even- has retreated from their role of protecting us to securing their purity of heart in an liberally brainwashed society: "Proving their purity of heart is now more important to them than securing the safety of our streets."

The book is written in the calm but amusing tone of this very cultured -while still down to earth- man, far from the rage of Mrs Fallaci, but equally shrewd observer. A wonderful read, even if you're a leftist.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on November 20, 2008
This is a truly inspiring collection of fine essays by a wonderful writer who brings so much style, so much content that it is a pleasure to read even as it tears the heart. This is a way of appreciating the world through a wise man's eyes and I cannot recommend this book any more strongly. If everyone read it with an open mind and listened to these words, we might -- just might -- have one more chance to save ourselves. Vain hope but while reading these words, one can hope. Thank you for taking the time to read this and please do read this book. In fact, please buy it. This one is a keeper.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2010
If you are of the view that UK is in moral decline or at least expect that this may be the case and if you are searching for explanations, then this books is for you. I came to this land nearly 20 years ago and since then I have come to love many aspects of it: the English Cathedral Towns, the politeness of many folk, the beautiful landscape, Evensong in an Anglican Cathedral and the sense that one is in an ancient and great civilisation. At the same time as I have been growing to love this great land, I have also realised that the things which I love about this land are in terminal decline. I have been particularly sensitive to this decline since 1997 and the election of New Labour. Since then, in my view, the decline has accelerated, particularly in terms of the standards in public life, politics and the media being the key ones. A long with that, the false idea of freedom, namely that freedom is enabling everyone to do what they please, regardless of the good for them or for the common good, has been pursued relentlessly by Government and has been legislated for. I am of course referring to the many laws which have been introduced which limit the conscious rights of persons with religious or philosophical beliefs which are contrary to this new ethic of freedom.

What is interesting about this book is that the author explicitly states that he is not a believer and yet his views would be shared by many believers in this country. This is not surprising because Dalrymple believes in such old fashioned things as self control and fostering virtue and ultimately be believes that there is such a thing as right or wrong. The author notes that the British have changed in their character, with sturdy independence being replaced by "Passivity, querulousness or even, at the lower reaches of society, a sullen resentment that not enough has been done for them". The Author sees this change being consequential on the change in the relationship between citizens and the state (yes, I know subjects and the Queen): the author sees an infantalisation at work where people's real choices concern only sex and shopping.

Anyway what we get in this book is a scathing attack of the intelligentsia (he is spot on when he says: "I suspect that intellectual error is at the root of most evil") in our society along with an assessment of the disastrous consequences of their policies on key areas such as the welfare state, schooling (including language tuition and grammar and the policy of appeasement which is being followed), crime and punishment, particularly drugs and diversity and multiculturalism. The changes in attitude to criminals and criminality (prisons as place for therapy rather than punishment) he lays at the feet of criminologists from the 60s.

But before he tackles these particular issues, he sets the scene by telling us why we got this state:

"A cultural gestalt-switch has taken place in the meantime: old virtues such as fortitude were not considered vices, or at least self-betrayal, and self-control a form of emotional blockage. The result has been a society in which people demand the right to do anything they choose, but to be protected, as of right, from the consequences of their own choice"

He then analyses how this has had practical effect and selects the personas of Jonathan Ross, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. These Chapters should be read carefully.

His analysis of what has happened in our schools and in our prisons is particularly scathing, poking fun at those who say Britain has too many prisoners: "as if there were an ideal number of prisoners derived from a purely abstract principle, at which, independent of the number of crimes committed, we should aim". Against those who favour legalising drugs, he has this to say against those who banally say that we should change the law because we are losing the war anyway: "And if the war against drugs is lost, then so are the wars against theft, speeding, incest, fraud, rape, murder, arson and illegal parking. Few if any such wars are winnable"
His chapter devoted to the new atheists is also worth a read, particularly as he himself has no axe to grind, not being a believer himself. He basically finds the exponents to be somewhat adolescent in their attitude but I think really his main problem with them is one of manners - they have not got any respect for the views of others. He wisely notes that in world without purpose, there is no reason to be grateful and "gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency".

All in all this is an excellent book and I commend it to anyone who is trying to understand what has gone wrong with Britain. The problem is one fears that things are going to get worse before they get better. What is most disappointing is that none of the mainstream political parties seem to see the problem - indeed, they often are part of the problem!
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on April 6, 2009
I really like Dalrymple, and I guess I have read every one of his books as well as tons of his essays and opinion pieces. One would think a book, or books, continually delivering the unwavering message that western society as we know it is on the fast track to hell would get depressing, but somehow his books manage to achieve a detachment. I think it is because as a doctor he was able to cope, as doctors do, by viewing the disease instead of the patient to a degree, and thus to be able to describe their horrible decline without becoming emotionally devastated. This only works to a point in life, and Dalrymple has finally left England for France for pretty much this reason, but this skill serves him well when forced to chronicle the decline of a country.

Like his other books this book is a collection of essays on the decline of western civilization, specifically British civilization, using the prism of his background as a doctor in the slums and prisons of England to view this descent. He is circumspect about the decline, and like most doctors is excellent at diagnosing the disease and as impotent as any of us as to how to cure it.
Yet there is some kind of comfort in that "stiff upper lip" analysis that at least lets you know some smart people are aware of what's going on. Cold comfort, but cold is better than nothing.

A collection of essays can sometimes be redundant, but this book is pretty well edited so not a lot of material is repeated. He also uses
a different tack in several of these essays where he more or less reviews books he has read to make a lot of his points and observations, so a decent part of this book serves as a list of authors for the reader to consider. He spent a lot of time on the educational system and suggested, implicitly if not explicity, a book or two from other pseudonym authors. He also spent a lot of time on law enforcement and has an author he highly recommends there as well. That is one area, my observation, where here in the U.S. we haven't quite followed the British model.

In any event, well written, dry, insightful, and although he is probably preaching to the choir with most of his readers, he still takes pains to marshal his facts to make his arguments. If you haven't read him I would probably suggest starting with "Life at the Bottom", a bit better of a book and more likely to hook you. If you already read him, well, it's more of the same- and I mean that in a good way.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2010
I note with sad amusement the review from "Publisher's Weekly," which claims that "the author's forays into literary criticism are appealing if amateurish." Well, how about reversing that, and saying that "Publisher's Weekly" makes appealing but amateurish forays into book-reviewing? The person who called Dalrymple "amateurish" is incapable of dealing with the first essay in this book, "The Gift of Language." This essay is an enjoyable skewering of the pop-intellectual Steven Pinker, but it is much more: it is an argument in favor of the obvious. Skill with language is extremely important in life, but it does not come for "free," despite the linguists who wave their hands and pronounce all languages equal -- and, more zanily, all language USERS as equal.

There must be some reason why Winston Churchill stated that his highest priority in life was attaining mastery over the spoken language. Churchill was born at the top of English society, but he had to WORK at his language. As Dalrymple points out, champion runners need discipline and training; why should we imagine that champion writers (and speakers) do not?

Continuing with his "amateurish" efforts, Dalrymple then offers up an essay I have been wanting to read for a long time: "What Makes Dr. Johnson Great?" A Russian emigre asked Dalrymple this question, in genuine perplexity, and I have long shared that Russian's curiosity. Dalrymple provides the answer, and now I understand why I missed the point for so long. You'll have to read the essay for yourself, but a major part of the answer is intellectual and emotional maturity --- the understanding that we all seek security and excitement, and the further insight that these are conflicting goals, and the final "tragic" insight that human life is bound to be imperfect. Especially brilliant is the comparison between Voltaire's "Candide" and Johnson's "Rasselas."

So this book initially looked like a box of wonderful chocolates: Language, Dr. Johnson, Shakespeare, Koestler, and a blistering chapter on "the new atheists." But, of course, sooner or later the author had to return to the extremely sad situation of present-day Britain, where a delinquent child "raised" by the welfare state actually finds prison to be a liberating experience. You will have to read this very sad book to find out why.

It seems to me that Dalrymple's writing has greatly improved since his early retirement, and therefore I hope there is much to look forward to.

Don't miss this book, especially if you're one of those people who think that America needs to become a lot more like Europe.

Highest possible recommendation!
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 2009
In today's world whose population of adults - mature, responsible individuals - has dwindled alarmingly since the late 1950's, it's a great comfort to read Dalrymple, one of our planet's last surviving, civilized grown-ups. Pity, then, that the so-called Progressive Left, whose self-regarding mindless parrots claim to champion endangered species amd sub-species, trips all over itself to avoid the plight of Dalrymple and the few other remaining mature individuals whose surival is imperiled; and when the Left's not tripping over itself to avoid him, its otiose clones and apologists resort to the Left's only, and entirely juvenile, weapon: they call him names.

Bravo, Dalrymple! More, please?
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 22, 2009
Theodore Dalrymple has written a powerful collection of essays that take a critical look, from a conservative perspective, at today's culture, both its causes and consequences. He sharply points out the problems that liberal ideology has wrought, particularly in his native England, where the state has discouraged self-reliance and promoted living off the state apparatus. By examining specifically the criminal justice system (if it can still be called just), psychiatry, mutliculturalism, the seeds of the terrorist mind-set, and other conditions, circumstances and phenomena of today's world, Dalrymple exposes the mindset, bureaucracy, double-speak and other ills of the modern liberal world-view that have not only caused many of the problems we deal with today, but have also made them worse and more intractable. He does not present a prescription to cure these ills, although one can infer them, but he does expose them to the clear light of reason and reflection. Dalrymple views, particularly because they are expressed so clearly and eloquently, are a must read for both sides of the conservative-liberal debate. I read somewhere that Dalrymple is one of the great essaysts of our time, and his writing does remind me somewhat of G.K. Chesterton's in its erudition, clarity, poignance and humor.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Classic good writing, that's what.
Dalrymple is a pleasure to read, the style is elegant and the ideas ones that should be presented over and over, since people learn so slowly.
I am impressed.
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