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Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass Paperback – March 8, 2003
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Dalrymple's vivid writing and often heartbreaking stories rise above his deeply felt social analysis., Publishers Weekly
Brilliant social analysis...a master chronicle of life at the bottom. -- Hilton Kramer
Lucid, unsentimental, and profoundly honest...Dalrymple is one of the great essayists of our age. -- Denis Dutton, Editor, Arts & Letters Daily
This devastating account and analysis of underclass life―and the elite ideas which support it―is a classic for our times. -- Thomas Sowell, Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University
It is a truism that ideas have consequences, but a truism is rarely illustrated as implacably as in this book. -- George F. Will, syndicated columnist for The Washington Post
Theodore Dalrymple is the best doctor-writer since William Carlos Williams. -- Peggy Noonan
Mr. Daniels's best essays cast a spell almost from the opening line., New York Sun
A landmark experience is reading Life at the Bottom…, Detroit Free Press
Once in a long while a writer comes along with a vision so powerful that it shakes you. Theodore Dalrymple is that kind of writer. -- Bruce Ramsey, Liberty Press
About the Author
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The subtitle of the book is "The Worldview That Makes the Underclass." The worldview we glimpse in these pages does not originate with the underclass, but it seeps into their minds from the cultural air they breathe, exhaled by the liberal elite who seem not to understand that ideas do indeed have consequences. I know of no other book that makes that insightful connection is such a powerful way. Hence, the recommendation on the cover from Thomas Sowell, "A classic for our times. It is as fundamental for understanding the world we live in as the three R's." (Sowell often cites stories from Dalrymple in his columns, concluding the citation with the point that the American reader probably thinks the story comes from a black urban environment, but the story actually comes from lower-class British white people. It is the worldview, not the skin color, that is decisive.)
The best line of the book is when he counters the people who say they are "easily led". He points out that he's never heard of someone who was easily led to a better life. They're always "easily led" to drugs or ignorance.
Even if you enjoy it, the book is somewhat depressing and you'll ask yourself what the point his story is. But I think this is actually his goal - to show a realistic, unapologetic depressing look on some of the poor.
Unfortunately, the kinds of people who would be best served by reading this book (awareness and acknowledgement of a habitual/behavioral problem is, after all, the first step), will never read it.
The other group that would be well served to read this are the bleeding hearts who support overly liberal policies. This book provides some disturbingly thought provoking insights into the UK's uber 'Politically Correct' policies and the effects they've had on mentalities and education over there.
Many of the articles written by the author and compiled in this book were written in the 90's and early 2000's and yet, some folks are still pushing the US in that direction, despite contraindications from other countries who've already been there. A reader might be inclined to ask, "Why is that?"
Within the week he and his new girlfriend had killed the child by swinging him against the wall repeatedly by his ankles and smashing his head. At this somewhat belated juncture, society did reluctantly make a judgment: the murderers both received life sentences.” (p. 182)
Sadly, this is only one of many horrifying and depressing incidents recounted in Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass by Anthony Malcolm Daniels (writing under the nom de plume of Theodore Dalrymple). Daniels is a psychiatrist who worked at a British hospital as well as a prison. Through his work, Daniels interacted with thousands of people from Britain’s lower class. The portrait that emerges from these interactions is a life steeped in violence, drug and alcohol addiction, vandalism, theft, suicide, illiteracy, boredom, fear, and despair.
Daniels argues that the majority of the blame for these horrors lies at the feet of the intelligentsia and academia. He argues that ideas are the fundamental factor shaping human life. The ideas proffered by the intellectuals have had devastating effects on those poor individuals who have swallowed them wholesale. Determinism (whether it be of the economic or genetic variety) has led to fatalism among criminals and addicts: after all, they can’t help but do what they were determined to do by factors beyond their control. Relativism has led to a willful abstention from judging any action or individual as bad or as comparatively better or worse than anything else. Daniels recounts repeatedly counseling women who have been abused by violent boyfriends to avoid getting into relationships with such types of men; the women inevitably reply that it is wrong to judge people.
The following is an excerpt from one these interactions between Daniels and a young female patient who “thought the Second World War took place in the 1970s”:
“‘I can look after myself,’ said my seventeen-year-old.
‘But men are stronger than women,’ I said. ‘When it comes to violence, they are at an advantage.’
‘That’s a sexist thing to say,’ she replied.
A girl who had absorbed nothing at school had nevertheless absorbed the shibboleths of political correctness and of feminism in particular.
‘But it’s a plain, straightforward, and inescapable fact,’ I said.
‘It’s sexist,’ she reiterated firmly.” (p. 37)
Daniels states that the hospital where he works regularly employs doctors from foreign countries who come to work a year’s stint; these doctors are usually from poverty-stricken countries. Daniels notes that these doctors are initially impressed by Britain’s generous welfare state, but this initial appraisal quickly sours. Daniels recounts how a doctor from the Philippines saved the life of a heroin addict who had overdosed; when this addict regained consciousness he immediately started verbally abusing the hospital staff. Daniels notes that this behavior did not arise from any initial confusion since it continued until the patient was discharged. Daniels writes:
“My doctors from Bombay, Madras, or Manila observe this kind of conduct open-mouthed. At first they assume that the cases they see are a statistical quirk, a kind of sampling error, and that, given time, they will encounter a better, more representative cross section of the population. Gradually, however, it dawns upon them that what they have seen is representative. When every benefit received is a right, there is no place for good manners, let alone gratitude.” (p. 136)
He goes on to write:
“By the end of three months my doctors have, without exception, reversed their original opinion that the welfare state, as exemplified by England, represents the acme of civilization. On the contrary, they see it now as creating a miasma of subsidized apathy that blights the lives of its supposed beneficiaries. They come to realize that a system of welfare that makes no moral judgments in allocating economic rewards promotes anti-social egotism. The spiritual impoverishment of the population seems to them worse than anything they have ever known in their own countries. And what they see is all the worse, of course, because it should be so much better. The wealth that enables everyone effortlessly to have enough food should be liberating, not imprisoning. Instead it has created a large caste of people for whom life is, in effect, a limbo in which they have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It is a life stymied of meaning.
‘On the whole,’ said one Filipino doctor to me, ‘life is preferable in the slums of Manila.’ He said it without any illusions as to the quality of life in Manila.” (p. 142)
The welfare state readily helps those who refuse to help themselves, but it offers no support to those who seek to better themselves. Daniels tells the stories of two different young women who worked hard to elevate themselves to a better station in life. These brave and dedicated young women received no support from those around them—only insolent jeers since any individual’s achievement would represent a refutation of the fatalism used to excuse their own lack of effort. And as soon as individual effort was extended, the “helpful” hand of the welfare state withdrew. Daniels writes:
“As intelligent as she was forceful, my patient found herself a job as a clerk in a local law office and has worked there ever since. She was thenceforth charged the full economic rent for her miserable room, and all pleas to the authorities on her part to be relocated in public housing were turned down on the grounds that she was already adequately accommodated and in any case was unfit yet to manage her own affairs. As to public assistance for further full-time education, that was out of the question, since in order to pursue such full-time education she would have to give up her job: and she would then be considered to have made herself voluntarily unemployed and thus unentitled to public assistance. But if she cared to become pregnant, why then, public assistance was at hand, in generous quantities.” (p. 161)
One is tempted to believe that the architects of such welfare policies construct them with the goal of keeping people in poverty.
In a politically correct society, morality is inverted. Daniels observes that in such a society, criminals are the “victims” and law-abiding citizens are guilty by default; this is held to be the case due to the Marxist notion that inequality equals injustice and that those who are well off must necessarily be exploiting those who are not. Daniels provides many examples of this phenomena; here’s one: the nurses at his hospital called the police because a patient who was admitted for a drug overdose assaulted another patient. When the police arrived, they stated that they couldn’t do anything because the man was a hospital patient who was suffering. Later this same man had to be forcibly extracted from a bathroom by hospital security so that the nurses could administer life-saving medicine to him. After he was discharged from the hospital, this man filed charges against the hospital security staff for assaulting him. Daniels writes, “The police, of course, knew this man to be a recidivist criminal, a drunk, a liar, a general nuisance, and inclined to violence into the bargain: but they took his complaints seriously. Having refused to act when he assaulted the patient opposite him, they now interviewed the security men, not once but repeatedly, under caution that anything they said might be used in evidence against them. They interviewed other hospital staff to ferret out any evidence that might lead to the prosecution of the security men. As of this moment, the investigations continue, despite the fact that the only evidence is the man’s word, and that in the meantime he has committed suicide while drunk, so that he can no longer be called as a witness. The police have hinted that they might still arrest the security staff.” (p. 227-8)
One criticism I have of Daniels is that he is snobbish at times. To put this criticism in philosophical terms: Daniels rejects the fallacy of subjectivism only to embrace the equally fallacious position of intrinsicism. Intrinsicism is the view that values exist independently of a valuer and inhere in objects, actions, qualities, etc. Values are not intrinsic; they are objective. Something is a value if it is judged to further an individual’s life and wellbeing. Since intrinsicists take values to be intuited, they ironically fall back into the trap of subjectivism by equating their emotional reactions with intuited value. For example, Daniels decries tattoos and piercings because the majority of prison inmates sport such accoutrement, but this is merely an association and not an objective judgment of tattoos and piercings. I personally do not have any tattoos or piercings nor a desire for any, but I certainly do not regard them as bad because there is no objective evidence that they are physically or psychologically harmful. Tattoos and piercings are a perfectly optional value for those who derive aesthetic enjoyment from them.
While Daniels provides a stunning indictment against the welfare state and the false and pernicious philosophical doctrines promulgated by the left, he falls short (as all conservatives do) by failing to condemn the moral doctrine that supports the entire edifice: altruism.
His book is still very much worth reading though because of the numerous, compelling anecdotes he provides.
Top international reviews
It encouraged me to not allow my background to define me and create my own life without making the world sound responsible.
A must read for any person born into a non privileged household.
it's core. It also has a clear and consistant morality that is at odds with modern culture. I suspect it will enthrall and enfuriate in equal measure, either way it is a good read.
JN - author of Kibbutz Virgin