Wednesday, April 13, 2005


Theodore Dalrymple describes the curious phenomenon which anyone, at one time or another, may have felt: the slow pull of evil. Human beings experience it in many forms; the shameful and surreptitious attraction to pornography, drink,  cruelty or plain laziness: the subconscious knowledge that you are going to do something bad; and though you try to deceive yourself into imagining you will not succumb just yet, you let yourself approach the edge just near enough so that in a moment of weakness you will fall over as planned. Except, as Dalrymple argues in the City Journal, the human recognition of evil normally allows us to resist so it never has us wholly in its grasp. Looking back on 14 years of service in hospitals and prisons, Dalrymple realized he was witnessing the inexorable incapacitation of human discernment; the deadening of the ability to distinguish between good and evil which is so essential to survival.

My work has caused me to become perhaps unhealthily preoccupied with the problem of evil. Why do people commit evil? ... From the vantage point of one six-bedded hospital ward, I have met at least 5,000 perpetrators of the kind of violence I have just described and 5,000 victims of it ... Perhaps the most alarming feature of this low-level but endemic evil ... is that it is unforced and spontaneous. ...  In the worst dictatorships, some of the evil ordinary men and women do they do out of fear of not committing it. There, goodness requires heroism. In the Soviet Union in the 1930s, for example, a man who failed to report a political joke to the authorities was himself guilty of an offense that could lead to deportation or death. But in modern Britain ... the evil is freely chosen.

He goes on to describe a variety of human wreckage. Private torture chambers for those who have welshed on drug debts; self-destructive behavior; absolute selfishness and irresponsibility. In nearly every case the one thing the perpetrators and victims of evil were never allowed to do was to judge their own acts. That was absolutely forbidden. The universal course of treatment prescribed by all the organs of the Welfare State was to find ways to make them 'feel better about it'.

Of the thousands of patients I have seen, only two or three have ever claimed to be unhappy: all the rest have said that they were depressed. This semantic shift is deeply significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is itself pathological, a medical condition, which it is the responsibility of the doctor to alleviate by medical means. ... A ridiculous pas de deux between doctor and patient ensues: the patient pretends to be ill, and the doctor pretends to cure him. In the process, the patient is willfully blinded to the conduct that inevitably causes his misery in the first place.

The avoidance of the obvious became a private joke between Dalrymple and his patients. He knew -- and they knew -- how they had gotten into the fixes that had disfigured their lives, but he only ever referred to it in jest. The beaten women had a specially ironic sense of humor and loved his good natured chaffing: "next time you are thinking of going out with a man, bring him to me for my inspection, and I'll tell you if you can go out with him."

This never fails to make the most wretched, the most "depressed" of women smile broadly or laugh heartily. They know exactly what I mean, and I need not spell it out further. They know that I mean that most of the men they have chosen have their evil written all over them, sometimes quite literally in the form of tattoos, saying "FUCK OFF" or "MAD DOG." And they understand that if I can spot the evil instantly, because they know what I would look for, so can they ... the men in these situations also know perfectly well the meaning and consequences of what they are doing. The same day that I saw the patient I have just described, a man aged 25 came into our ward, in need of an operation to remove foil-wrapped packets of cocaine that he had swallowed in order to evade being caught by the police in possession of them.

Dalrymple makes a strong case for the utility of morality as a survival skill. It is a craft, which like hunting and gathering, was once passed on to keep people from perishing in the wilderness. Now it is disparaged; the modern welfare state has no need of it.

As for the men, the state absolves them of all responsibility for their children. The state is now father to the child. The biological father is therefore free to use whatever income he has as pocket money, for entertainment and little treats. He is thereby reduced to the status of a child, though a spoiled child with the physical capabilities of a man ... But if the welfare state is a necessary condition for the spread of evil, it is not sufficient. ... Here we enter the realm of culture and ideas. For it is necessary not only to believe that it is economically feasible to behave in the irresponsible and egotistical fashion that I have described, but also to believe that it is morally permissible to do so. And this idea has been peddled by the intellectual elite in Britain for many years, more assiduously than anywhere else, to the extent that it is now taken for granted. ...

So while my patients know in their hearts that what they are doing is wrong, and worse than wrong, they are encouraged nevertheless to do it by the strong belief that they have the right to do it, because everything is merely a matter of choice. Almost no one in Britain ever publicly challenges this belief. Nor has any politician the courage to demand a withdrawal of the public subsidy that allows the intensifying evil I have seen over the past 14 years -- violence, rape, intimidation, cruelty, drug addiction, neglect -- to flourish so exuberantly. With 40 percent of children in Britain born out of wedlock, and the proportion still rising, and with divorce the norm rather than the exception, there soon will be no electoral constituency for reversal. It is already deemed to be electoral suicide to advocate it by those who, in their hearts, know that such a reversal is necessary.

By a strange process of summation the politicians of the welfare state become afflicted with the same blindness they wrongly believed confined to low-income housing estates. Suicidal public policies are pursued -- even when everyone knows they are suicidal -- because no one can remember how to behave differently.

A sharp economic downturn would expose how far the policies of successive governments, all in the direction of libertinism, have atomized British society, so that all social solidarity within families and communities, so protective in times of hardship, has been destroyed. The elites cannot even acknowledge what has happened, however obvious it is, for to do so would be to admit their past responsibility for it, and that would make them feel bad. Better that millions should live in wretchedness and squalor than that they should feel bad about themselves.

Read the whole thing.