Dalrymple and Drugs: The Value of Broad-Mindedness

Dalrymple’s writing about drug abuse sometimes brings forth a response that is unfortunately all too common from intellectuals across a range of topics: “Typical (myopic, uncaring, intolerant, hateful, etc.) conservative!”

Interestingly, I can’t remember Dalrymple ever actually referring to himself as a conservative, and he has specifically refused that label on a few occasions, in narrowly-defined contexts. In some of his earliest travel books, he actually referred to himself as a liberal, though in very specific circumstances (such as apartheid South Africa), and he has always shown skepticism toward the left.

But all should agree that Dalrymple is anything but myopic. Unfortunately, one such critic, a heroin addict named Terry Wright, responds with just this kind of invective. Angered by Dalrymple’s argument that drug addicts are not helpless victims, but willing participants in their addiction, he responds with bald assertions and childish insults.

It is hard to think of another contemporary essayist who might so inaccurately be called myopic.

As we say here, Dalrymple “has been arrested as a spy in Gabon, been pursued by the South African police for violating apartheid, visited the site of a civilian massacre by the government of Liberia (the outlines of the 600 dead bodies still visible in dried blood on the floor), concealed his status as a writer for fear of execution in Equatorial Guinea, infiltrated an English communist group in order to attend the World Youth Festival in North Korea, performed Shakespeare in Afghanistan in the presence of its crown prince, smuggled banned books to dissidents in Ceaucescu’s Romania, been arrested and struck with truncheons for photographing an anti-government demonstration in Albania, been surveilled by the Indonesian police in East Timor and crossed both Africa and South America using only public transportation.”

As he has written elsewhere, “I spent several years touring the world, often in places where atrocity had recently been, or still was being, committed. In Central America, I witnessed civil war fought between guerrilla groups intent on imposing totalitarian tyranny on their societies, opposed by armies that didn’t scruple to resort to massacre. In Equatorial Guinea, the current dictator was the nephew and henchman of the last dictator, who had killed or driven into exile a third of the population, executing every last person who wore glasses or possessed a page of printed matter for being a disaffected or potentially disaffected intellectual…In North Korea I saw the acme of tyranny, millions of people in terrorized, abject obeisance to a personality cult whose object, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, made the Sun King look like the personification of modesty.”

He served as a doctor for several years in Africa and the Pacific islands, treating and sometimes truly befriending some of the poorest people on the planet, people “with heart failure [who] walked 50 miles in the broiling sun, with panting breath and swollen legs, to obtain treatment — and then walked home again.” He worked for 14 years as a medical doctor and psychiatrist in a slum hospital in England and in the prison next door, tending to the gunshot and stab wounds of the underclass; treating thousands of heroin addicts, some 10,000 people who had attempted suicide, some 10,000 victims or perpetrators of domestic violence; and conducting psychiatric interviews of murderers, serial killers, rapists, thieves, and would-be Islamic terrorists. He still serves as an expert witness in British murder trials.

His familial connections also give him a broad view and an intimate understanding of human suffering. His mother was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who, he says, “escaped the extermination camps by quite a narrow margin”. His father was a communist Russian immigrant. And “I had an uncle,” he has written, “who was a prisoner in east Asia during the second world war and who [in post-war years] was reported to wake up screaming in the night…”

Finally, his writings discuss classic literature, philosophy, history, politics, religion, and a comparative (both historically and geographically) analysis of culture.

This is hardly a man of narrow vision who has hidden away in his own small corner of the world.

Unlike Wright’s view of heroin addiction, which is based on his own experience of drugs, Dalrymple’s views are based on both his experience treating thousands of addicts and an understanding of the scientific literature. “Romancing Opiates” (aka “Junk Medicine” in the UK) makes reference to these medical studies:

  • Encyclopedia of Drugs and Alcohol, second of four volumes

  • Jay H. Stein, Internal Medicine, 5th edition, St. Louis: C.V. Mosby, 1999, p. 2997

  • Cecil’s Textbook of Medicine, 21st edition, edited by Lee Goldman and J. Claude Bennett; W.B. Saunders: Philadelphia, 2001, p. 55

  • The Oxford Textbook of Medicine, 4th edition, edited by David A. Warrell, Timothy M. Cox and John D. Firth, 2003, Volume 3, p. 83

  • Carson R. Harris, Emergency Management of Selected Drugs of Abuse, The American College of Emergency Physicians (Dallas, TX), 2000, p. 83

  • Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook, 3rd edition, edited by Joyce H. Lowinson, Pedro Ruiz, Robert B. Millman and John G. Langrod;  Williams and Wilkins: Baltimore, 1997, p. 416

  • Drugs of Abuse and Addiction: Neurobehavioral Toxicology, R.J.M. Niesink, R.M.A. Jaspers, L.M.W. Komet and J.M. van Ree, Boca Raton: CRC Press, 1999, p. 260

  • Goodman and Gilman’s The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics, 10th edition, edited by Joel G. Harman and Lee E. Limbird; New York: McGraw Hill, 2001, p. 666

  • Steven B. Karch, The Pathology of Drug Abuse, Boca Raton: CRC Pres, 2002

  • Olaf H. Drummer and Morris Odell, The Forensic Pharmacology of Drugs of Abuse, London: Edward Arnold, 2001

  • John Booth Davies, The Myth of Addiction, Overseas Publishers Association, Amsterdam B.V., Harwood Academic Publishers and The Gordon and Breach Publishing Group, 1992

  • Alfred R. Lindesmith, Addiction and Opiates, Chicago, Illinois: Aldine Publishing Company, 1968

There are other inaccuracies in this blog post. Dalrymple hasn’t written “scores” of books on drug addiction, for example; he has written one.

As on so many other topics, one may disagree with Dalrymple’s conclusions on the matter of drug addiction, but to say that they are based on myopia, lies, simple-mindedness, insanity or fringe science is extraordinarily inaccurate. Exactly who is being subjective here?

40 thoughts on “Dalrymple and Drugs: The Value of Broad-Mindedness

  1. Steve

    There is no doubt that he is a conservative. I don’t think he has actually called himself a compassionate conservative, though. I think that comes from a 2004 article in the New York Sun where the interviewer described him that way.

  2. Peter

    While Dalrymple may not define himself or allowed himself to be defined as a conservative, he is certainly partial to particular kind of conservatism.

    “As I read Mr. Grant’s book, two questions passed through my mind constantly, like a threnody: how do we give practical political expression to a civilized and sophisticated conservatism such as his? And does the fact that we feel the need to do so mean that it is already too late?”


  3. Louis

    “Also take particular note of the Dalrymple’s supporters who really sum up the mindset behind his conclusions. They are subjective, moralistic, dubious and typical of simple minds who want simple answers to complex issues.”

    I guess we (“supporters” that is) are not one of the complex issues that resist simple answers. Though I don’t know if I’m all that dubious; nearly all of my questionable behaviour to date has largely been biscuit related.

    Still, we have been told, ladies and gentleman. I advise you all to find a quiet corner and mull. Nothing else for it now.

  4. George

    I followed the link in Peter’s comment to the New Criterion book review and was struck by the following reference (the context is opera but that’s neither here nor there): “immodesty and egotism, the besetting sins of liberalism itself”.

    My political starting point is on the left, the moderate social-democratic left, but the left nonetheless. I am what Americans (or a British person writing for an American publication)would probably call a ‘liberal’, although that is not the term I would use myself. But I have enormous respect for Dalrymple/Daniels. His honesty challenges me to re-evaluate some of my views. I don’t always agree with him but I accept that he is – and this may sound a bit corny – a good person.

    Now, it seems to me that while the left/right distinction is not, as some would have it, a meaningless or outdated one, it is not necessarily the most important distinction to make when it comes to deciding how to address society’s problems. What we need above all are people of honesty and good will, prepared to listen and learn, and capable of recognising that the ‘other camp’ contains good people too. I recognise that in Dalrymple/Daniels.

    It is disappointing to think that he may not recognise it in me. My liberalism (in the American sense of the term) is not characterised by immodesty and egotism.

  5. Steve

    George, I enjoyed your comment. A few thoughts…

    I don’t think immodesty and egotism necessarily preclude honesty and good will (Christopher Hitchens suddenly comes to mind), although I agree it might make it difficult to “listen and learn”. I also doubt that Dalrymple believes that every liberal necessarily exhibits its besetting sins, or that if a particular liberal did, he would judge them on that basis alone. I think he as much as anyone appreciates individual people in all their complexity and contradiction. I’m reminded of his closing words in Sweet Waist of America discussing revolutionaries but I think applicable more generally:

    “The bravest and most noble are not those who take up arms, but those who are decent despite everything; who improve what it is in their power to improve, but do not imagine themselves to be saviours. In their humble struggle is true heroism.”

  6. Clinton


    Good comment. I can see your point. I am disturbed by the contentious tone of much modern political discourse and think, as you do, that honestly and good will are paramount.

    I wouldn’t take that comment by Dalrymple personally. He thinks there is a lot of egotism on the left (in what he sees as a desire to throw out the accumulated wisdom of the ages and rewrite traditional moral rules to one’s own taste), but he’s mostly talking about the elites of the intellectual world. Trust me: he doesn’t apply it to everyone on the left, and he doesn’t personalize his disagreements (except in exceptional circumstances).

    For example, in “Sweet Waist of America” (which recounts the 9 months he spent in Guatemala and other Central American countries) he befriends several communists after finding he likes them (although he dislikes their opinions). He gives them lifts and carries them around the region for a few days at a time in his rented pickup truck. He finds he greatly dislikes some of the right wingers there. Throughout his writings there are countless such examples of friendly interactions with people on the other side of the poitical conversation.

    One of the things I like most about Dalrymple is his open-minded, genuinely curious nature. He honestly seeks the truth, and so is pleased to acknowledge the valid points made by his opponents. You always hear him saying things like “Others would respond X, and who can deny that it is true that….” He’s goes out of his way to present fairly all sides of a difficult issue. For example, read the two paragraphs starting with “A piece of pulp fiction by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle…” in this amazing essay:


    He’s strongly anti-ideological and thus intellectually humble. On the last page of “Fool or Physician: Memoirs of a Sceptical Doctor” he wrote (quoting from memory), “On the whole I have taken pleasure in the complexities of life, and would not like to see it reduced to a few principles of easy application.”

    Be assured that he knows quite well that there are those of good will on the left. Also, he’s a very polite and kind person, and if you met him he would treat you with nothing but respect and kindness.

    Please stick around the site and comment further. We are happy to have you, and your viewpoint here would be different than most, and therefore welcome.

  7. George

    Steve and Clinton,

    Thank you for taking the time to reply to me. And you can be assured that I will be sticking around (well, dropping in from time to time – I do have an offline life to take care of!).


  8. Drug Testing Kits

    Your post and the comments bring up an issue that I would like to express: why is the guy’s political leanings a problem here? I could name you a lot of left-wing liberals who also think that drug addicts aren’t necessarily victims (but neither are they completely guilty, in my head). Let’s forget about political sides and just focus on how we can help them!

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