The Wealth Gap

At Taki’s Magazine, Dalrymple takes on the idea of economics as a zero-sum game:

There is one sense in which I may by definition increase poverty if I grow richer. Suppose my wealth increases faster than that of most of the people in the society in which I live. The people in that society are poorer, relative to me, than they were before, even if, in absolute terms, they are all richer than they were before. This is not the same as active impoverishment. But since poverty is now usually defined in relative and not absolute terms, poverty can increase even where no one, not a single person, is the poorer. By the same token, a society can grow richer as everyone in it becomes poorer. This is absurd.

Read it here

Bread and Circuses

“Every day, the Guardian newspaper publishes a list of eminent persons, or persons whom it considers eminent, most of them British, whose birthday happens to fall on that day,” says Dalrymple, writing at Salisbury Review. Would you be surprised to learn that, at least on the day Dalrymple analyzed the list, the majority were from the world of popular culture? By comparison, people of more serious and genuine accomplishment seem to be given short shrift.

Read it here

On a less serious note, can it really be the case that this is the first Dalrymple essay, out of thousands he has written since we started this blog, with “Bread and Circuses” in the title? Surprisingly, that seems to be the case.

Mercy or Injustice?

At City Journal, Dalrymple writes of the rather difficult case of Jacqueline Sauvage, a French woman who did nothing for decades as her husband violently abused her and sexually assaulted all three of their daughters but then finally, at the age of 70, shot him to death. She was convicted of murder but was then recently pardoned by outgoing French President Francois Hollande:

…her lawyers characterized the presidential pardon as “an extremely strong message sent to women who suffer domestic violence. It has become symbolic. It doesn’t mean that you must kill to survive but that you must do all that is possible not to reach that stage.”

This is nonsense, of course. The message, if anything, is precisely the opposite: you will not be treated too severely if you kill your violent husband, even if you have made no other efforts to avoid his violence. If you put up with it for long enough, in fact, you can kill him.

‘I had that drunken student in my taxi’

In Salisbury Review Dalrymple expands on his recent conversation about college students with a taxi driver:

I asked him what the town was like, whether – for example – it was quiet.
‘When the students are away,’ he said.
‘And when they’re here?’
‘It’s different.’
‘Are they nice, the students?’
‘They’re evil bastards.’

‘They can’t all be like that,’ I said.
‘About seventy per cent of them.’

The Red Flower by Vselevod Mikhailovic Garshin

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Only two authors, as far as I know, killed themselves by throwing themselves down a stairwell, and it is now disputed that one of them, Primo Levi, did so suicidally: rather, he fell. But there is no disputing that Vselevod Mikhailovic Garshin (1855 – 1888) did so with suicidal intent.

Garshin, known as the best Russian writer of short stories of the period before Chekhov reached his maturity, wanted to be a doctor but was not admitted to medical school. He joined the army as a private during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 and his first story, Four Days, was a fictionalised account of the wound he received in that war. He lies, semi-delirious, for four days on the battlefield, next to the decomposing body of the Turkish soldier whom he has killed with his bayonet, and whose bottle of water saves his life. Two details remind us that this is fiction, not autobiography. The “horrible grinning skull [of the dead Turk] with its everlasting smile” reminds the narrator that, as a medical student, he has often handled such skulls; and eventually the narrator’s leg is amputated. Garshin was never an amputee or a medical student, though he might easily have been both.

Almost certainly, though, he suffered severely from manic-depression. His most famous story, The Red Flower, again semi-autobiographical, is an account of a lunatic’s admission, progress and death in an asylum. I doubt there is a better account of mania in literature. The protagonist is so manically hyperactive that he constantly loses weight despite eating gargantuan meals; he has moments of insight that something is wrong with him, but they soon depart.

When he meets the doctor, the patient says to him:

I have this idea! When I discovered it I felt reborn. My senses have become more and more acute, my brain works as it never did formerly. What was once attained by a long process of reasoning I now know intuitively. I am an illustration of the great idea that space and time – are fictions. I live in all centuries. I live outside space, everywhere and nowhere…

The patient becomes seized with the idea that the evil in the world is concentrated in three red poppies that grow in the asylum garden – “they flourished on all innocent bloodshed, which is why they were so red” – and that it was his duty and destiny to rid the world of evil by plucking and uprooting them, thus eliminating their terrible emanations. But picking the flowers in the garden is not permitted, and the patient has cunningly to evade the attendants in order to carry out his grandiose and paranoid plan to rid the world of evil.

He dies of manic exhaustion (as used sometimes to happen), but with beatific contentment on his face because he has managed to uproot the last of the poppies, and therefore believes the world to have been purified.

Garshin had an immense reputation in his day though his output was small (only 20 stories). Now regarded as a minor writer, he nevertheless provided an illuminating insight into depressive thinking in his story A Night:

He imagined he saw all his life before him. He recalled a series of ugly and sombre pictures in which he was the principal figure. He recalled all that was worst in his life, turned it all over in his mind, but failed to find one clean or bright spot in it, and was convinced that none remained. “Not only none remained, but had never existed,” he added in self-correction.

The Red Cross pot calling the NHS kettle black

According to Dalrymple in the Salisbury Review, only 16 percent of the British Red Cross’s charity shop revenue actually ends up with the Red Cross, which then must pay its own expenses, of course.

…the question arises how the British Red Cross can raise so little money from its retail operations. After all, it receives most of its goods and a large part of its labour free of charge, and it pays reduced local taxes (a policy that should, of course, cease forthwith). It is a miracle of disorganisation, at least equal to anything seen in the National Health Service: I hesitate to call it by a name less morally neutral than disorganisation.

Read it here

Taxicab Confessions

In Taki’s Magazine Dalrymple comments on Meryl Streep’s recent imposition of her political opinions on the rest of us. He mentions his irritation at the attention given to actors’ opinions and the adolescent nature of President-elect Trump’s reply, and then points out a superior source of commentary: taxi drivers…

I was once in Singapore trying to catch a taxi. You cannot just hail a taxi on the street in Singapore, you have to go to a taxi stand. This I did, but still no taxi would stop for me. The taxis swept past me as if I did not exist. Then someone came and hailed a taxi about two feet to my right. A taxi stopped immediately and took him. Was this some kind of discrimination, in the politically correct sense of the word? No: When I stood two feet to the right of where I had been standing, a taxi stopped for me immediately.

I told the driver of my experience and he, Chinese without a great deal of English, replied, “Singapore velly, velly law.”

Have you read anything in the Financial Times, or any other serious newspaper, that so succinctly and accurately sums up a country or society?

Take another example, more recent. I was in an English university town where I took a taxi from the station to the university. We fell to talking, the driver and I, and to keep our conversation going I asked him whether the students were nice.

“No,” he said, “they’re evil bastards.”

This judgment was so spontaneous, so deeply felt, and so obviously the fruit of what sociologists call lived experience, that it could only have been true.

The British National Health Service Is in Crisis: What Else Is New?

One can only marvel at the simultaneous failures of Britain’s National Health Service, and its popularity:

The excuse that demand has escalated is, in fact, in contradiction to one of the now-forgotten founding justifications of the NHS back in 1948: namely that universal healthcare paid for from general taxation, and free at the point of use, would so improve the health of the population that its cost would soon fall rapidly….

Oddly enough, however, and unnoticed by the population or by the NHS’s ideological praise-singers, the NHS had no egalitarian effect, rather the opposite. The difference between the health of the top economic decile of the population and that of the bottom decile, which had been more or less steady for decades, began to widen immediately. Curiously enough, this widening accelerated precisely at a time when most money was spent on the system. The difference in the standard mortality rate of the richest and poorest is now almost double what it was when the NHS began.

Beneath Paris

At Taki’s Magazine, Dalrymple summarizes the arguments in François Lenglet’s Tant pis! Nos enfants paieront (Too Bad! Our Children Will Pay), about the economic situation in France:

It is one of the theses of this lucid book that the generation of May 1968—or at any rate its leaders—has arranged things pretty well for itself, though disastrously for everyone else. If it has not been outright hypocritical, it has at least been superbly opportunist. First it bought property and accumulated other assets while inflation raged, paying back its debts at a fraction of their original value with depreciated money; then, having got its hands on the assets, it arranged for an economic policy of low inflation except in the value of its own assets. Moreover, it also arranged the best possible conditions for its retirement, in many cases unfunded by investment and paid for by those unfortunate enough to have come after them. They will have to work much longer, and if ever they reach the age of retirement, which might recede before them like a mirage in the desert, it will be under conditions much less generous than those enjoyed by current retirees.

Read the rest here

Tolerance and Its Limits

Netherlands is trying to “decree tolerance” and is therefore punishing Geert Wilders for advocating for fewer Moroccan immigrants. But as Dalrymple points out, the application of the law is nonsensical:

In order to secure the conviction, the judge had to maintain that the Moroccans were a race, because the law did not recognize nationality or national origin as grounds for legal protection from insult and critical comment. This gave rise to a certain amount of hilarity. If nationality were to be confounded with race, Dutch law would henceforth have to recognize a Belgian race, a Swiss race, et cetera.

But the very idea that there are certain groups in need of special protection from offence is both incoherent and condescending, partaking of the very qualities that the idea is supposed to be eliminating from the wicked human mind. The number of human groups that have, or could be, subjected to humiliation, discrimination, or worse is almost infinite. Persecution on economic grounds, for example, has been at least as frequent as persecution on racial grounds. To select a few groups for special protection is therefore irreducibly discriminatory. It is a little like protecting certain species from the ravages of hunters because they are threatened with extinction and unlike other species are unable to protect themselves by fecundity, say, or by camouflage.

Read it here