Published August 31, 1995
Andre Deutsch Ltd.
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I once heard a radio talk show devoted to technology issues, and the young hosts of the show spent much of their time coming up with excuses for why they should have the right to copy and share music: because the record companies were charging “too much” for the product, because the profits of the record companies and musicians were already very high and they could afford the loss, because the victims of this particular crime were jerks, because the record companies and musicians actually benefitted from music sharing and thus didn’t really understand their own interests as well as these young people (who had never worked in that industry). The fact that many of these arguments (or at least this attitude) could be used to justify the theft of almost anything was irrelevant. They used any argument they could think of to avoid the simple fact that the music they were stealing was the property of someone who didn’t want it stolen and that therefore they shouldn’t steal it.
Theodore Dalrymple has written frequently about how this use of a litany of excuses to justify anti-social behavior is central to contemporary thought. It is a consequence of the idea that people should be free from the constraints of civil society and of the myth that they are able to make all moral judgments for themselves using pure reason rather than relying on prejudice (rightly understood). As he has noted, people misuse reason in this fashion only to argue for the removal of social restraint and never for the implementation or maintenance of it. In this, adults often resemble adolescents arguing against some parental restriction. They use any arguments possible, whether or not they are reasonable, rational or internally consistent. They just throw everything at the wall until something sticks.
“So Little Done” is a satire of this attitude. The book is the manifesto of a fictional serial killer named Graham Underwood, who has been caught murdering fifteen people in a crime spree spanning many years. (He proudly boasts that there are really seven more victims that the police can’t confirm, so well did he destroy the evidence.) Rather than admitting and apologizing for his crimes or denying them altogether, Underwood writes a complex and highly-sophisticated justification for them. Because we all agree that murder is wrong and because the excuses that Dalrymple invents for Underwood are ones we hear often to justify all sorts of anti-social behavior, the book serves as a warning of the extremes to which this attitude can lead.
Some of Underwood’s excuses are all too familiar. He states, for example, that he had a bad childhood, as his father was violent toward both him and his mother and soon abandoned the family. His mother cared little for him and regarded him as a burden. But some of his arguments are more sophisticated and call to mind the principle that a little knowledge can be a bad thing. It is significant that Underwood is well-educated, having spent years in the public library studying the humanities. Rather than providing a basis for self-questioning and sound judgment, his education only provides him with deeper intellectual justification for his anti-social behavior.
There is a long history of great thinkers, beginning at least with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who are motivated by the belief that they are too great and wise to be bound by social convention. Fearing the appearance of arrogance, they hesitate to argue that the normal rules of behavior should apply only to others, so they argue for the abolition of standards of behavior for all. Underwood has read the great intellectuals and uses their arguments for his own purposes.
“There are parts of the world, after all, in which bestiality is so common as to be perfectly normal”, he states. This is what one might call the Margaret Mead argument. Even if true (and the Margaret Mead version was not), is it prudent to embrace the customs of societies completely alien to our own? Given the great diversity of societies on Earth, this can become an excuse for virtually any standard whatsoever, and the more educated we are, the easier it is to find one that is convenient.
Underwood makes other arguments that are more demonstrative of contemporary thought. In the first words of the book, he scolds his readers by calling them hypocrites, and appropriately so, since hypocrisy is a standard charge leveled at anyone today who upholds almost any standard of conduct whatsoever and is discovered to be imperfect. The modern view is: If you can’t practice what you preach, then don’t preach. Underwood avoids the unpardonable sin of hypocrisy by arguing against a moral standard that proscribes the killing of his particular victims. But if everyone who breaks a standard advocates its abolition, we would soon find ourselves without any morality at all. Because Underwood’s advocacy of murder threatens standards we all know are necessary, Dalrymple shows how the desire to avoid hypocrisy can lead to the diminishment of morality.
Another contemporary tactic is to use rhetorical diversion. Underwood claims that starvation in Africa is a more serious problem than his own murders and that the people who have the power to solve world hunger but refuse to do so are more guilty of murder than he is. Even worse, his fellow citizens support policies that actively cause misery and death around the globe. Conveniently, the standard by which virtue is measured becomes not one’s behavior but one’s political views. Thus, people are free to behave in the most anti-social manner and still regard themselves as virtuous as long as they advocate… say… doing something about the problems in Darfur.
Whether that something is effective is irrelevant, and there is no interest whatsoever in the success or failure of past attempts to solve similar problems. Solving the problem is not the point and, in fact, might even be the worst possible outcome, insofar as the real motivation is to have a problem that makes one’s personal behavior seem trivial by comparison. In “America Alone“, Mark Steyn said that the people who have had “FREE TIBET” bumper-stickers on their cars for the last decade or two did absolutely nothing to solve the crisis there, such that the Chinese have been able to re-populate the land beyond all hope of reversal.
“If Rumsfeld were to say, ‘Free Tibet? Jiminy, what a swell idea! The Third Infantry Division goes in on Thursday,’ the bumper-sticker crowd would be aghast. They’d have to bend down and peel off the ‘FREE TIBET’ stickers and replace them with ‘WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER’.”
It’s hard to imagine how disrupting the Olympic torch parade is going to remove the Chinese, either.
Dalrymple also alludes to the slide into barbarism that many laws and social customs are designed to prevent. Underwood began his descent by being cruel to animals, first to flies and worms and then up the ladder of biological complexity to birds and cats, ending with humans. This reminds me of the Michael Vick animal cruelty case during which I heard a libertarian on talk radio claiming that as pets have no rights and are nothing more than private property, their owners have the right to do whatever they please with them and should therefore never be punished. In this view, once the right is established, there is no other principle to consider, and the outcome is once again irrelevant.
Even if we resist the idea of animal rights (and I do resist it), there has long been a social prejudice against cruelty to animals not just because of the harm it does to the animals but also because of the harm it does to the humans that engage in it. Absent restraints, civilized behavior can quickly descend into barbarism, and much social custom and law is designed to prevent people from getting on that slippery slope in the first place. As principles such as these evolve over time, their original basis is often easily forgotten and hard to recover via pure reason, such that relying upon reason alone and having no respect for tradition inevitably produces more Graham Underwoods.
Dalrymple said in an interview in the Netherlands that Underwood doesn’t recognize his own resentment. He doesn’t know himself, because he is self-absorbed without being self-aware. He doesn’t stop to consider whether he is simply being selfish and whether society has any claim to authority that would legitimately proscribe his actions. Nevertheless, he still calls himself “an ethical murderer”. After all, he killed his victims humanely. Their lives were not worth living. They had no friends or loved ones. They were burdens on society, often being very violent themselves and therefore provoking Underwood to murder them, and they used up the Earth’s precious natural resources while contributing nothing. They would have eventually died, anyway. Yes, he dismembered the bodies, but who is the victim of that practice, since they were already dead at that point? On and on ad infinitum. It would take a great deal of time to list all of the arguments that Underwood uses, and such a list would almost be as long as the book, anyway.
We can easily see through many of his arguments, and some of them are contradictory. For example, he claims that he was acting on the dictates of his conscience but also says that he cannot be held responsible for his actions, because humans don’t really have free will. Still, it is hard to think of a satisfactory reply to some of his arguments. A counter-argument almost certainly exists in every case, but one strains with the mental effort to argue each and every point, and I found myself getting frustrated and impatient in my attempt to do so, which was surely Dalrymple’s goal. In truth, no one knows all the reasons that certain actions are wrong.
We can always question the extent to which a satire either resembles or exaggerates the truth. In this case, Dalrymple based the book on real-life, British serial killers about whom he had written in the Spectator magazine in the mid-1990’s, such as Dennis Nilsen, Rosemary West and especially Thomas Watt Hamilton, the latter of whom advanced arguments similar to those in the book. Other elements of the book are clearly derived from conditions Dalrymple knows are all too real. The prospect of a real-life Underwood is not as far from reality as one might at first think, and Dalrymple often says that satire is nowadays prophecy.
The book gets the point across well, but it may have been more entertaining for many readers as a drama — or maybe a comedic drama, actually. Dalrymple has said he had great fun writing the book (perhaps especially the part where Underwood torments his psychiatrists by disputing every trivial point), and the book does have many humorous moments. Someone (I don’t recall who) once said that our modern age is so filled with ridiculous ideas that the proper artistic response is not tragedy but comedy. But just as incessant excuse-making is often boring, I think some people may be bored by this book. One quickly realizes the principle involved, and the remainder of the book is just piling on additional arguments and justifications.
Still, at least as a technical exercise of understanding contemporary thought and compiling a typical litany of excuses to justify anti-social behavior, it is an impressive feat. One thing is clear: Dalrymple has been listening.
What an excellent review of a really brilliant short novel. I recommend every TD enthusiast to read this – it’s something a bit different from him. Chilling, funny and very through provoking…