In City Journal Dalrymple discusses three words whose use “encourage[s] lazy and often deeply biased thinking”: liberalism, austerity and (below) poverty…
The connotation of poverty is that of Dr. Johnson’s definition: the want of necessities. And no one will be found to defend hunger, lack of shelter from the elements, or nakedness. But the denotation of poverty nowadays is not the same as its connotation. Almost always, the denotation of poverty nowadays is the possession of an income below 60 percent of the median income, so that what is meant is not so much poverty as inequality. A society in which everyone had a guaranteed six-figure income could thus have a great deal of “poverty,” and an incomparably poorer country could have much less poverty, in the technical sense of the word. In recessions, poverty of this sort decreases not because anyone is richer—quite the contrary: because the higher incomes decline, while (at least where there is Social Security) the lowest do not. But no one is materially better off as a result. Of course, this leaves quite untouched the question as to whether equality of outcome is desirable, which is a separate issue.
Whatever background factors supposedly contributory to his commission of an atrocity are found, their explanatory power is almost certain to be minimal, because the number of people who share them, and yet do not mow down people from the heights of hotels in Las Vegas, is likely to be large, possibly vast. In any case, the connection between such factors and the behavior in question is very far from a Euclidean proof. How does a disturbed childhood, a failed love affair, low self-esteem, or whatever else, lead to the murder of 59 strangers?
In First Things Dalrymple reviews Montaigne: A Life by Phillipe Desan, which he finds useful and “the product of immense and admirable erudition” but inelegantly written and incorrectly portrays the man as more a product of his times than as representative of universal truth:
When the author says, however, that “we have to demystify the conventional image of the essayist isolated in his tower, far from the agitations of his time, playing with his cat and inquiring into the human condition,” I think he sets up a false dichotomy between the particular and the universal. No human being lives in a world of complete abstraction (or abstractions), as if free from all circumstance whatever. To say that a man is affected by his surroundings and the times in which he lives is to say nothing more than that he is a man—for a man without any particular circumstances could not exist and is literally unimaginable (this is one of the reasons why heaven is so difficult to imagine and hell so easy, because the latter at least has events). But not every man who takes part in public events and writes about them is read more than four hundred years after his death, even by people who have no special interest in the times in which he lived or in events that he witnessed. For every thousand readers of Montaigne, there is only one person who makes the French wars of religion his special subject. Montaigne is not principally of antiquarian interest, though he may be that as well.
No one could be long in conversation with Christie Davies without realizing that he was in the presence of a powerful, individual, and original mind. He had something interesting to say about practically everything, almost always from an unusual and unexpected angle on whatever subject came up, and drawing from a vast stock of information and experience of every kind. What he said was often simultaneously startling and obvious (obvious, that is, once he had enunciated it): his thought had a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that? quality about it. This is what gave a peculiar pleasure to talking to him. It was like going on a journey in which new vistas were likely to open up at any moment.
Dalrymple remembers the time he was accosted on radio for having suggested that an ugly building must have been the product of official corruption:
“Are you saying that Shrewsbury town councillors are corrupt?” he asked.
“Don’t you understand,” I said (though I may at this distance in time be paraphrasing), “that that is the charitable interpretation? We all like money, so we can all understand if the council allowed these buildings for money. But if it were for some other reason… No, no, I can’t think as badly of you as that.”
Dalrymple predicts that the Saudi decision to allow women to drive will have far-reaching consequences for the kingdom:
Slowly, Saudi Arabia is being dragged into Western-style modernity. This might well upset the two-century-old balance between the clerical and relatively secular powers in the desert kingdom. Clerical power is like pregnancy: it is difficult to have only a little of it. Tocqueville said that the most dangerous moment for authoritarian regimes was not when they were at their most repressive but when they begin to reform.
Considering the preeminence of driving in Saudi youth culture, giving women license to drive could lead to major changes in how the sexes interact and court. How will the emirs keep their daughters penned in seclusion, once they have seen the dashboard lights?
In Psychology Today Dalrymple analyzes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 to argue that deceit is sometimes necessary and even kind:
This sonnet raises the ethical problem of truth-telling in human life. The great philosopher Kant says we must never tell a lie in any circumstances, but Shakespeare—in this—was surely both the better philosopher and better psychologist than Kant. We all need to hold on to our illusions, sometimes at least, and we need them upheld. We cannot live entirely in truth.
Many of you may know of Dalrymple’s 1989 visit to North Korea as part of a communist British delegation to the World Festival of Youth and Students, as recounted in his book The Wilder Shores of Marx.
Skeptical Doctor reader Yakimi has made a tremendous discovery, finding actual footage of Dalrymple in a YouTube video of the event. See Yakimi’s note – and the link to the video – in his message below:
Off-topic, but I have a discovery to share.
You may recall Theodore Dalrymple’s account of his journey in 1989 to the World Festival of Youth and Students held in North Korea. I was recently rereading that chapter of The Wilder Shores of Marx when I had the idea of seeing whether there existed any footage of him at the event. As luck would have it, YouTube is host to a two-hour film (http://youtube.com/watch?v=z972J4lVttU) documenting the festival. Dalrymple mentioned that the British delegation wore a uniform of “stormtrooper brown”, so I revieiwed the footage keeping an eye out for them.
At 31:39, a figure wearing a brown shirt and strongly resembling Dalrymple as he appears on the book’s dust jacket can be seen, resting his chin on his fist. He appears again at 32:35, holding a camera.
I do believe that to be Dalrymple. What do you think?
(Sadly, the footage of Dalrymple telling the wrestler that he hates sports or that of him being forced to dance were not featured.)
…the resort to selfies on every possible occasion might be interpreted as a mass outbreak of narcissism. The question is whether the narcissism was always there, waiting for its opportunity to be expressed, or whether the ease of taking selfies has itself stimulated the narcissism and called it into being…
Dalrymple was not surprised by the North Korean regime’s use of the word dotard in referring to President Trump, because of this experience during his 1989 visit to the country:
I was emerging from the Great People’s Study House in Pyongyang, which, architecturally speaking, is a hybrid of pagoda and Fascist mausoleum. Stretched out before it was one of those vast empty spaces in which the regime holds its interminable Busby Berkeley cum Nuremberg rallies. As the Marquis de Custine said of the vast open spaces of St. Petersburg, in his great book Russia in 1839, a crowd (meaning a crowd that gathered there spontaneously, rather than under government direction) would be a revolution.
A single North Korean passed me in the square. “Do you speak English?” he asked…