“There has been a long march not only through the institutions but through the minds of the young. When young people want to praise themselves, they describe themselves as ‘nonjudgmental.’ For them, the highest form of morality is amorality.” —Theodore Dalrymple, “The Frivolity of Evil”
Part One: The Point Where Incompetence and Malevolence Meet
If it is now hip to be square, it has become more and more apparent to me that there is nothing more radical these days than having the courage of one’s conservatism.
I first came across the work of Theodore Dalrymple by sheer chance. While doing a brief stint in a used book store, in the town where I live, I came across a book called Our Culture, What’s Left of It. Dalrymple is as sober and conservative a cultural analyst as one is likely to find, and he is as far from a conspiracy theorist as a cultural analyst can get without backing away from some very problematic social realities that practically beg for a diagnostic of skullduggery. Dalrymple does use the term social engineering quite a bit in Our Culture, hinting, in his inimitably sober-headed but droll fashion, at a kind of organized malevolence lurking behind the superficially benign ideologies that characterize “progressive” politics in Britain (and elsewhere). But my first impression of Dalrymple was that, as a cultural commentator, he is refreshingly—even radically—sane.
I was interested enough to seek him out on YouTube, and listened to most of the available material over the next couple of weeks. In one of those talks, while dissecting the underbelly of British society and the welfare state, Dalrymple, whose talks are often quite humorous, makes a quip about how every policy implemented by the British government creates the exact opposite result to the one intended. As someone born and raised in the UK (with a Fabian grandfather), this is something I have been aware of—however dimly—my whole life, and, all humor aside, it points towards underlying mechanics of social control that generally pass unremarked on outside of the radical (and mostly disreputable) margins. To be clear, this is not the unified conspiracy theory of David Icke or Alex Jones; it is not some all-seeing eye at the top of a one-world pyramid. But before you breathe out, it may even be something worse, something a lot less “reassuring” that’s akin to a set of sociopolitical and psychological principals, traceable across apparently diverse social trends, cultural movements, and government policies in the UK (and elsewhere) throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
I am aware that this is a contentious claim in an age in which “conspiracy theories” can be labeled as “extremism” and legally punishable in the UK as hate crimes. And I suspect (based on our recent podcast conversation) that Dalrymple would be hesitant to agree with it—whether for this or other reasons. Poetically speaking, however, one of his favorite quotes is from William Blake’s “London”: “In every cry of every Man, In every Infants cry of fear, In every voice: in every ban, The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.” Where we differ is over the manner in which these manacles have been forged, and continue to be: where Dalrymple seems to view the fact that social engineers frequently engineer social conditions that are the very inverse of the ones they claim to want as a SNAFU of human fallibility, I am more inclined to see Machiavellian cunning and willful malevolence at work. Whatever his beliefs, Dalrymple certainly makes some of the best arguments for the nigh-inseparability of the two which I have ever come across. The following is from a masterful little book he wrote, called In Praise of Prejudice:
The philosophy—or perhaps attitude would be a better word to describe it—of radical individualism instills a deep prejudice in favor of oneself and one’s own ego. . . . Such radical individualism has another paradoxical effect: what starts out as a search for increased if not total individualism, ends up by increasing the power of government over individuals. It does not do so by the totalitarian method of rendering compulsory all that is not forbidden . . . but by destroying all moral authority that intervenes between individual human will and government power. Everything that is not forbidden by law is, ipso facto, permissible. What is legally permissible is morally permissible. “There is no law against it” becomes an unanswerable justification for conduct that is selfish and egotistical. This, of course, makes the law, and therefore those who make the law, the moral arbiters of society. . . . Radical individualism is thus not only compatible with the radical centralization of authority, but is a product of it. The individual is left to live his life as his whim dictates, but the central power gratefully accepts the power-generating responsibility of protecting him from the consequences of doing so. . . . And this corporatization of society proceeds pari passu [side by side] with the extension of unbridled egotism. (2007, p. 72-74.)
George Orwell once wrote, “We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men”; if there is one thing which Dalrymple does impeccably, it is to restate the obvious in a time when once-obvious truisms have become very nearly unspeakable. Dalrymple (whose real name is Anthony Daniels—the other Anthony Daniels, after C3PO) worked for many years as a medical doctor and prison psychiatrist (which is why he uses a pen name). His experience in the trenches of lower class British society gives his writing particular substance, or gravitas. It is the work of an intellectual whose intellectualizations are not confined to the mental hemisphere but rooted in bittersweet experience, often of the bleaker variety. (He has also traveled extensively to war-torn and impoverished countries.) His writing and speaking is characterized by elegance, coherence, and depth, all grounded in frequent anecdotal references to everyday experience that makes it (for me at least) an extremely rare kind of “sanity pill.” Unlike, for example, Jordan Peterson (the politically incorrect intellectual of the hour), Dalrymple is eminently reasonable. As both a public speaker and writer, he is reserved, humble, restrained, and contained—conservative in the best and widest sense of that now deeply unfashionable word; and he is all the more persuasive for it. To his further credit as a cultural critic, Dalrymple rarely if ever makes any pretense about offering a cure. For this reason, he is frequently called a Pessimist.
While he possesses what was once called the courage of conviction, Dalrymple is far from being a dogmatic speaker or writer. His area of expertise—besides his hands-on experience with criminals and working class families—is most apparent when he speaks about British politics. My impression is that, like a good physician, Dalrymple began by observing some peculiar and deeply disturbing social symptoms, and then proceeded step-by-step to a diagnosis. Noticing in his work the degree to which suffering, confusion, chaos, and self-destruction had become, not only commonplace but the cultural norm (defended, even advocated as “enlightened” and “progressive” modern behavior), he appears to have become curiouser and curiouser about how exactly things were getting so bad, so fast. Most unsettling of all, the social, cultural and moral decay he observed was unfolding under the strangely disarming cover of progress and benevolence.
The question of why, exactly, the proverbial road to Hell is paved with good intentions is one that’s both central to our social predicament and, as such, that has been strangely under-examined. How did this become an axiom for human existence? What is it about human intentions that they so often bring about the opposite results? In our recent conversation, Dalrymple addressed this uneasy correlation between Hell and (apparent) benevolence by pointing out that, “There are people who desire providential roles for themselves, because a providential role, as a very important role in society, answers your problems as to what you do with your life and what life is for.” The desire to do good, Dalrymple noted, is generally mixed up with the desire to feel good about oneself, and this mixing of motives may be at base of how and why progressive politics in the UK and elsewhere have ended up creating so much misery for so many.
Another important point which Dalrymple brings up consistently throughout his work is that helping others (which is central to the desire for a providential role) invariably requires finding others who are unable to help themselves. If people with good intentions are drawn to help the helpless at least partially in order to secure a providential role for themselves (a role which not only makes them feel virtuous but also righteous, morally superior to their fellows), then, in an odd but inexorable way, they become dependent on the helpless being helpless, i.e., dependent on their assistance. At the same time, for people to feel good about playing a providential role in society requires that the ones being provided for fully deserve it; in our current ideological paradigm, this means they must be painted as wholly innocent victims of misfortune. If they are seen as in any way responsible for their misfortunes, this makes them less eligible to receive the benefits of providence. But by being absolved of responsibility for getting into their situation, they are stripped of the power for getting out of it. Casting less fortunate people in the role of helpless, blameless, irresponsible victims and passive receivers of providence (innocent because powerless, and vice versa) suits both the bestower and the receiver of providence. It also more or less guarantees these roles remain fixed and unchanging.
Where this really becomes the high-road to Hell, however, is in the extent to which those implementing misconceived policies that are supposedly progressive, benign, and humanitarian, directed towards the establishing of equality and the abolition of misery, when faced with results that constantly belie the nobleness of their intentions, fail to admit failure. Rather than opting to re-examine their intentions, and risk losing their self-designated roles as agents of providence, they feel compelled to “double down” and retreat into the assumption that their intentions and their methods, rather than being fundamentally unsound, are simply insufficiently funded, supported, or implemented. This was very much the central question in my conversation with Dalrymple, i.e., at what point do incompetence and malevolence overlap and become indistinguishable? Dalrymple response, characteristically, was a rare blend of succinct, droll, and ominous:
I suppose there comes a point when good intentions actually turn into malevolence, or at any rate, people who started off with good intentions become malevolent because they’re not prepared to change their mind about the results of their activities. And actually, their pride is more important for them than actually doing good. . . . It’s when you let your pride and your desire to feel good about yourself overwhelm the evidence that what you’re doing is actually harmful, that you become malevolent.