September 23, 2008

Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses

Last week, in my review of The Glass Castle, I mentioned a book by Dr. Theodore Dalyrymple. Here are a few excerpts (and my commentary) from his essay, The Frivolity of Evil (included in Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses) written on the eve of his retirement from 14 years of hospital and prison work. Dalrymple speaks plainly about the impact of moral decay on the have-not-as-muchs. (I can't quite call them have-nots, as what is currently called poverty is not -- in my mind -- poverty.)

First he speaks to depression, which was quite thought-provoking to me, as I take my daily daily "happy pill" and started doing so during a period of great unhappiness in my life which occurred during the rainy and dark season of our year. Indeed I was unhappy, and in addition, I was concerned about getting depressed and not being able to properly care for my family.

There is something to be said here about the word "depression," which has almost entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of unhappiness from modern life. Of the thousands of patients I have seen, only two or three have ever claimed to be unhappy: all the rest have said that they were depressed. This semantic shift is deeply significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is itself pathological, a medical condition, which it is the responsibility of the doctor to alleviate by medical means. Everyone has a right to health; depression is unhealthy; therefore everyone has a right to be happy (the opposite of being depressed). This idea in turn implies that one's state of mind, or one's mood, is or should be independent of the way that one lives one's life, a belief that must deprive human existence of all meaning, radically disconnecting reward from conduct.

Well that certainly is something to think about. Dalrymple goes on:

There has been an unholy alliance between those on the Left, who believe that man is endowed with rights but no duties, and libertarians on the Right, who believe that consumer choice is the answer to all social questions, an idea eagerly adopted by the Left in precisely those areas where it does not apply. Thus people have a right to bring forth children any way they like, and the children, of course, have the right not to be deprived of anything, at least anything material. How men and women associate and have children is merely a matter of consumer choice, of no more moral consequence than the choice between dark and milk chocolate, and the state must not discriminate among different forms of association and child rearing, even if such non-discrimination has the same effect as British and French neutrality during the Spanish Civil War.

The consequences to the children and to society do not enter into the matter: for in any case it is the function of the state to ameliorate by redistributive taxation the material effects of individual irresponsibility, and to ameliorate the emotional, educational, and spiritual effects by an army of social workers, psychologists, educators, counselors, and the like, who have themselves come to form a powerful vested interest of dependence on the government.
Which puts me in mind of this quip, from Henry Brown:
Government cripples you, then hands you a crutch and says, 'See, if it wasn't for us, you couldn't walk.'
Though this book, (Our Culture . . . ) and his other, Life at the Bottom are disturbingly (uncomfortably?) frank I do recommend them.


  1. Very interesting! I really like reading books like this.

  2. Interesting. This book is going on my TBR list.

  3. When my grandfather died in 2006, my grandma was immediately put on meds for depression. I think they assumed that since she'd been married to him since she was 15 she wouldn't know what to do with herself. Boy were they wrong, it was pretty much a new start in life for her! And the meds prevented her from going through a healthy grieving process.

    My husband is a Libertarian, and he's be inclined to disagree with the quote about consumer choice. That's a part of it, but it has more to do with upholding the constitution as written and limiting all types of government as much as possible.

  4. Hi Memarie,

    I do have to admit the Dalrymple is over-simplifying when he asserts libertarians on the Right, who believe that consumer choice is the answer to all social questions.

    You make a good point about a healthy grieving process. I was not convinced that I could manage a healthy process as we had just adopted two WILD children from a Russian orphanage less than 3 months before my robust and vital (and beloved) Dad was paralyzed in an accident. Instead of me leaning on my folks to get us through the rough adoption adaption phase, we were taking care of my folks. I was crumbling. Anyway, I probably need to wean myself off and get to work on my grief.

    Thanks for your input.


  5. Suzanne- I think in my grandma's case it wasn't necessary, but sometimes it is necessary. Medication would have really helped me through post-partum depression, but I didn't know I had it. I was also afraid that if I admitted I suspected I had it, people would think I was an unfit mother. It was a very scary place to be in.


Thanks for joining our discussion of this book!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...