Do you know what the most popular post on this blog is?  I mean, easily the most popular? It is “Reflections on whether life is now sh1t“, a post inspired by (several posts before) musings by Theodore Dalrymple at the Conservative Party conference on the subject of poverty.

I was not so much reflecting on TD’s solutions to poverty (the prognosis) – for, to be fair, he was not offering solutions,  apart from the well known Tracey Emin/Andrew Lloyd Weber device of leaving a country that becomes disgusting or Unfairly Expensive to the Patriotic Emigre,  as his general diagnosis – that life in the UK is squalid, dominated by corrupt bureaucracy, utterly malfunctional in a social sense, and best illustrated by the colourful and shocking anecdotes he is capable of producing.  Such as: the girlfriend who answers questions about how often she is hit by her boyfriend with “well, normally he headbutts me”.  And stories about kids not knowing their fathers, and so on.

So I owe a (polite) thank you to the people at the Sceptical Doctor, a site created to discuss, and indeed extoll Theodore Dalrymple, aka Anthony Daniels, as ‘the greatest essayist of his age’ and “one of the most interesting people alive“.   I had the privilege of chatting to Anthony Daniels before our event.  It was fun: I like bright people, and people who can disagree in a jovial way.  But nothing he said privately – and in particular publicly, when he became much more shrill and melodramatic – contradicts my fundamental beliefs that:

  • People who are alive today – above all, in the West – are hugely privileged in material terms compared to previous generations and other countries.   Welfare policies have generally helped: without a welfare state, or a biggish government, there would be more material squalor
  • It is only snobs -often elitist Lefties (see John Harris here) – who deny or downplay the real value of such materialist advantages.  Being able to enjoy long life, healthy children, the ability to travel, freedom from starvation, an absence of marauding warriors, almost 100% literacy, communcation over vast distances – all matter.  It ought not to take an effort of the imagination to work out how horrible life before many of these things was.  That people don’t actively appreciate them doesn’t reduce their value.
  • The other great leaps forward that I am aware of have been in Liberty.  You need again to imagine what life was like when the majority were bound to some Lord or other, working in service all their life, deprived of educational opportunities, suffering under real tyrannies, in order to appreciate this.  I am greatly enjoying this book about a year in the life of Shakespeare, for example. A bad-tempered wench who muttered angrily about the rich getting away with it might be executed back then.  Imagine.
  • The flip side of the growth in material wellbeing and liberal values has been a decline in what the Grumpy Conservatives call ‘civil society’.  People are less respectful.   Women having genuine freedom – for all of 100 years from the last 100,000 – means that family life is restructured.  Not living in fear of aristocratic thugs or other forms of arbitrary state power – and actually being supported on welfare- has changed the way people behave.  They may be lazier – well, they certainly are: the average annual hours worked was about 3000 150 years ago, down to 1600 now.    Theodore Dalrymple’s account of how people are much ruder to a doctor in the West, and now, than in the Third World, or 100 years before, is no doubt true.  This must partly be because being rude to a doctor in those other circumstances was a death sentence.  No obligation to provide care.

I think these deep historical comparisons matter, because when a Conservative complains about how bad things have got, you need to start thinking about direction of travel, relative changes – and the trade-offs that have got us where we are.

The other persistent theme is about method.  How do you tell how things are in this great/once great/miserably declined country of ours?  Theodore Dalrymple’s primary method is the colourful anecdote: the savage dregs of society he supposedly meets.  Occasionally, he uses statistics, but very selectively, and inaccurately: the figure ‘nearly twice as many children have a TV in their bedrooms as have a father living at home’, quoted uncritically by Jackie Ashley, clearly can’t be true – something like 70-80% of kids are in two parent families.  Stats clearly is not his forte.

His adherents also like anecdote: so I’m expected to be convinced about Declinism by a Daily Mail picture of a girl with knickers round her ankles, for example.

I can’t judge whether TD is a great essayist, or the greatest.  I personally prefer Julian Barnes. It is a matter of taste, and for my taste I greatly value (a) self doubt (b) balance, without the balance removing from the cut of the point being made (c) good humour and (d) an ability to resist cheap shots, unjustified generalisations, and so on.    I don’t rate the public work of TD very high on any of those criteria. But I liked the man personally.

On this subject, here is Jeremy Clarkson ploughing much the same furrow (thanks to our intern Rosie for bizarrely sending this around in the press summary). Clarkson seems to be our Rush Limbaugh, with his hordes of ditto-heads underneath to boot.  Like the great patriots Dalrymple, Emin and Lloyd Weber, he drags out the tired old trope of people leaving the country when they get pissed off:

There’s talk of emigration in the air. It’s everywhere I go. Parties. Work. In the supermarket. My daughter is working herself half to death to get good grades at GSCE and can’t see the point because she won’t be going to university, because she doesn’t have a beak or flippers or a qualification in washing windscreens at the lights . She wonders, often, why we don’t live in America.

How sad that his teenaged daughter is infected with his own white male resentment (see Dillow’s analysis): when to be 15, educated and the daughter of a fabulously wealthy man must be very heaven.  The only obstacle to a happy life is the inability to appreciate her good fortune, and there the poison of Tory miserabilism has infected her, already.

He ends a long diatribe about the things that ‘ordinary’ people get cross about thusly:

they see the stupid war on drugs and the war on drink and the war on smoking and the war on hunting and the war on fun and the war on scientists and the obsession with the climate and the price of train fares soaring past £1,000 and the Guardian power-brokers getting uppity about one shot baboon and not uppity at all about all the dead soldiers in Afghanistan, and how they got rid of Blair only to find the lying twerp is now going to come back even more powerful than ever, and they think, “I’ve had enough of this. I’m off.”

But the ordinary Joes don’t really experience most of these things, unless their job is to review newspapers for day time TV. Clarkson’s logic is that people who get cross about what they read in the papers will move to, say, Spain to ‘get away from it’.  But they have British newspapers everywhere – and blogs, and the ability to be a ditto-head on the TimesOnline.  Plus, there is less to do in sozzled ExPat Furious Retirement – so in all likelihood the idiots who emigrate to ‘escape Mandelson’ will end up even more exposed to him abroad.

To those liberals endlessly annoyed by the right-wing fools just literate enough to shout their comments at the bottom of such unreflective bigoted rubbish, here is the antidote: I have just discovered sPeak Your Brane.  There you can read endless such twaddle, in the safe knowledge that it takes the IQ of a semi-utilized computer chip to generate it:

It makes me sick! Open your eyes people! pc liberalists are pandering to ethnics and gays because they hate our freedoms. when will this government bring back flogging and the death penalty i say. What happened to GREAT Britain?!!!!!

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14 thoughts on “Clarkson, Dalrymple, the patriotic urge to leave the country

  1. Good post. Here’s the appropriate intellectual quote to finish it off:

    “Examine the records of history, recollect what has happened within the circle of your own experience, consider with attention what has been the conduct of almost all the greatly unfortunate, either in private or public life, whom you may have either read of, or heard of, or remember, and you will find that the misfortunes of by far the greater part of them have arisen from their not knowing when they were well, when it was proper for them to sit still and be contented.”

    – Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

  2. I do not know his alter ego Anthony Daniels, but Theodore Dalrymple is squarely in the tradition of the great British grumblers. I think they have been around since the early 18th century, complaining with eloquence and wit that the country is losing its manners, filling up with layabouts and going to the dogs. Self-doubt, good humour and balance were never part of the role. I can take them in only limited doses; but if they disappeared, I might feel the country is losing a special quality.

    Clarkson is of that other species, the common English complainer. It is rather un-English to complain, so we have allocated the role to specialists. They are often found in pub bars; but some achieve wider notoreity until they get disgustingly drunk in public ar overstep the mark in some other way (the Times seem to have taken down Clarkson’s latest piece). Here in Spain they seem rare even in ‘English bars’. It is one of the nicer features of life here.

    That life gets easier, and on the whole better, is something I have noted over the past 70 years. A large part of the improvement is directly linked to economic growth, but some seems virtually independent of it. That ambition for improvement, and therefore discontent, grows with the improvement seems one of the more attractive features of being human.

  3. Thanks both: and what a pair of wise quotes (your last sentence, David). May I add a couple from Bertrand Russell, that I wish the Certain Gloomies would be attentive to?

    http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Bertrand_Russell

    “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

    “I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.”

    And above all:

    “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”

    Dalrymple seems to have so few doubts, alas.

  4. You are right that women have become much more emancipated in the last century. So too homosexuals. And children – physical child abuse (caning, beating, etc) are now much more uncommon, (even if still all too common).

    As I tell my students – the past is a terrible place – if you are ever offered a time machine and the chance to go back, decline.

  5. I thought our Jeremy had a substantial residence on the Isle of Man where he was having a skirmish about people ‘trespassing’ on his privacy. It might be another Jeremy Clarkson of course but as David Heigham says, I read his column as a production line saloon bar rant or a ‘why o why?’ diatribe a la Richard Littlejohn – another off shore patriot.

  6. You’ve obviously never read Dalrymple, because you embarrassingly mis-state his views. Except for the biggish government part, he has already made the case in your 4 bullet points. One example…

    “Mankind has indeed become ever wealthier and ever healthier. The fact of progress is obvious. The life expectancy of an Indian peasant, for example, now exceeds by far that of a member of the British royal family at the apogee of British power. In much of the world, poverty is no longer absolute, a lack of food, shelter or clothing; it is relative. Its miseries are no longer those of raw physical deprivation but those induced by comparison with the vast numbers of prosperous people by whom the relatively poor are surrounded and whose comparative wealth the poor feel as a wound, a reproach, and an injustice.”
    —Theodore Dalrymple, “Our Culture, What’s Left of It”

    Obviously, this wealth was not created by welfare. As any freethinking economist knows, welfare redistributes wealth but does not create it. Dalrymple frequently says that the squalor in modern Britain is spiritual and that the welfare system itself can not be the sole cause. He blames the spread of disastrous ideas propagated by intellectuals. He argues against a welfare state that makes no moral distinction about who is deserving of assistance.

    By the way, since people have it so good today, why the need for a huge welfare state?

  7. Hi Karl [writing on mobile so sorry for brevity}

    I was only going off what TD said publicly,which i promise that i faithfully reported. & I appreciate that he does not deny the reality of material progress – instead I think he grossly undervalues their importance relative to anecdotally supported claims of spiritual decline.

    Welfare may not create wealth – thoughI think material poverty generates its own enormous negative externalities. And it does boost utility. It is needed because os the society-destroying inequalities that would otherwise exist

    G

  8. Thank you, G. I think your last comment more clearly identifies the disagreement. Dalrymple believes in using welfare to assist only those who are truly disadvantaged, while you believe in using welfare to promote equality (in order to eliminate the problems you believe inequality causes).

    Egalitarianism goes beyond assisting the disadvantaged and requires that we take from those with the most and give to those with the least, whatever their abilities and whatever their absolute level of wealth. Holding up equality as the objective necessarily means that government will make no determination regarding who is deserving and who is not. If someone has chosen not to work, they are still given the fruits of others’ labor. In this way, the undiscriminating welfare state rewards and encourages resentment, envy, helplessness, sloth, crime — and paradoxically, inequality itself!

    The best way to promote equality (as well as a higher absolute standard of living) would be to require all but the most truly disadvantaged to be self-reliant, so that they would develop the skills, virtues and character necessary for success.

    I can see the problems of egalitarianism but not the problems of inequality. How does inequality harm society? (I assume you didn’t really mean “destroy”, since I’m sure you would concede that society existed before the modern welfare state.)

  9. Karl, to be honest with you, I’m no equality fetishist: in fact, what you feel for Theodore, I get for Samuel Brittan, and read this of his:

    http://www.samuelbrittan.co.uk/text191_p.html

    And I don’t think redistribution solves everything. In fact, when preparing for that event with TD and Kate Green and a clever chap from the Fabians, I thought MY role would be reminding the more left wing people there that there was no money for their aspirations, and it was time to try other things. This comes from my experience of previous events:

    https://freethinkecon.wordpress.com/2009/09/19/great-news-on-tuition-fees/

    describes the more left wing reaction at the Liberal conference (where I was a watcher and not a participant). And when I prepared for the Conservative event, I hope my annoyance at the naivity of the left wing position was clear:

    https://freethinkecon.wordpress.com/2009/10/04/off-to-the-conservative-conference/

    I had also half hoped that the Conservative event would dismiss for me some of the more hoary old stereotypes of Conservativism that the other parties hoist up in order to scare their children/activists: you know, viscerally hating Europe, loving inequality, that sort of thing. This is why TD’s intervention was so shocking – it was almost a charicature of what people think Tories say amongst themselves, the sort of thing the Left uses to attack them, saying “they may pretend to be nice, but this is what they really think”.

    That is a big question on why inequality matters. As I’ve said, I’m not on the far side of this debate. These people have thought longer on it:

    http://www.poverty.org.uk/summary/social%20exclusion.shtml

    I personally think it matter more than the Libertarian freemarket thinkers do, because I think they have a very naive view of how fair the unconstrained behaviour of markets are: they don’t seem to recognise path dependence, monopoly, monopsony, and sheer bad luck in their calculus

    Will Wilkinson agrees with you

    http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=10351

    and I think that absolute equality can be tyrannical, like you do

  10. You might also like to consider the work of Richard Wilkinson, Prof of Epidemiology at Nottingham. I believe he has recently retired and set up the Equality Trust. A quick intro to the thinking can be found here: http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/why
    This March he published with Kate Pickett The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better
    His work takes the debate away from fairness/unfairness and turns the spotlight on the effects of inequality on the social fabric.
    Also worth a look is his Unhealthy Societies – The Affliction of Inequality.
    I suppose, Giles, it’s a detailed look at those externalities you mention.

  11. Thanks Bill, that is useful: confusingly, I knew that there was another Wilkinson who DID take inequality very seriously. A family squabble?

    On this subject, I had intended to blog about this thought-provoking post, and the comments below, which take a fairly extreme view:

    http://baselinescenario.com/2009/11/02/smart-hard-working-people/

    “Surely at least people who work hard deserve to do well. In the hierarchy of American moral virtues, hard work must be right at the top. But I’m not convinced of that, either. The ability to work hard is something that you either inherit from your parents or that you develop in your early childhood as a function of the environment around you. Either way, whether or not you have it is as much a matter of luck as is your IQ.”

    I disagree. I’ve got the job I’ve got now because I have spent a huge amount of my free time reading macroeconomics textbooks, JS Mill instead of John Grisham. I go to the pub 10 times a year, and wake first to the kids 330 times. All of these things will keep the Wilkes clan in bread and future happiness, I hope: and the idea that I just came upon some virtues of diligence is a bit annoying.

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