Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Witty, thought-provoking, and a pleasure to read

One of the pleasures of reading witty. erudite, and articulate English curmudgeons like Dalrymple and Scruton (are there others?) is the respite they offer from the prevailing ideology and received opinion within my profession. As a college teacher I gave up over 30 years ago any notion of changing my students' opinions--and research, fortunately, shows that professors have almost no net impact on their students' political positions. My aim, more modest but still entirely unrealistic for a dead white male walking, is to get students to engage with writers and ideas with whom or which they disagree.

I just wrote a belated review of Theodore Dalrymple's (2007)collection of essays, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses for It may not be timely like my Scruton review, but I find it a good discipline to reflect on my reading in this way. Plus I have this ambition - how our life goals shrink with age, like the rest of us! - of breaking into the top 10,000 new amazon reviewers. In any case, here it is.

Dalrymple's essays are wonderful to read - erudite, amusing (yet horrifying), witty but deadly serious. His musings are much more than curmudgeonly rants, though that element is certainly there, as in the writings of that other highly articulate, erudite English conservative Roger Scruton (The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope).

Like George Orwell (see, for example, his Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier), Dalrymple brings to bear on his writing a wealth of experience in different countries and among the least respectable elements in them. His perspective is different - it reflects, among other things, a lifetime spent amid the demoralizing effects, as he sees them, of the postwar welfare state.

As with Scruton, there is the same distrust of the reforming, utopian elites who, with the best intentions, wreak havoc in the lives of those they purport to help. Of course, the book will please curmudgeonly conservatives, but it deserves to be read carefully also by those it targets for criticism. The book is a powerful warning to those like me, who have spent most of their lives in the 'helping' professions like social work or advocating for social policy reforms that strengthen the bureaucratic-professional state while weakening the capacity of the poorest and most vulnerable to care for and control their own families and neighborhoods.

The essays are not at all as predictable as this description might suggest. There are many surprises, delights, and unexpected insights. His essay on an exhibition of the work of photographers who died while recording their experience of the Vietnam War is thoughtful and profound, drawing effectively on the author's own experience of being drawn to danger in foreign parts.

His essay on the uses of corruption offers a surprising explanation of why Italy has thrived in the post-war period while Britain, from a much more favorable starting position, fell into a "degradation and lack of self-respect that is so obvious in the streets of Britain but so absent from those of Italy" (p.196).

The challenge for Dalrymple is that the Italian state absorbs far more of the national economy than the British and so appears to validate the statist dirigisme that Dalrymple generally deplores. His answer is that the Italian state is openly corrupt and inefficient, so people have to fend for themselves and their families and to bribe their way past bureaucratic obstacles to get things done (like building permits, installing phone service, and so forth). In Britain, in contrast, bureaucratic probity ensures that people expect more of the state, which therefore acts as a real brake on economic progress and a blight on people's lives. It is not reliance on the state, but the fact that people know they cannot rely on it, that gives Italy its comparative advantage. Whether one is convinced or not, it is an ingenious, thought-provoking argument and a pleasure to read.

Dalrymple, like Scruton and (on a different level) Orwell, shows how much we can benefit from reading the articulate, intelligent work of perceptive social and cultural commentary that challenges our own assumptions and biases.

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