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By Theodore Dalrymple

The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.

Oh, to be in England

Theodore Dalrymple
Choosing To Fail
Winter 2000

The children of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent make up a quarter of all British medical students, 12 times their proportion in the general population. They are likewise overrepresented in the law, science, and economics faculties of our universities. Among the Indian immigrants who arrived in the country with next to nothing, moreover, there are now reportedly some thousands of millionaires.

Despite its reputation for being ossified and class-ridden, then, Britain is still a country in which social mobility is possible—provided, of course, that a belief that Britain is an ossified and class-ridden society doesn't completely stifle personal effort. It is the mind, not society, that forges the manacles that keep people enchained to their misfortunes.

But where there can be upward social mobility, there can be mobility in the opposite direction. And the children of Indian immigrants are dividing into two groups: a segment that chooses the upward path, and a segment that chooses descent into the underclass.

Sometimes this division occurs within the very same family. For example, last week I met two prisoners of Indian origin, all of whose siblings had gone to college and become either professional or business people. Their brothers and sisters had chosen law, medicine, or commerce: they had chosen heroin, burglary, and the intimidation of witnesses. The financial status of their parents could not explain their choices: the father of one was a bus driver, the second a successful travel agent, and both fathers had been not only willing and able but longing to fund their higher education, had they wanted it.

I first noticed signs of a developing Indian underclass a few years ago in the prison in which I work, where there has been an inexorable rise in both the absolute and relative numbers of prisoners of Indian origin. In the last eight years, the proportion of Indian prisoners has more than doubled, and if it continues to rise at the same rate for the next eight years, prisoners of Indian origin will have surpassed their proportion in the general population. As the proportion of Indians in the age group most likely to be imprisoned has not increased, demography doesn't explain this shift.

Eight years ago, most of the Indian prisoners were guilty of white-collar crime, such as tax evasion: not the kind of thing to make you fear to walk the streets at night. All that has changed now. Burglary, street robbery, car theft, and drug-dealing, with their attendant violence, have become so commonplace among them that mention of their seriousness elicits only a bored shrug of incomprehension. Why make a fuss over anything so ordinary as a street robbery? Everyone does it. Liberals to whom I have mentioned the phenomenon applaud it as representing the assimilation and acculturation of an ethnic minority into the wider society.

They are right to view this development as a cultural phenomenon. There are many other outward signs of the acculturation of Indians into the lower depths. Although their complexions are by no means well-adapted to it, tattooing is fast on the increase among them. Other adornments—a ring through the eyebrow or the nose, for example—are membership badges of the clan. Gold in the front teeth, either replacing an entire incisor or framing it with a rim of gold, is virtually diagnostic of heroin addiction and criminality. Such decorative dentistry is imitative of the black underclass and is intended as a signal of both success and dangerousness.

Young Indians have adopted, too, the graceless manners of the class to which they aspire to belong. They now walk with the same self-assured vulpine lope as their white compatriots, not merely as a way of locomotion but as a means of communicating threat. Like the whites, they shave their heads to reveal the scars upon their scalps, the wounds of the underclass war of each against all.

They have made the gestures and postures of their white and black mentors their own. When a member of the developing Indian underclass consults me, he slouches in the chair at so acute an angle to the floor that I would not have thought it possible, let alone comfortable, for a man to retain the position. But it isn't comfort he is after: he is making a statement of disrespect in the face of what he supposes to be authority. His fragile ego demands that he dominate all social interactions and submit to no convention.

He also adopts a facial expression unique to the British underclass. Asked a question, he replies with an arching and curling of half his upper lip, part snarl, part sneer. Expressive both of disdain and of menace, it is by no means easy to achieve, as I proved to myself by trying it without success in the mirror. It simultaneously demands, "Why are you asking me that?" and warns: "Don't push me too far." It is the response to all questions, no matter how innocuous: for in a world in which every contact is a jostling for power, it is best to establish straightaway that you are not to be trifled with.

The growing Indian underclass adheres to the values of the white underclass—values that are at once shallow and intensely held. For example, I was once a witness in a murder trial of four young Indians accused of killing their companion in the course of a quarrel over the brand of sneakers he wore. They mocked him because his footwear was not of the latest fashionable brand, and eventually he lashed out at them in frustration. In the ensuing fight, they killed him and left his body at the entrance to his apartment building.

Illegitimate birth has now made its appearance among Indians. Where once it was almost unknown for an Indian to have a child out of wedlock, it is no longer even rare. The Indians have reached the 5 percent level from which the rate of illegitimacy in the home population grew exponentially in the 1960s, and there is no reason why, in a few years' time, they should not reach the national average of 33 percent: for when history repeats itself, it is usually at an accelerated pace.

At first, only Indian men produced illegitimate children; some of those who had submitted to an arranged marriage kept a woman, usually white but sometimes black, in concubinage elsewhere in the city. Often the concubine—knowing nothing of the man's background, biography, or culture—had no idea that he was married. She would then have his child under the disastrously mistaken impression that it would bind his hitherto inconstant attention more firmly to her.

More recently, however, the bearing of illegitimate children has spread to young Indian women. An Indian girl runs away from home after a long period of conflict with her parents over makeup, dress, the hour at which she may return from nightclubs, and so on. She soon falls into the embrace of a young man—white, black, or Indian—all too willing to prove his masculinity by impregnating her and then, of course, abandoning her.

From this experience she learns nothing. She is lonely, in need of male company and—in the predatory world in which she now finds herself—male protection. The cycle repeats itself until she has three children by three different fathers, though by the end of her reproductive career she remains as isolated and friendless as the day she left home. One might have supposed that young Indian women would go to almost any lengths to avoid so terrible and predictable a fate. Not so: they are increasingly embracing it as if it were enviable. Though their numbers are as yet small, they are the party of the future.

How has an Indian underclass formed so quickly? And why has a proportion of the Indian population embraced the life of the underclass with such apparent enthusiasm? These are important questions: the answers we give to them both reflect and determine our entire social philosophy.

The liberal would no doubt argue that the formation of an Indian underclass is the inevitable response to poverty and prejudice and the despair they evoke. With the path to advancement blocked by a racist society, young Indians drop out of school, shave their heads, tattoo their skin, inject themselves with heroin, father children out of wedlock, and commit crimes.

But if they are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and prejudice, why do so many of their compatriots succeed, and succeed triumphantly? Why do the children of successful Indian parents also choose the underclass way of life? And why may stunning success and abject failure so often occur in the same family?

The explanation must surely involve conscious human choice. Young Indians do not join the underclass through inadvertence or by force of parental example, as young whites—now into the third generation of this way of life in England—often do. In no case known to me have the parents of young Indians approved of their children's choices or been other than horrified by them.

Such parents frequently consult me, after they have watched with growing dismay one or all of their children take the primrose path to urban perdition. For example, a taxi driver who sometimes drives me home begged me to talk to his son. The driver was, of course, exactly the kind of petit bourgeois who, when not actually hated by intellectuals, is despised as an uninteresting and unimaginative menial, whose dream is what they have mocked for so long—respectable independence. He is therefore beyond the pale of sympathetic understanding: for the small man is to be defended only so long as he consents to remain a victim, in need of publicly funded ministrations.

The driver's son (alone of his five children) had taken to the needle, and in doing so had caused him grief beyond his powers to express it in English. His son now stole from the family home, lied, cheated, cajoled, threatened, and even used violence to extract enough money from his parents and siblings for his drugs. The father didn't want to turn him out of his house or over to the police; but neither did he want to work his long hours merely to supply his son with the drugs that might one day kill him.

I asked the son—complete with gold front dentistry, baggy trousers, baseball cap worn backward even in my consulting room, and the latest sneakers—why he had started to take heroin.

"There's nothing else to do on the street," he replied. "That's society, what it puts you in." His attribution of his own choice to society was not unusual. I asked him whether he had not known the dangers of heroin before he took it.

"Yes," he replied.

"But you took it all the same?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"No offense, doctor, but the people who gave it to me know more about life than you do. They know what it's about, what it's like on the street. And they're not prejudiced or racists."

He was under the influence of the idea that some aspects of reality are more real than others: that the seedy side of life is more genuine, more authentic, than the refined and cultured side—and certainly more glamorous than the bourgeois and respectable side. This idea could be said to be the fundamental premise of modern popular culture. As for his reference to racism, it was clearly intended as an all-purpose self-justification, since his own brother was now a tolerably successful lawyer.

Another set of parents consulted me about their son, 18, who had chosen a similar path. Both his parents had white-collar jobs and were neither rich nor poor. At about 13, their son had started to play hooky from school, smoke marijuana, drink alcohol, stay out all night, and brush against the law. On the few occasions he attended school, he argued with the teachers and was eventually expelled for attacking one of them. He left home at 16 to live with his pregnant girlfriend, whose name he tattooed on his forearm as a preliminary to abandoning her altogether, having discovered that he was not yet ready for a life of domesticity. Falling in with drug dealers, he now lived an itinerant life, dodging the law, indulging in crack, and occasionally ending up in the hospital with an overdose, taken not so much to kill himself as to seek temporary sanctuary or asylum from the consequences of his own style of life.

The father said that his son had now become exactly what he had hoped he would never be: a member of the English underclass. He had watched him descend into barbarism, acutely aware of his own impotence to prevent it. The Spanish Inquisition could hardly have invented a worse torture for him.

His son was of high intelligence and had once been expected to do well by his teachers. I asked him why he had had such a rooted objection to school.

"I wanted to earn some money."

"What for?"

"To have a good time. And clothes."

The clothes he wanted were the inelegant but expensive (and ever changing) uniform of slum youth. The good time consisted entirely of attendance at clubs with thousands of like-minded young people. There was nothing in his conception of the Good Life other than constant excitement and instant gratification. His idea of paradise was life as MTV.

"Did you not think you had something still to learn?"

"No."

In other words, he considered himself perfectly formed and complete at 13. Precociously adolescent, he was trapped in immaturity. In a sense he was a victim: not of poverty or racism or a vicious cycle of deprivation but of a popular culture that first attracted and then engulfed him, but always through the mediation of his own choices.

There is a dreadful predictability to the explanation the young Indians give for their descent into the underclass, identical to those their white counterparts give. "I was easily led," they say. "I fell in with the wrong crowd." I have heard these things said hundreds of times. They pretend not to notice the self-exculpatory nature of these answers, whose truth they expect me to accept without further examination.

"Why, if you are so easily led," I ask them, "were your parents not able to lead you? And did you not choose the wrong crowd, rather than fall into it like a stone?"

As to why they started to take heroin, their standard reason is the one that Sir Edmund Hillary gave when asked why he climbed Everest: "Because it was there." But in the case of heroin, "there" is "everywhere": "Heroin's everywhere," they say, as if it were the air they could not help but breathe in.

"Are you telling me that every last person in your area takes heroin?"

"No, of course not."

"Then you chose to, didn't you?"

"Yes, I suppose so."

"Why?"

Like the whites, they go to some length to provide an answer other than that they liked it and found pleasure in doing what they knew they ought not to do.

"My grandfather died," or "My girlfriend left me" or "I was in prison": never do they avow a choice or a conscious decision. And yet they know that what they are saying is untrue: for they grasp the point immediately when I tell them that my grandfather, too, died, yet I do not take heroin, as indeed the great majority of people whose grandfathers have died do not.

In fact, they have assimilated to the local cultural and intellectual climate: a climate in which the public explanation of behavior, including their own, is completely at variance with all human experience. This is the lie that is at the heart of our society, the lie that encourages every form of destructive self-indulgence to flourish: for while we ascribe our conduct to pressures from without, we obey the whims that well up from with- in, thereby awarding ourselves carte blanche to behave as we choose. Thus we feel good about behaving badly.

This is not to deny that social factors in upbringing influence the way people think and make decisions. If the negligent and sometimes brutal incompetence of so much white British parenting (solicitously justified by liberal intellectuals and subsidized by the welfare state) explains the perpetuation and expansion of the white British underclass, if not its origins, could it be that the severity and rigidity of Indian upbringing, combined with British culture's siren song of self-gratification, explain the development of an Indian underclass? The fact that the Muslim population has a crime rate six times that of the Hindu and three times that of the Sikh suggests that it could, for the Muslim culture of the subcontinent has in general much greater difficulty compromising creatively with Western culture than the other two religions have. This startling difference is a further argument against those who would see in the development of an Indian underclass an inevitable response to racial prejudice: for it is surely unlikely that the racially prejudiced would trouble themselves to distinguish between Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus. Muslim parents are more reluctant than Sikh and Hindu parents to recognize that their children, having been brought up in a very different cultural environment from that in which they grew up, inevitably depart from their own traditional ways and aspire to a different way of life. While many Muslim parents send their daughters out of the country at the age of 12 to prevent them from becoming infected with local ideas (but as the Jesuits would tell them, it is already too late—they should send their daughters away at seven), very few Sikhs do so and no Hindus at all.

Parental inflexibility is an invitation to adolescent rebellion, and so it is hardly surprising that, in the developing Indian underclass, Muslims should predominate so strongly. But there are more ways of rebelling than one, and alas, rebellious Indian adolescents have an antinomian example to hand, in the shape of the preexisting British underclass. The popular culture tells them that to spit in the eye of everyone they can reach is a sign of moral election—insofar as it is possible to be morally elect in a world without moral judgment. The underclass life offers them the prospect of freedom without responsibility, whereas their parents offer them only responsibility without freedom. They are left to discover for themselves that the exercise of liberty requires virtue if it is not to turn into a nightmare.

The development of an Indian underclass in Britain is a matter of greater significance than the numbers involved might suggest. For it is not a quasi-mechanical response to economic conditions, to racial prejudice, or to any other form of oppression of the kind beloved of liberal social engineers. It is a refutation of the infinitely pernicious Marxist maxim, which has corrupted so much of intellectual life, that "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness." Men—even adolescent boys—think: and the content of what they think determines in large part the course of their lives.

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