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By Theodore Dalrymple

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

Oh, to be in England

Theodore Dalrymple
Lost in the Ghetto
Summer 2000

One of the terrible fates that can befall a human being is to be born intelligent or sensitive in an English slum. It is like a long, slow, exquisite torture devised by a sadistic deity from whose malevolent clutches escape is almost impossible.

Such was not always the case. My father was born in an English slum in the years before the First World War. In the borough in which he was born, one in every eight children died in his first year. But in those benighted times, when some London children, too poor to buy shoes, went to school barefoot, the "vicious cycle of poverty" had yet to be discovered. It had not yet occurred to the rulers of the land that the circumstances of a person's birth should seal his destiny. And so my father, having been found intelligent by his teachers, was taught Latin, French, German, mathematics, science, English literature, and history, as if he were fully capable of entry into the stream of higher civilization.

When he died, I found his school textbooks still among his possessions, and they were of a rigor and difficulty that would terrify a modern teacher, let alone child. But he, who was never generous in his praise of others and often imputed the worst of motives to his fellow beings, remembered his teachers with the deepest respect and affection: for they had not only taught him his lessons but had devoted much of their spare time to taking their intelligent slum children, himself included, to museums and concerts, to demonstrate to them that the life of the slum was not the only life there was. In this way, my father was awakened to the very possibility of possibility.

A child born in a slum today with the same high intelligence as my father would be vanishingly unlikely ever to find such mentors. After all, today's teachers, steeped in the idea that it is wrong to order civilizations, cultures, or ways of life hierarchically, would deny either the existence or the value of a higher civilization, and would in any case be incapable of imparting it. For them, there is no height or depth, superiority or inferiority, profundity or shallowness; there is only difference. They even doubt that there is a right and wrong way to spell a word or construct a sentence—a view buttressed by such popular and supposedly authoritative works as Professor Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct (written, of course, with neither orthographical nor grammatical errors). Today's teachers assume that the slum child is fully equipped culturally by the environment in which he lives. His speech is by definition adequate to his needs, his tastes by definition acceptable and no worse or lower than any others. There is no reason, therefore, to induct him into anything.

A slum child would find no mentors such as my father found also because the belief in the equality of cultures that is a long-established pedagogic orthodoxy has now seeped down into the population at large. Today's slum dwellers are aggressively convinced of the sufficiency of their knowledge, however restricted it might be, and of their own cultural life, of whatever it might consist. My older patients use the word "educated" as a term of approbation; my younger patients, never. When my father was a child, no one doubted what it was to be educated, or questioned the value of an education such as the one he received; but since teachers and parents now regard all cultural manifestations and fields of human knowledge as of equal worth, why waste the effort either to impart or to receive as rigorous, difficult, and unnatural an education as my father received, when any other training (or none at all) would be as good? Worse, such an effort would be to impose an arbitrary standard of worth—a mere disguise for the continuation of the hegemony of a traditional elite—and would thereby undermine the self-confidence of the majority and reinforce social divisions.

Unfortunately, the culture of the slums is deeply unsatisfying to intelligent people in the long run. The tragedy is that, even though the average level of intelligence in the slums is probably lower than elsewhere, there are very many intelligent people who have the misfortune to be born in them. And we do everything possible to ensure that that is where they stay.

They come to realize at different stages of their lives that something is wrong with the culture by which they are surrounded. Some realize it when they reach their teens, others only when their own children go to school. Many are unable to put their finger on what exactly is wrong: at 30, they are aware only of an absence. This absence turns out to be a lack of any subject for their minds to work upon other than the day-to-day flux of their existence.

It is well-recognized that intelligent children who are not sufficiently challenged in school, and who are made to repeat lessons they have already understood merely because others in the class, slower to learn than they, have not yet mastered them, frequently become disruptive, badly behaved, and even delinquent; it is less well recognized that this destructive pattern persists well into adult life. The bored—among whom are those whose level of intelligence is grossly mismatched with the requirements of their cultural environment—frequently solve the problem by fomenting easily avoided and completely foreseeable crises in their personal lives. The mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum: and if no absorbing interest has developed in childhood and adolescence, such an interest is soon manufactured from the materials to hand. Man is at least as much a problem-creating as a problem-solving animal. Better a crisis than the permanent boredom of meaninglessness.

Despite official genuflections in the direction of diversity and tolerance, the sad fact is that the culture of the slums is monolithic and deeply intolerant. Any child who tries to resist the blandishments of that culture can count on no support or defense from teachers or any other adult, who now equate both freedom and democracy with the tyranny of the majority. Many of my intelligent patients from the slums recount how, in school, they expressed a desire to learn, only to suffer mockery, excommunication, and in some instances outright violence from their peers. One intelligent child of 15, who had taken an overdose as a suicidal gesture, said that she was subjected to constant teasing and abuse by her peers. "They say I'm stupid," she told me, "because I'm clever."

Teachers rarely protect such children or encourage them to resist absorption into the culture that will all too clearly imprison them in the social condition into which they were born: for teachers have themselves generally absorbed uncritically the notion that social justice—meaning little more than an equal distribution of income—is the summum bonum of human existence. I have heard two teachers expound the theory that, as social mobility reinforces the existing social structure, it delays the achievement of social justice by depriving the lower classes of militants and potential leaders. Thus to encourage an individual child to escape his heritage of continual soap opera and pop music, tabloid newspapers, poverty, squalor, and domestic violence is, in the eyes of many teachers, to encourage class treachery. It also conveniently absolves teachers of the tedious responsibility for the welfare of individual pupils.

Still, children arise in the unlikeliest places with ambitions very different from their peers, and fortunately not all teachers believe that no child can escape the slums unless all do. One of my patients, for example, early conceived a passion for French culture and literature (she never arrives in the hospital without a volume of Hugo, Balzac, or Baudelaire, which is a little like seeing a polar bear in the jungle). She decided at an early age that she would study French at university and was fortunate, considering the school she attended, to find a teacher who did not actively discourage her. But the cost to her in ordinary social relations with her peers was incalculable: she had to sit apart from them in the classroom and create her own enclosed little world in the midst of constant disorder and noise; she was mocked, teased, threatened, and humiliated; she was jeered at when standing at the bus stop to go home; she was deprived of friends and sexually assaulted by boys who despised, and perhaps secretly feared, her evident devotion to books; excrement was put through her mailbox at home (a common expression of social disapproval in our brave New Britain). As for her parents—of whom she was fortunate enough to have two—they did not understand her. Why could she not be like everyone else—and leave them in peace? It wasn't even as if a taste for French literature led automatically to highly paid employment.

She went to university and was happy for three years. For the first time in her life, she met people whose mental world extended beyond their own very restricted experience. Her performance at university was creditable, though not brilliant, for by her own admission she lacked originality. She had always wanted to teach, thinking there was no nobler calling than to awaken the minds of the young to the cultural riches of which they would otherwise remain unaware; but on graduation, lacking savings, she returned to her parents for the sake of economy.

She found a job teaching French nearby, in the kind of school in which she herself had been educated. She was back in a world in which knowledge was no better than ignorance, and correction, whether of spelling or of conduct, was by definition a personal insult, an outrage to the ego. Who was she—who was any adult, in fact—to tell children what they should learn or do (a sensible enough question, impossible to answer, if you believe in the equal worth of all human activity)? Once more she found herself mocked, teased, and humiliated, and was powerless to prevent it. Eventually, one of her pupils—if that is quite the word to describe the youth in question—tried to rape her, and she brought her career as a teacher to a premature end.

Now she would consider any paid employment that would take her away from the area in which she was born, or any area like it: that is to say, at least a third of Great Britain. Until her escape, however, she remains trapped in her parents' home, with no one to talk to about those things that interest her, either inside the house or out. Perhaps, she mused, it would have been better had she surrendered to the majority while she was still at school: for her heroic struggle had brought her little but three years' respite from misery.

Hers is not an isolated case by any means. With Britain's immense apparatus of welfare, which consumes about a fifth of the national income, there is little or nothing to spare for an 18-year-old girl such as the one who consulted me last week, who is making the most valiant efforts to escape her dismal background. Her father was a drunk who beat her mother every day of his married life, and quite often the three children as well, until finally he decided that enough was enough and deserted them altogether. Unfortunately, my patient's younger brother stepped into the breach and became just as violent as the father had been. He beat his mother and one day broke a glass and used its jagged edge to inflict an extremely serious wound on my patient's left arm, from which she still, two years later, has not entirely recovered and probably never will.

Endowed apparently by nature with a forceful personality, my patient insisted not only on calling the police but in pressing charges against her brother, who was 14 at the time. The magistrates gave him a conditional discharge. So appalled was my patient's mother at her lack of family solidarity that she threw her out of the house, at the age of 16, to fend for herself. This put an end to her plan—formulated under the most inauspicious circumstances—to continue her education and become a lawyer.

At 16, as she then was, she was deemed by social services to be too old for an orphanage but not old enough to receive any welfare benefits, and the only accommodation that the local apparatus of welfare could find for her was a room in a house used to resettle criminals. While her brother received every attention from social workers, she received none at all, since there was nothing wrong with her. Her criminal roommate in the halfway house was what she called "a baghead"—a heroin addict—and also a professional thief.

As intelligent as she was forceful, my patient found herself a job as a clerk in a local law office and has worked there ever since. She was thenceforth charged the full economic rent for her miserable room, and all pleas to the authorities on her part to be relocated in public housing were turned down on the grounds that she was already adequately accommodated and in any case was unfit yet to manage her own affairs. As to public assistance for further full time education, that was out of the question, since in order to pursue such full time education she would have to give up her job: and she would then be considered to have made herself voluntarily unemployed and thus unentitled to public assistance. But if she cared to become pregnant, why then, public assistance was at hand, in generous quantities.

The morals of her story could hardly have been clearer. First, the inhabitants of the milieu from which she came considered that her duty not to inform the authorities far outweighed her right not to be maltreated. Second, the authorities themselves considered the attack upon her as unworthy of serious attention. Third, she would receive no public help at all in escaping from the circumstances into which she had been born. To treat her as an especially deserving case, after all, would be to imply that there were undeserving cases; and to say that there were undeserving cases would be tantamount to admitting that one way of living is preferable—morally, economically, culturally, spiritually—to another. This is a thought that must at all costs be kept at bay, or the whole ideology of modern education and welfare collapses in a heap. It might be argued, of course, that it was precisely the lack of public assistance that put iron in my patient's soul in the first place (she was still determined one day to qualify as a lawyer): but that is the answer to a different question, and is besides a little harsh for my taste.

But at least these two girls, each remarkable in her way, had somehow glimpsed the existence of another world, even if neither had yet succeeded in fully entering it. Their awareness that the culture of the slums was insufficient to sustain an intelligent person came to them early in life—how or why they could no longer remember.

This realization comes considerably later to most of my intelligent patients, however, who complain in their thirties of a vague, persistent, and severe dissatisfaction with their present existence. The excitements of their youth are over: in the culture of the slums, men and women are past their prime by the age of 25. Their personal lives are in disarray, to put it kindly: the men have fathered children with whom they have little or no contact; the women, preoccupied with meeting the increasingly imperious demands of these same children, drudge at ill-paid, boring, and impermanent jobs. (The illegitimacy rate in Britain has recently passed the 40 percent mark, and while most births are still registered in the names of two parents, relations between the sexes grow ever more unstable.) The entertainments that once seemed so compelling to both men and women—indeed, the whole purpose of life—seem so no longer. These patients are listless, irritable, and disgruntled. They indulge in self-destructive, anti-social, or irrational behavior: they drink too much, involve themselves in meaningless quarrels, quit their jobs when they can't afford to, run up debts on trifles, pursue obviously disastrous relationships, and move house as if the problem were in the walls that surround them.

The diagnosis is boredom, a much underestimated factor in the explanation of undesirable human conduct. As soon as the word is mentioned, they pounce upon it, almost with relief: recognition of the problem is instant, though they had not thought of it before. Yes, they are bored—bored to the very depths of their being.

But why are they bored, they ask me? The answer, of course, is that they have never applied their intelligence either to their work, their personal lives, or their leisure, and intelligence is a distinct disadvantage when it is not used: it bites back. Reviewing their life stories, they see for the first time that at every point they have chosen the line of least resistance, the least strenuous path. They never received any guidance, because all agreed that one path was as good as another. They never awoke to the fact that a life is a biography, not a series of disconnected moments, more or less pleasurable but increasingly tedious and unsatisfying unless one imposes a purposive pattern upon them.

Their education was an enforced and seemingly interminable irrelevance: nothing their parents or their teachers told them, nothing they absorbed from the culture around them, led them to suppose that their early efforts at school, or lack of them, would have any effect upon their subsequent lives. The jobs they took as soon as they were able were purely to fund their pleasures of the moment. They formed relationships with the opposite sex whimsically, without thought of the future. Their children were born as instruments, either to repair troubled relations or to fill an emotional and spiritual void, and were soon found wanting in either capacity. Their friends—for the first time perceived as of lesser intelligence—now bore them. And, for the first time wishing to escape the artificial, self-stimulated crises that amuse them no longer, they suffer the undisguised taedium vitae of the slums.

Intelligence is not the only quality that the modern culture of the slums penalizes, of course. Almost any manifestation of finer feeling, any sign of weakness, any attempt at withdrawal into a private world, is mercilessly preyed upon and exploited. A cultivated manner, a refusal to swear in public, an intellectual interest, a distaste for coarseness, a protest against littering, are the objects of mockery and obloquy: and so it takes courage, even heroism, to behave with common decency.

One of my patients is a stout woman, aged 50, who would once have been called an old maid. She is completely harmless and is in fact a woman of the most delicate sensibility. She is so timid that a harsh word is sufficient to reduce her to tears. She always apologizes to me for the inconvenience she believes that she causes me by her very existence; I have never been able to reassure her completely on that score. She is the Miss Flite of our times.

Needless to say, the life of such a person in a modern British slum is a living nightmare. The children in her street mock her unceasingly when she leaves her house; they push excrement through her letterbox as a joke. She has long since given up appealing to their mothers for help, since they always side with their children and consider any adverse comment on their behavior as an insult to them personally. Far from correcting their children, they threaten her with further violence. The relentless, gleeful revelations in the press, radio, and television of any wrongdoing by the authorities and the professions, unbalanced by any criticism whatever of members of the general public, have caused an atrophy of the faculty of self-criticism and prepare the mind always to look outwards, never inwards, for the source of dissatisfaction and malfeasance. Vox populi, vox dei—with every person a god in his own pantheon.

My patient is, of course, an easy target for burglars and robbers. Her house has been broken into five times in the last year, and she has been robbed in the street three times in the same period, twice in the presence of passersby.

Such a person can expect no sympathy from the authorities. The police have told her more than once that the fault is hers: someone like her should not live somewhere like this. The streets, in other words, should be left to the hooligans, the vandals, and the robbers, to ply their inevitable trades in peace, and it is the duty of citizens to avoid them. It is no part of the state's duty to secure the streets against them.

In such circumstances, decency is almost synonymous with vulnerability: a quality with which the authorities have no sympathy. Another patient of mine, a younger woman of respectable working-class background and unblemished character, despaired of finding a compatible man, her experience in that sphere having been uniformly disastrous. She decided thenceforth to live as a spinster, devoting her life to the rescue of stray animals. Her house, unfortunately, was in a street in a public housing project, in which all the other houses had been gradually abandoned after repeated vandalism and were now boarded up. The street then became a rendezvous and pick-up point for drug dealers, who did not hesitate to break into my patient's house to make use of her telephone (saving expenses on their own cellular phones) and help themselves to whatever food was present. They broke into her house even when she was in it, mocking her fear and taunting her with her inability to do anything about it. Her largest expense soon became the telephone bills they ran up. They threatened her with death if she went to the police.

She did go to the police, however, and also to the housing authorities. Their advice was the same: she should buy a guard dog. She followed their advice, but it made little difference, because the dog soon grew used to the drug dealers, who fed it tid-bits. But my patient grew to love her dog.

My patient asked the housing authorities to move her elsewhere. At first—that is to say, for two years—her request was turned down, because she was deemed to have insufficient reasons for wishing to move. When finally the authorities agreed to find her somewhere else to live, they offered her an apartment, in which, however, it was forbidden to keep animals. My patient pointed out that she had a dog, a creature upon which she now lavished all her capacity for affection, a fact perfectly obvious to anyone who spoke to her about her life for even a few moments. The housing authorities were adamant: take it or leave it. In vain did she point out that it was the housing authorities who had advised her to get the dog in the first place. The argument of the housing authorities was that if she were really serious about moving from her current inferno, she would take whatever she was given. After all, hundreds of thousands of British fathers abandoned their offspring without a moment's thought: what was all this sentimental fuss about a brute animal?

Life in the British slums demonstrates what happens when the population at large, and the authorities as well, lose all faith in a hierarchy of values. All kinds of pathology result: where knowledge is not preferable to ignorance and high culture to low, the intelligent and the sensitive suffer a complete loss of meaning. The intelligent self-destruct; the sensitive despair. And where decent sensitivity is not nurtured, encouraged, supported, or protected, brutality abounds. The absence of standards, as Ortega y Gasset remarked, is the beginning of barbarism: and modern Britain is well past the beginning.

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