In Prospect

Summer 2005

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that writers and artists formed the ambition of shocking the middle class and overturning its values. Before then, they had striven to “hold . . . the mirror up to nature,” as Shakespeare put it, or more modestly, in Alexander Pope’s words, to say “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well exprest.” Their goal was to help us understand our nature and that of the world (seen and unseen) that we inhabit; their touchstones were the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

As Theodore Dalrymple writes on page 79, playwright Henrik Ibsen was one of the greatest of those nineteenth-century pioneers who wielded their art to overturn conventional manners and morals, rather than to understand and refine them. For him, man was born free but was everywhere in chains because of the institution of marriage, which drained the relations between the sexes of their spontaneity, joy, and mutuality, turning men into tyrants and women into dolls in a dollhouse, or something like prostitutes. In play after play, the great and dour Norwegian dramatized how wedlock was an engine of misery and hypocrisy, and how individuals could achieve happiness and authenticity only by walking away from it.

Others had had this idea earlier, of course, including Engels, and even Diderot; and many later writers and thinkers took up the chorus—though none with Ibsen’s emotional power and directness. All had a cumulative effect, however, so that by the 1960s the idea, grown familiar with vivid repetition, began to bear fruit in widespread practice—if not quite as Ibsen might have expected. Though most of the middle-class people whom the playwright had addressed increasingly had their flings with spontaneity and joy but then got married as per bourgeois norm (though many later took Ibsen’s advice to walk out of their marriages), the ghetto poor, as Kay S. Hymowitz shows on page 12, rejected marriage en masse. Though for four decades feminist advocates in the Ibsen tradition, and black advocates trying to destigmatize such behavior for reasons of racial pride, denied that the demise of marriage in the inner city was a problem, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan had claimed it to be in his notorious 1965 government report, conservative policy analysts, and later liberal scholars, have shown that Moynihan was dismayingly right. Now, with the denials losing steam, the work of reconstruction can begin; but it is worth noting not only that ideas do have consequences, but that the consequences of elite ideas are often sheer catastrophe for the poor and weak.

Take the ideas on madness and asylums of French savant Michel Foucault and his anti-psychiatric followers, as Theodore Dalrymple sets them forth in a second story on page 108. There is no such thing as “madness,” in Foucault’s view. Far from being a reality of nature, a true illness, insanity is just a socially constructed category that the bourgeoisie has fabricated to extend its control over the workers by allowing it to lock them up for any deviance. Such ideas, however far-fetched, were key in the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill that began in the sixties, and they are key in the widespread prohibitions on doctors against treating the mad without their consent. The result, as Dalrymple has witnessed many times over in his role as a prison psychiatrist, is suffering and degradation that medical progress has made unnecessary, if intellectuals would only allow it to do its work.

As Heather Mac Donald shows in two stories about university education beginning on page 29, the intellectuals are still hard at their destructive work, still influenced too by Foucauldian ideas that there is no “truth” or “reality,” no “self,” no “male” or “female,” but only social constructions designed to preserve the power of white male Western capitalists. Especially aggrieved, Mac Donald observes, are feminist professors who, at the height of freedom and privilege, imagine that they are still dolls in Ibsen’s dollhouse. Mac Donald’s solution: donors should defund the academic follies, and instead give only to college programs that still are concerned with the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and to professors who understand what a triumph of freedom and prosperity is the Western civilization that it is their privilege, and duty, to transmit.