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By Theodore Dalrymple

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

Oh, to be in England

Theodore Dalrymple
How Criminologists Foster Crime
Autumn 1999

Last week in the prison I asked a young man why he was there.

"Just normal burglaries," he replied.

"Normal for whom?" I asked.

"You know, just normal."

He meant, I think, that burglaries were like gray skies in an English winter: unavoidable and to be expected. In an actuarial sense, he was right: Britain is now the burglary capital of the world, as almost every householder here will attest. But there was also a deeper sense to his words, for statistical normality slides rapidly in our minds into moral normality. The wives of burglars often talk to me of their husband's "work," as if breaking into other people's homes were merely a late shift in a factory. Nor is only burglary "normal" in the estimation of its perpetrators. "Just a normal assault," is another frequent answer prisoners give to my question, the little word "just" emphasizing the innocuousness of the crime.

But how has crime come to seem normal to its perpetrators? Is it merely a recognition of the brute fact of a vastly increased crime rate? Or could it be, on the contrary, one of the very causes of that increase, inasmuch as it represents a weakening of the inhibition against criminality?

As usual, one must look first to the academy when tracing the origins of a change in the Zeitgeist. What starts out as a career-promoting academic hypothesis ends up as an idea so widely accepted that it becomes not only an unchallengeable orthodoxy but a cliche even among the untutored. Academics have used two closely linked arguments to establish the statistical and moral normality of crime and the consequent illegitimacy of the criminal justice system's sanctions. First, they claim, we are all criminal anyway; and when everyone is guilty, everyone is innocent. Their second argument, Marxist in inspiration, is that the law has no moral content, being merely the expression of the power of certain interest groups—of the rich against the poor, for example, or the capitalist against the worker. Since the law is an expression of raw power, there is no essential moral distinction between criminal and non-criminal behavior. It is simply a question of whose foot the boot is on.

Criminologists are the mirror image of Hamlet, who exclaimed that if each man received his deserts, none should escape whipping. On the contrary, say the criminologists, more liberal than the prince (no doubt because of their humbler social origins): none should be punished.

These ideas resonate in the criminal's mind. If his illegal conduct is so very normal, he thinks, what's all the fuss about in his case, or why should he be where he is—in prison? It is patently unjust for him to be incarcerated for what everyone still at liberty does. He is the victim of illegitimate and unfair discrimination, rather like an African under apartheid, and it is only reasonable that, on his release, he should take his revenge upon so unjust a society by continuing, or expanding, his criminal activity.

It is impossible to state precisely when the Zeitgeist changed and the criminal became a victim in the minds of intellectuals: not only history, but also the history of an idea, is a seamless robe. Let me quote one example, though, now more than a third of a century old. In 1966 (at about the time when Norman Mailer in America, and Jean-Paul Sartre in Europe, portrayed criminals as existential heroes in revolt against a heartless, inauthentic world), the psychiatrist Karl Menninger published a book with the revealing title The Crime of Punishment. It was based upon the Isaac Ray lectures he had given three years earlier—Isaac Ray having been the first American psychiatrist who concerned himself with the problems of crime. Menninger wrote: "Crime is everybody's temptation. It is easy to look with proud disdain upon ‘those people’ who get caught—the stupid ones, the unlucky ones, the blatant ones. But who does not get nervous when a police car follows closely? We squirm over our income tax statements and make some ‘adjustments.’ We tell the customs official we have nothing to declare—well, practically nothing. Some of us who have never been convicted of crime picked up over two billion dollars' worth of merchandise last year from the stores we patronize. Over a billion dollars was embezzled by employees last year."

The moral of the story is that those who go to court and to prison are victims of chance at best and of prejudice at worst: prejudice against the lowly, the unwashed, the uneducated, the poor—those whom literary critics portentously call the Other. This is precisely what many of my patients in the prison tell me. Even when they have been caught in flagrante, loot in hand or blood on fist, they believe the police are unfairly picking on them. Such an attitude, of course, prevents them from reflecting upon their own contribution to their predicament: for chance and prejudice are not forces over which an individual has much personal control. When I ask prisoners whether they'll be coming back after their release, a few say no with an entirely credible vehemence; they are the ones who make the mental connection between their conduct and their fate. But most say they don't know, that no one can foresee the future, that it's up to the courts, that it all depends—on others, never on themselves.

It didn't take long for Menninger's attitude to permeate official thinking. A 1968 British government document on juvenile delinquency, Children in Trouble, declared: "It is probably a minority of children who grow up without ever misbehaving in ways which may be contrary to the law. Frequently, such behavior is no more than an incident in the pattern of a child's normal development."

In a sense, this is perfectly true, for in the absence of proper guidance and control, the default setting of human beings is surely to crime and antisocial conduct, and everyone breaks the rules at some time. But in a period of increasing permissiveness, many draw precisely the wrong conclusion from human nature's universal potential for delinquency: indeed, the only reason commentators mention that potential at all is to draw a predetermined liberal conclusion from it—that acts of delinquency, being normal, should not give rise to sanctions.

In this spirit, Children in Trouble treats the delinquency of normal children as if its transience were the result of a purely biological or natural process rather than of a social one. Delinquency is like baby teeth: predetermined to come and go at a certain stage of a child's development.

Not so very long ago, such an attitude would have struck almost everyone as absurd. Everyone knew, as if by instinct, that human behavior is a product of consciousness, and the consciousness of a child must be molded. I can best illustrate what I mean by my own experience. At the age of eight, I stole a penny bar of chocolate from the corner store. It gave me a thrill to do so, and I enjoyed the chocolate all the more for the fact that it had not made an inroad into my weekly pocket money (sixpence). Unwisely, however, I confided my exploit to my elder brother, in an attempt to win his respect for my bravery, which was much in question at the time. Even more unwisely, I forgot that he knew this incriminating story when, furious at him because of his habitual teasing, I told my mother that he had uttered a word that at that time was never heard in respectable households. In retaliation, he told my mother that I had stolen the chocolate.

My mother did not take the view that this was a transient episode of delinquency that would pass of its own accord. She knew instinctively (for, at that time, no one had yet befuddled minds by suggesting otherwise) that all that was necessary for delinquency to triumph was for her to do nothing. She did not think that my theft was a natural act of self-expression, or a revolt against the inequality between the power and wealth of children and that of adults, or indeed of anything other than my desire to have the chocolate without paying for it. She was right, of course. What I had done was morally wrong, and to impress the fact upon me she marched me round to Mrs. Marks, the owner of the store, where I confessed my sin and paid her tuppence by way of restitution. It was the end of my shoplifting career.

Since then, of course, our understanding of theft and other criminal activity has grown more complex, if not necessarily more accurate or realistic. It has been the effect, and quite possibly the intention, of criminologists to shed new obscurity on the matter of crime: the opacity of their writing sometimes leads one to wonder whether they have actually ever met a criminal or a crime victim. Certainly, it is in their professional interest that the wellsprings of crime should remain an unfathomed mystery, for how else is one to convince governments that what a crime-ridden country (such as Britain) needs is further research done by ever more criminologists?

It is probably no coincidence that the profession of criminology underwent a vast expansion at about the same time that criminal activity began the steepest part of its exponential rise. Criminologists in Britain once numbered in the low dozens; and criminology, considered unfit for undergraduates, was taught only in one or two institutes. Today, hardly a city or town in the country is without its academic criminology department. Half of the 800 criminologists now working in Britain got their training (mostly in sociology) in the late sixties and early seventies, during the heyday of radical activism, and they trained the other half.

Of course, it might have been that the problem of crime called forth its students. But since social problems are often of a dialectical nature, could it not also have been that the students called forth their problem? (British economist John Vaizey once wrote that any problem that became the subject of an ology was destined to grow serious.) Since the cause of crime is the decision of criminals to commit it, what goes on in their minds is not irrelevant. Ideas filter down selectively from the academy into the population at large, through discussions (and often bowdlerizations) in the papers and on TV, and become intellectual currency. In this way, the ideas of criminologists could actually become a cause of crime. In addition, these ideas deleteriously affect the thinking of the police. In our hospital, for example, the police have posted notices everywhere warning staff, patients, and visitors about car theft. MOTORISTS! proclaims the notice. YOUR CAR IS AT RISK! This is a very criminological locution, implying as it does a mysterious force—like, say, gravity—against which mere human will, such as that exercised by thieves and policemen, can be expected to avail nothing.

In the process of transmission from academy to populace, ideas may change in subtle ways. When the well-known criminologist Jock Young wrote that "the normalization of drug use is paralleled by the normalization of crime," and, because of this normalization, criminal behavior in individuals no longer required special explanation, he surely didn't mean that he wouldn't mind if his own children started to shoot up heroin or rob old ladies in the street. Nor would he be indifferent to the intrusion of burglars into his own house, ascribing it merely to the temper of the times and regarding it as a morally neutral event. But that, of course, is precisely how "just" shoplifters, "just" burglars, "just" assaulters, "just" attempted murderers, taking their cue from him and others like him, would view (or at least say they viewed) their own actions: they have simply moved with the times and therefore done no wrong. And, not surprisingly, the crimes that now attract the deprecatory qualification "just" have escalated in seriousness even in the ten years I have attended the prison as a doctor, so that I have even heard a prisoner wave away "just a poxy little murder charge." The same is true of the drugs that prisoners use: where once they replied that they smoked "just" cannabis, they now say that they take "just" crack cocaine, as if by confining themselves thus they were paragons of self-denial and self-discipline.

Of course, the tendency of liberal intellectuals such as Jock Young not to mean quite what they say, and to express themselves more to flaunt the magnanimity of their intentions than to propagate truth, is a general one. Not long ago, I was involved in a radio discussion with a distinguished film critic about the social (or antisocial) effects of the constant exposure of children to depictions of violence. He strenuously denied that any ill effects occurred or were likely to occur, but admitted en passant that he would not permit a diet of violence for his own children. He perhaps did not notice that, underscoring his contradictory attitude, was an unutterable contempt for half of mankind. In effect he was saying that the proles were so beyond redemption, so immoral by nature, that nothing could make them either better or worse. They did not make choices; they did not respond to moral or immoral influences; they were violent and criminal by essence. His own children, by contrast, would respond appropriately to his careful guidance.

Criminologists, needless to say, are not monolithic in their explanations of criminality: an academic discipline needs theoretical disputes as armed forces need potential enemies. But above the cacophony of explanations offered, one idea makes itself heard loud and clear, at least to criminals: to explain all is to excuse all. Criminological writing generally conceives of criminals as objects, like billiard balls responding mechanically to other billiard balls that impinge upon them. But even when they are conceived of as subjects, whose actions are the result of their ideas, criminals remain innocent: for their ideas, criminologists contend, are reasonable and natural in the circumstances in which they find themselves. What more natural than that a poor man should want material goods, especially in as materialistic a society as ours?

Recently, biological theories of crime have come back into fashion. Such theories go way back: nineteenth-century Italian and French criminologists and forensic psychiatrists elaborated a theory of hereditary degeneration to account for the criminal's inability to conform to the law. But until recently, biological theories of crime—usually spiced with a strong dose of bogus genetics—were the province of the illiberal right, leading directly to forced sterilization and other eugenic measures.

The latest biological theories of crime, however, stress that criminals cannot help what they do: it is all in their genes, their neurochemistry, or their temporal lobes. Such factors provide no answer to why the mere increase in recorded crime in Britain between 1990 and 1991 was greater than the total of all recorded crime in 1950 (to say nothing of the accelerating increases since 1991), but that failure does not deter researchers in the least. Scholarly books with titles such as Genetics of Criminal and Antisocial Behavior proliferate and do not evoke the outrage among intellectuals that greeted the publication of H. J. Eysenck's Crime and Personality in 1964, a book suggesting that criminality is an hereditary trait. For many years, liberals viewed Eysenck, professor of psychology at London University, as virtually a fascist for suggesting the heritability of almost every human characteristic, but they have since realized that genetic explanations of crime can just as readily be grist for their exculpatory and all-forgiving mills as they can be for the mills of conservatives.

Recently, an entire television series in Britain focused on the idea that crime is the result of brain dysfunction. The book that accompanied the series states that the two authors "believe that—because we accept the findings of clinicians with no penal axe to grind—many criminals act as they do because of the way their brains are made. The past two decades have vastly extended the horizons of knowledge, and we believe it is time to benefit from that knowledge—the result of the work of endocrinologists, bio-physiologists, neurophysiologists, biostatisticians, geneticists and many others."

But despite the alleged lack of penal axe to grind, the ultimate message is all too familiar: "What stands out from literally hundreds of papers and studies of the various types of criminal is widespread and cogent evidence of disordered minds resulting from dysfunctional brains. . . . But we do not recognize; we merely condemn. Incarceration is an expensive and wasteful reaction."

Both parts of this message are welcome to my patients in the prison: that they are ill and in need of treatment, and that imprisonment is not only pointless but cruel and morally unjustified—less justified, indeed, than their crimes. After all, the judges who sentence them to imprisonment cannot exculpate themselves by virtue of their dysfunctional brains.

No wonder that each week prisoners tell me, "Prison's no good to me, doctor; prison's not what I need." I ask them what they do need, then. Help, treatment, therapy.

The idea that prison is principally a therapeutic institution is now virtually ineradicable. The emphasis on recidivism rates as a measure of its success or failure in the press coverage of prison ("Research by criminologists shows . . . " etc.) reinforces this view, as does the theory put forward by criminologists that crime is a mental disorder. The Psychopathology of Crime by Adrian Raine of the University of Southern California claims that recidivism is a mental disorder like any other, often accompanied by cerebral dysfunction. Addicted to Crime?, a volume edited by psychologists working in one of Britain's few institutions for the criminally insane, contains the work of eight academics. The answer to the question of their title is, of course, yes; addiction being—falsely—conceived as a compulsion that it is futile to expect anyone to resist. (If there is a second edition of the book, the question mark will no doubt disappear from its title, just as it vanished from the second edition of Beatrice and Sidney Webb's book about the Soviet Union, The Soviet Union: A New Civilisation?—which included everything about Russia except the truth.)

Is it surprising that recidivist burglars and car thieves now ask for therapy for their addiction, secure in the knowledge that no such therapy can or will be forthcoming, thereby justifying the continuation of their habit? "I asked for help," they often complain to me, "but didn't get none." One young man aged 21, serving a sentence of six months (three months with time off for good behavior) for having stolen 60 cars, told me that in reality he had stolen over 500 and had made some $160,000 doing so. It is surely an unnecessary mystification to construct an elaborate neuropsychological explanation of his conduct. Burglars who tell me that they are addicted to their craft, thereby implying that the fault will be mine for not having treated them successfully if they continue to burgle after their release, always react in the same way when I ask them how many burglaries they committed for which they were not caught: with a happy but not (from the householder's point of view) an altogether reassuring smile, as if they were recalling the happiest times of their life—soon to return.

Criminals call for therapy for all antisocial behavior—curiously, though, only after it has led to imprisonment, not before. For example, last week a young man finally imprisoned for repeated assaults on his girlfriend and his mother, among others, told me that prison was not doing him any good, that what he needed was anger management therapy. I remarked that his behavior in prison had been exemplary: he was always polite and did as he was told.

"I don't want to be taken down the block [the punishment floor], do I?" he replied, rather giving the game away. He had been violent to his girlfriend and his mother because hitherto there were advantages, but no disadvantages, to his violence. Now that the equation was different, he had no problem "managing" his anger.

The great majority of the theories criminologists propound lead to the exculpation of criminals, and criminals eagerly take up these theories in their desire to present themselves as victims rather than as victimizers. For example, not long ago "labeling theory" took criminology by storm. According to these theorists, the quantity of crime, the type of person and offense selected to be criminalized, and the categories used to describe and explain the deviant are social constructions. Crime, or deviance, is not an objective "thing" out there. So far, I haven't tried this theory out on my non-criminal patients whose houses have been burgled three times in a year—or who have been attacked in the street more than once, as is common among these patients—but I think I can imagine their response. For criminals, of course, a theory that suggests that crime is an entirely arbitrary social category without justified moral content is highly gratifying—except when they themselves have been the victim of a crime, when they react like everyone else.

Since criminologists and sociologists can no longer plausibly attribute crime to raw poverty, they now look to "relative deprivation" to explain its rise in times of prosperity. In this light, they see crime as a quasi-political protest against an unjust distribution of the goods of the world. Several criminological commentators have lamented the apparently contradictory fact that it is the poor who suffer most, including loss of property, from criminals, implying that it would be more acceptable if the criminals robbed the rich. (In a radio discussion about the seasonal riots that break out in poor areas of British cities, a left-wing academic, now a cabinet minister in the present government, said that one of the tragic aspects of these riots is that they caused damage in the rioters' own neighborhood. She didn't answer my question whether she'd prefer the riots to take place in her neighborhood.)

In discussing the policy of zero tolerance, criminologist Jock Young avers that it could be used selectively for "progressive" ends: "one can," he says, "be zero-tolerant of violence against women and tolerant about the activities of the dispossessed." One might suppose from this that among those tolerable activities of the dispossessed there was never any violence against women.

Moreover, the very term "dispossessed" carries its own emotional and ideological connotations. The poor have not failed to earn, the term implies, but instead have been robbed of what is rightfully theirs. Crime is thus the expropriation of the expropriators—and so not crime at all, in the moral sense. And this is an attitude I have encountered many times among burglars and car thieves. They believe that anyone who possesses something can, ipso facto, afford to lose it, while someone who does not possess it is, ipso facto, justified in taking it. Crime is but a form of redistributive taxation from below.

Or—when committed by women—crime could be seen "as a way, perhaps of celebrating women as independent of men," to quote Elizabeth Stanko, an American feminist criminologist teaching in a British university. Here we are paddling in the murky waters of Frantz Fanon, the West Indian psychiatrist who believed that a little murder did wonders for the psyche of the downtrodden, and who achieved iconic status precisely at the time of criminology's great expansion as a university discipline.

"Justice" in the writings of many criminologists does not refer to the means by which an individual is either rewarded or punished for his conduct in life. It refers to social justice. Most criminologists can't distinguish between unfairness and injustice, and they conclude that any society in which unfairness continues to exist (as it must) is therefore unjust. And the question of social justice usually boils down to the question of equality: as Jock Young puts it starkly: "Zero tolerance of crime must mean zero tolerance of inequality if it is to mean anything." Since one of the inhibitions against crime (as crime is commonly understood, by people who have suffered it or are likely to suffer it) is the perceived legitimacy of the legal system under which the potential criminal lives, those who propagate the idea that we live in a fundamentally unjust society also propagate crime. The poor reap what the intellectual sows.

No one gains kudos in the criminological fraternity by suggesting that police and punishment are necessary in a civilized society. To do so would be to appear illiberal and lacking faith in man's primordial goodness. It is much better for one's reputation, for example, to refer to the large number of American prisoners as "the American gulag," as if there were no relevant differences between the former Soviet Union and the United States.

In fact, criminals know all about the power of punishment: both its deterrent and rehabilitative effect. For prison is a society divided clearly in two, between wardens and prisoners. Prisoners maintain the rigid division by their own extremely severe code of punishment. Should an individual prisoner try to break down this division, other prisoners will inflict immediate, severe, and public punishment. The division therefore holds, even though many prisoners would prefer to side with the wardens than with their peers.

Criminology is not monolithic, and there are more dissenters now than there once were, as Jock Young recognizes. "This recent pattern [of criminologists who believe in detection and punishment] is in contrast to a generation of liberal opinion and scholarship whose aim was to minimize police intervention and lower police numbers. One might even say that this has been the hidden agenda of academic criminology since the Nineteenth Century."

From the criminal's point of view, criminology has served him proud.

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