I made a New Year’s resolution to buy books online to save money. I doubt whether I will keep it. I like browsing bookshops and temptation, as Oscar said, is hard to resist. However, I don’t count my purchase the other day because a $20 book voucher arrived in the post from a local bookstore, as reward for my previous spending. I quickly set off to spend my $20. I first picked a very short book by the late Marxist philosopher A G Cohen Why not socialism?
It is only about 5000 words and I just about read it in the store. It is the most simplistic stuff about the need to keep the possibility of socialism alive. Professor Cohen uses the cooperation found on a camping trip to extol the virtues and possibilities of (sharing and caring) socialism. I thought it would be interesting to have as a ready and brief reference source in case any doubts about the infeasibility, impracticability and sheer childish naivety of socialism ever came into my mind. But on my way out of the shop I spotted the new book by Theodore Dalrymple, Spoilt Rotten (briefly covered by Peter Ryan). I didn’t want to buy both books and break my resolution so soon; so I returned the Cohen book to the shelves. As it was, the Dalrymple book was $38 (in comparison to $24 from Blackwells UK) requiring me to top up my voucher to a marked extent.
It was worth it. I often read Dalrymple in The Spectator. It was always entertaining, replete with his experiences as a doctor and psychiatrist mixing with various characters, many unsavoury, in hospital and prison. Before I knew it I had read it all and felt aggrieved that I hadn’t savoured it more. My wife said, what is the point of reading it so quickly? I replied – well it’s a non-fiction page turner. And so it is.
The theme running throughout the book is (public) sentimentality – an excess of emotion that is false and mawkish and, moreover, publicly displayed – and the way it has displaced reason in interpreting and responding to life’s problems and challenges. Dalrymple makes sentimentality work hard across a wide canvass. But it is hard to fault his polemical jousts, even if the jumps from one example to another are, at times, a little disconcerting: schooling, language development, parenting, real life sob stories, the cult of victimhood, child neglect, paedophilia, multiculturalism, imagined racism, useless foreign aid, drug addiction, the demand for public emotion, and the worthlessness of family impact statements prior to court sentencing, and much more. The saving is that it is all enormously entertaining and often funny.
He starts with parenting and schooling (hence the book’s title) and the notion that developed during the 20th century stemming, he suggests, from Romanticism, that children needed to express themselves as distinct from being taught, directed and moulded. He notes that this all started in the Britain much earlier than he had thought. He quotes the Spens’ reports into primary and secondary education of 1931 and 1937: the curriculum should be thought of in terms of activity and experience rather than knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored. It has been downhill from there to foster the idea “that training and knowledge are inimical to the natural genius that inheres in us all”.
Human relations more generally, he suggests, have been caught in the sentimental mindset where obligations and duty have run second place to an entitlement to be happy. He looks at the disintegration of family life and the undermining of the institution of marriage aided by “intellectuals” who see it as standing in the way of state power wielded by them. Dalrymple suggests that the rage directed at paedophilia (while not amiss of itself) is in some respects a scapegoat for an insidious ebbing of the perceived duty owed by parents to one another and to their children.
He comes upon a Tragic Life Stories section in his local bookstore. He knew about these books but had not realised that they had been accorded the status of being a genre. Made to weep over (e.g. “Hidden betrayed, exploited and forgotten”); real or just purporting to be real; his lasting impression of them was as a “mixture of syrup and blood”.
The demand for public emotion and the cult of the victim are perhaps those parts of the book which most tellingly underscore what Dalrymple is saying. He records the castigation of the Chamberlains, Joanna Lees and the McCanns for not showing the right amount of emotion demanded by the crowd; and the demands on the Queen to show more grief following the death of Princess Dianna. Stoicism gets no points. Not weeping loudly enough in public might get you wrongly sent to gaol, is the moral of the story that Dalrymple tells.
He notes the way victims are turned into celebrities and heroes for simply surviving. Think of some recent miners trapped underground. Victimhood apparently also removes “the burden of responsibility; moral and sometimes legal”. You might recall Tony Abbott being pilloried after responding to being called “gutless” by a grandstanding Bernie Banton (for not being around at a precise time to accept a petition) by saying that just because Bernie was ill “doesn’t mean that he is necessarily pure of heart in all things”. This was a big mistake in this sentimental age, which Tony would have known if Dalrymple’s book had been out at the time and he’d read it.
The book is worth reading just for the chicken’s foot story reported in Dalrymple’s local newspaper. A dad rages against the town’s supermarket because his daughter found a chicken’s foot in her roast chicken dinner. Apparently everyone in the family threw out their dinners in sympathy with the child’s hysterical distress. If you could have any four people to join you for dinner, chicken or otherwise, who would you pick? One of mine, I have decided, would be Theodore Dalrymple.