| Lecture on Political Thought

Life at the Top: The Worldview That Makes the Elites

Theodore Dalrymple is well known on both sides of the Atlantic for his incisive writings chronicling the devastating effects of Progressive ideas on those they are intended to help. In Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, he showed how the root causes of poverty are to be found in ideas, promoted by our elites and adopted by the most vulnerable classes, that excuse violence, drug use, and wanton behavior. In his first-ever lecture in Washington, D.C., Mr. Dalrymple examines the other side of the coin and discusses the prejudices of these elites. He explains how their moral cowardice and the self-flattering nature of their beliefs account for their callous indifference to the ravages they have wrought, and sheds some much-needed light on the appeal of liberalism and the psychological underpinnings of the elite liberal worldview.

Key Points

  1. The intellectual elite, or at any rate the opinion-forming elite, is especially important in the destiny of a society, especially democratic societies, for it is this elite that sets its moral tone.
  2. One might say that at least a large part of intellectual life in our societies consists of the finding of bad arguments for the ignoring of evident but painful realities. Orwell was perhaps not far wrong when he said that we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men. Note that he said intelligent men, not intellectuals.
  3. In a reasonably open society, whatever its defects, what counts in peoples’ fate is their culture and their mentality—for example, their attitude to family solidarity, education, and individual effort.
Theodore Dalrymple

My subject is the view from the top, that is to say from the top of many modern liberal societies, and here I should point out Bertrand Russell’s distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. My knowledge of the view from the top is knowledge by description, or rather by inference, rather than knowledge by acquaintance, since I have never personally been at the top of anything, certainly not of society in general or of any political tree or professional hierarchy in particular.

In this respect, it is rather like my view from the bottom of society, which I inferred from contact with many thousands of patients during my career as a psychiatrist who inhabited that dark region of the earth, the new Dark Continent as it were. My contact with the upper regions—where light does not always shine—has been comparatively limited. Nonetheless, I had sufficient contact with the upper regions to be able to discern, I think, the dialectical relationship between upper and lower.

Since one therefore may judge the high in terms of the low, today I will venture to discuss the two distinct views from the top: the political elite and the intellectual elite, both bred from the loins of liberal democracy.

Political Elites and Bureaucratic Vices

One thing has been clear to me from such contact as I have had with those who in Britain are known as the great and the good: namely, how easy it is to lose contact with the rest of society and to conclude from an extremely comfortable material existence, shorn of many petty inconveniences, that all is right with the world.

I first realized how easy it might be to lose a grip not on reality—for all aspects are equally real—but on the fact that there are realities other than one’s own when I went once to an official lunch for a junior minister in the British government. He wasn’t even a very important figure in that government, but he was nevertheless the object of a great deal of cosseting; when he left the room, doors opened for him as if by magic or some radiance emerging from his person, a secretary whispered the details of his next engagement in his ear, a car was always waiting for him, and so forth. Not for him the problems of finding a parking space!

I wondered how long it would take me, subjected to this kind of implicit flattery, to lose contact with some of the less agreeable and irritating little problems of daily life and suppose that if one were treated thus, it must be because of some special virtue in oneself. I think not long. This is a fact of human psychology and the birth of a new bureaucratic human type.

In Europe, we are busy founding a multinational state or empire, as Manuel Barroso, the former Portuguese Maoist and unelected President of the European Commission, once unadvisedly called it, by a very small class whose view is exclusively from the top. To meet a member of this class is rather like meeting a slab-faced member of an old-style Soviet Politburo, grey of complexion, inexpressive of face, and speaking fluent langue de bois, a class whose view of the world has for many years been from the back of an official car with or without tinted windows and whose members haven’t paid for their own lunch for at least 40 years. This has become the preferred method of governing Europe, and every mode of government calls forth or makes use of certain kinds of souls, in this case the kind that believes it knows best what is good for millions and can produce a much better society by regulatory legislation, down to the variety of apple or size of banana that people may eat.

The greatest rhetorical resource available to those at the top of this particular hierarchy, which is specifically designed to provide political importance unto death of European national politicians who have tired of the whole boring and uncertain electoral business in their own countries, is to call all those who do not share their Mercedes-tinted view of the world “populist,” which is a code word for neofascist or even fascist among European elites. Once that has been done, thereby consigning tens of millions of people into outer darkness, any necessity to think any further or deeper about the consequences of the so-called democratic deficit is eliminated.

Among other political elites, sometimes selective or willful blindness is protective of one’s mental equilibrium and is therefore a kind of defensive maneuver. I once visited the father of an Indian friend in his large and comfortable house in Delhi. My friend’s father was a retired general in the Indian Army. Opposite his house was some waste ground on which there were some Moghul ruins. Of course I wanted to go and see them at once, and the general, rather reluctantly, accompanied me.

As we crossed the waste ground towards the ruins, I noticed some very low huts made of whatever had come to hand by the people living in them. Presumably, they were untouchables.

“Who are they?” I asked the general, pointing to them.

I still remember the way in which he turned his head towards what I was pointing at and said in a tone that was beyond appeal, “I don’t see anyone.”

It is, of course, easy to be censorious about this, inglorious as it no doubt is. But the general had to live with the social reality revealed by those huts as I did not; and there must be very few of us who, offered the choice between truth or the acknowledgment of reality on the one hand and our own equanimity on the other have never opted for our equanimity.

Views of the Bottom from the Top: Intellectual Elites

Of course, any large-scale society has a large number of elites, no doubt overlapping but not identical: political, economic, intellectual, scientific, sporting, and so forth. I suppose that my contact has been greatest with what one might call the intellectual elite, or at any rate the opinion-forming elite, though even this contact has been intermittent rather than continuous. But it is my belief that this particular elite is especially important in the destiny of a society, especially democratic societies, for it is this elite that sets its moral tone, as it were. Unlike Marx, I do not believe that being determines consciousness, but on the contrary, that consciousness determines being.

You might have supposed that the goal or purpose of an intellectual elite was to form as accurate and comprehensive a view of the life of their society as is possible for any one person or group of persons to do. Suffice it to say that on the whole, I have not found this to be the case in practice.

It often seems to me that the main purpose of the intellectual elite is to find theoretical reasons for ignoring what is in front of their faces—for example, high rates of criminality or a state of dishonest dependence in which a considerable proportion of the population lives. The idealist philosopher F. H. Bradley once said that metaphysics is the finding of bad arguments for believing what we believe on instinct. One might say that at least a large part of intellectual life in our societies consists of the finding of bad arguments for the ignoring of evident but painful realities. Orwell was perhaps not far wrong when he said that we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men. Note that he said intelligent men, not intellectuals.

Let me give you an example. I once used to write for a famous left-wing weekly magazine. It was owned by a multimillionaire, the provenance of whose fortune was, shall we say, uncertain. He struck me as a Mephistophelean figure of considerable charm combined with ruthlessness (like Mephistopheles, I suppose). Whether my impression was correct or not, I do not know. Anyhow, he used to invite writers and other guests to lunch and a little light intellectual conversation afterwards.

When I was invited, I had for many years been writing a weekly column recounting my experiences as a doctor in a general hospital in a slum and in the prison which was contiguous with it. In fact, my account of what I saw understated rather than overstated the horror of it, and I tried to make it amusing rather than depressing while at the same time conveying something of the dispiriting reality of it.

At one of the lunches was a cultivated, intelligent man who had once been a famous BBC television reporter and, indeed, for a number of years had been the BBC’s correspondent in this city. I had never met him before, and he said that he had long wanted to meet me, for he had read my articles from the hospital and the prison regarding the unnecessary and avoidable dejection and degradation of the modern poor, and he wanted to ask me whether I made it all up.

I replied that I was very flattered that he thought I could make it all up, for to have done that would have required a great deal more talent and imagination than I possess. At the same time, however (though I did not say this), I was alarmed at the fact that a cultivated, decent, intelligent man such as he, one whose very job had been to observe and report on social and political realities, should have failed so entirely to recognize obvious and evident phenomena by which he was surrounded and which were ascertainable not a few hundred yards from where we were sitting.

It seemed to me that this blindness to evident reality amounted almost to a negative hallucination—that is to say a failure to see something or someone that or who is before one’s very eyes. It amounts to a type of defense mechanism, both to disguise the damage that has been wrought by liberal good intentions and to avoid the painful recognition that great intellectual, moral, and political courage would be needed to do anything about it. The blindness derives from the desire for a quiet mind, a desire that we all have.

This phenomenon is confined neither to our time nor to our place. When Thackeray, the author of Vanity Fair and not a man without perceptiveness, first read Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1851, he remarked that Mayhew had seen what was there to be seen within a hundred yards of everyone’s front door (he used the word everyone, of course, in a technical sense, meaning the kind of people whom he knew), but which they preferred not to see because it was inconvenient for them to see it.

Sitting opposite me at the same lunch was an affable and indeed clubbable man who was a well-known priestly campaigner against various evils in the world. I forget how the subject of violence towards women came up, but I mentioned that I had had considerable experience of meeting both victims and perpetrators, perhaps several thousand of them, and that in my opinion much of their violence was attributable to the lack of conventional structure in the relations between men and women, especially in the lower reaches of society. I described a few cases that I selected for what might be called their emblematic, but actually their sensational, nature.

My affable and clubbable interlocutor leaned forward and said, “You know strange people” as if they were not really people at all. I replied, “There are a lot of them, you know, possibly more of them than of us.” But the fact that one did not meet them now that one had ascended the social scale meant that they did not really exist, or at any rate have to be thought about.

But truth or reality is that which will not be mocked and will sooner or later, to change the metaphor slightly, bite back. We cannot escape it forever, or even for long.

Preserving Our Worldview

One of the reasons we fend off truth and reality so defensively is that we seek, often desperately, to preserve our worldview intact, for there is nothing dearer to us than the way in which we see the world and the people who inhabit it—for example, by dividing them into “them and us,” the latter being the enlightened who are actuated by goodwill and the former the benighted—and that dearness is all the greater among intellectuals who, if they find themselves obliged to change their outlook, may have to reverse all that they have hitherto thought or said and even to consider that it might have been harmful in its effects.

A little while ago I was engaged in a public debate with a well-known left-liberal journalist on Britain’s most important newspaper of that persuasion. I confess that I did not altogether relish meeting her, for she did not seem to be a person given to much fun. She was one of those people, on the contrary, who imply that she could not really be happy while there was someone suffering injustice or inequality (which in her view amounted to the same thing) somewhere, anywhere, in the world. Her very photograph, which shows a woman of pained sensitivity, suggested it, although it must be admitted also that she lived in a very large and valuable house in London and has a beautiful second house abroad, which I suppose bears out Logan Pearsall Smith’s dictum in his book Trivia that “All Reformers, however strict their social conscience, live in houses just as big as they can pay for.” This woman was social conscience made flesh, which perhaps explains why I have never been able to get beyond the first paragraph of any of her articles.

The debate—or rather discussion, for there was no vote afterwards—upon which she and I were engaged was about the social, psychological, and cultural effects of the welfare state. I think I might summarize her position as being that this state should be as extensive as possible; that it should take everyone under its wing more or less permanently; and that she wouldn’t really mind if the entire activity of society was looking after its weaker members, which is of course to say about 95 percent of them, all funded by ferocious taxes upon the rich, among whom, mysteriously, she did not count herself one. Anyone who was not of this opinion was a kind of atavistic throwback to Messrs. Bounderby and Gradgrind, with perhaps just a touch of Himmler thrown in.

In my little speech, I alluded to the fact that her own newspaper had fairly recently done something unusual for it—namely, published an interesting article, and this article was a breakdown of household wealth in Britain not by social class, occupation, or anything like that, but by religious affiliation. What it showed was that the two richest religious groups were, first, the Jews and, second, the Sikhs.

This in turn was very interesting because the history of these two groups in Britain was rather similar, though separated by 60 to 70 years. Both groups were poor immigrants. Neither was welcomed exactly by the local population, and prejudice against them existed, though it was not strong by the historical standards of such prejudices. There was, however, no legal impediment to their advancement, although there was no official or institutional attempt to help them either. They had to make their own way.

And make their own way they did within (in many cases) a single generation. Perhaps the most startling example of this is that of the Asians who were expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin and who were admitted, initially somewhat reluctantly, into Britain. Within only a decade or two, they were the richest group of people in Britain, though they had arrived in just the clothes they stood up in.

Note, however, that not all immigrant groups were as successful: Bengali Muslims, for example, had less than one-tenth of the household wealth of Sikhs. I daresay the Chinese have done even better than the Sikhs, but whatever the Chinese believe, it did not come under the rubric of religion for the purposes of the article or its analysis.

I mentioned also the fact that the rate of imprisonment of Sikhs and Hindus in Britain, of whom there are very large numbers, was so low as to be unmeasurable, while that of Pakistani Muslims was now four times that of the national average. It seemed to me highly unlikely that mere prejudice, as claimed by many on the left, could be the explanation, because the kind of person whose prejudice was that strong would hardly distinguish between the various groups in order to bring about such a result, and I know from personal experience that our courts do not operate like this.

The Influence of Culture

It seemed to me, therefore, that in a reasonably open society, whatever its defects, what counted in peoples’ fate was their culture and their mentality. The most likely explanation of the success of the Jews and the Sikhs was their attitude to family solidarity, education, and individual effort. I doubted (I said) that my opponent would want to claim that their success was the result of some sinister conspiracy, by means of which they were able to take the food from the mouths of the hapless native population. Those who believe in zero-sum economics might argue this—socialism is, after all, the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals—but I doubted that my opponent was of their number.

As indeed she was not. But, she said by way of attempted rebuttal, what one had to remember was that emigrants were often the most dynamic people of the lands from which they came, and they were therefore determined and hardworking—and that may well be so, except that such qualities become unnecessary where a system of social security welcomes a class of drones. However, I pointed out that the nature of the immigrants, and what was going on in their minds, and perhaps their cultural characteristics, was precisely why I had brought the matter up. To have acknowledged this would have been to undermine the assumption of her attitude towards the poor: that they needed, de haut en bas, assistance from the state to improve their lives.

Now, if the success of immigrant groups in a tolerably open society (not as open as it should be, but definitely not closed) was not the result of a sinister conspiracy, what they had done could, in principle, be done by anyone else. What prevented them from going ahead and doing it?

It was my contention that it was the “mind-forg’d manacles,” among which manacles were the very ideas peddled so assiduously during her career by this very journalist: namely, that without the assistance of government bureaucracies paid for by taxation they could do nothing to improve their lot, an attitude that was bound to foster resentful passivity—resentful because no assistance can ever be enough for a passive person. I cannot forbear from quoting the first two stanzas of William Blake’s poem, “London”:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry, of every Man,

In every infant’s cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

What my opponent wanted to deny was that there were any such things as mind-forg’d manacles; and the reason that she wanted to deny their existence, I suggest, is that to have done otherwise, to have admitted their existence, would have been to destroy her worldview completely, according to which only social injustice to be righted by state action (as suggested by her) would have redeemed the very many people in our society who are undoubtedly sunk in a wretched and pitiful condition. To have admitted their existence would not only have been to deny her the role of Salvationist to the masses, but suggested to her that her career had been dedicated to ensuring that the manacles were never struck off but rather strengthened and reinforced.

I could recount other examples of the defense of a worldview in the face of evidence against it. For instance, I was in a public debate in London with the former Lord Chief Justice of England, among others, about the value of imprisonment in the suppression of crime. An audience that had started out liberal was markedly less so by the end of the debate. In order to protect themselves from the terrible thought that they might have been mistaken, our opponents attributed our victory to the fact that we emphasized more than once the pretty obvious fact that the chief sufferers from crime were not people like us, but the poor and that the statistical, and empirical evidence that we had brought to bear on the question had nothing to do with our victory.

Suffice it to say that the former Lord Chief Justice comported himself like a true Bourbon king—namely, having learned nothing and forgotten nothing—and continued to peddle the same liberal nostrums (for example, that the root causes of crime must be tackled by the expenditure of money on social programs) that have, in a matter of a few decades and among other things, turned England from one of the most law-abiding societies that have ever existed into one of the highest-crime societies in the Western world.

Seeing Things Whole

It is not, of course, only on the liberal side of the great culture wars that blindness exists. Not long ago, I was on a panel in front of an American audience with an English historian of great eminence and indeed worldwide fame, as well as conservative viewpoint. We were asked our opinion of the state of England, and to my surprise the eminent historian gave a picture so rosy that it might have been given by a Stalinist propagandist at the height of a mass famine.

It is true, of course, that London is one of the most dynamic and indeed interesting cities in the world; it is the most visited city in the world, with something like 16 or 17 million foreign visitors a year. Perhaps I am too habitually a pessimist, but to me it has all the brilliant luminescence of a fish rotting by moonlight: It is, for example, a city from which the native population is fleeing in unprecedented numbers, and its economy is unhealthily dependent on a financial system that only very recently narrowly escaped collapse and seems to me easily collapsible. “Safe as the Bank of England” now means the very opposite of what it once meant.

Be that as it may, England is not London (where, of course, the historian lived and from which he hardly moved, except to some other prosperous location), and there are large areas of England that resemble the Soviet Union with takeaway pizza—takeaway pizza that is in effect state-subsidized because three-quarters of the local economy is in the public sector. These are not pockets of the country, but large areas.

Moreover, the unfitness of a very large percentage of the population for any kind of work in a modern economy is obvious, which is why almost every new job in the country goes to a foreigner, while very high levels of state-funded unemployment of indigenes (greater than the numbers of jobs created) continues. It is human nature not to want to be too disquieted by the perception of vast and intractable problems and to conclude from one’s own comfortable position that all is well; there is no inherent guarantee that a conservative will see things more in the round than a liberal.

No one, of course, can see things whole, not from the top or the bottom, or even, like me, from the middle. But the attempt must be made, or else ignorant armies will be forever clashing by night.

—Theodore Dalrymple (pen name for retired psychiatrist Anthony Daniels) is Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributor to City Journal. He has published more than 20 books and numerous essays.

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