Theodore Dalrymple's newest book, a collection of essays chiefly written for the magazine "City Journal," documents beneath the author's trademark wit and irony the sad decadence of contemporary Britain and the resultant loss of "Britishness," a grand tradition of civility and "common decency."
"Britishness," as Dalrymple understands it, once widespread throughout the English populace, though, of course, never universal, was a set of manners marked by "tolerance, compromise..., gentlemanly reserve, respect for privacy, individuality, a ready acceptance and even affection for eccentricity, a belief in the rule of law, [and] a profound sense of irony...." Principal famous - and diverse - models of this behavior Dalrymple convincingly identifies as Dr. Samuel Johnson, Joseph Conrad (the Pole become properly assimilated Englishman), and, his economic views notwithstanding, the incomparable George Orwell.
The loss of "Britishness" began with the post-World War Two decline of British power in the world. Politicians, careerist bureaucrats, and a growing "progressive" intelligentsia hastened its demise. Proponents of the welfare state, for instance, inadvertently or by design, encouraged a formerly self-reliant populace to adopt a sense of entitlement and expect the government to be responsible for its happiness or lack of same. Crime was redefined by police department bureaucrats eager to show its reduction. It was no longer an attack on the safety and welfare of the law-abiding but now an understandable reaction against oppressive external forces, and therefore more deserving of therapeutic reponse than of punishment in the form of lengthy jail sentences. Finally, the growing intelligentsia, fond of "ceaseless carping," made its fatal contribution to this social disaster by introducing and holding with complete uncritical dogmatism theories of multiculturalism, thus inadvertently keeping hordes of new immigrants self-satisfied in parochial enclaves while closing to them the actual routes of social advancement. A high Western culture to be shared was now ignored, if not denied, so that all the disparate groups newly composing Britain wound up with little more in common than a debased "pop" culture and perhaps a lust for shopping. Dalrymple's dire observation is that by offering such emptiness to new immigrant groups many young people among them are left defenseless against the sophistry of fundamentalist preachers of hate and terrorism.
Far from being a curmudgeon, Dalrymple is a profoundly serious essayist who challenges frivolous British politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals to examine their own dogmas and the stereotypes they have promoted over the last decades, if only to see squarely and directly what they have wrought. As a genuine disturber of complacency, he can hope for no warmer a welcome than such types usually receive. In our age, he will not, of course, be given hemlock to drink. Rather, he will most likely be ignored by those who place a pride and a merit in refusing to see the obvious.