This essay could have been written of the American underclass as well. It is well worth reading. “Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.”
May/June 2014 - "The Worldview That Makes the Underclass"
Anthony Daniels, Writer and Doctor
ANTHONY DANIELS, who often writes under the penname Theodore Dalrymple, is the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. Born in London in 1949, he qualified as a doctor in 1974 and has worked in various countries in Africa and elsewhere. From 1990 to 2005, he worked as a doctor and psychiatrist in a prison in Birmingham, England. He has written a column for the London Spectator for 14 years, and writes regularly forNational Review and the Wall Street Journal. He has published more than 20 books, including Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics & Culture of Decline, The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism, and Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass.
The following is adapted from a speech delivered on May 20, 2014, at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar in Dearborn, Michigan.
I worked for 15 years as a doctor and psychiatrist in a general hospital in a poor area of a British city and in the prison next door, where I was on duty one night in three. The really dangerous people were in the hospital, perhaps because of the presence in the prison next door of very large uniformed men who exerted a strangely calming effect on the prisoners. In the hospital, I personally examined many thousands of patients who had attempted suicide or at least made a suicidal gesture (not quite the same thing of course). They were overwhelmingly from poor homes, and each patient told me of the lives of the three, four, or five people closest to them—and I spoke to many of those people as well. I could not, of course, have spoken to so many people, and heard about so many others, without some general impressions forming themselves in my mind. One abiding impression was of the violence of their lives, particularly that between the sexes—largely the consequence of the fluidity of relations between the sexes—and also of the devastating effect of prevalent criminality upon the quality of daily existence.
Before I did this work, I had spent a number of years working as a doctor in Africa and in other places in the Third World. I also crossed Africa by public transport, such as it was, and consequently saw much of that continent from the bottom up. These experiences also helped me in my understanding of what I was later to see in England. As Dr. Johnson put it, all judgment is comparative; or as Kipling said, “What should they know of England who only England know?” Indeed, what should anyone know of anywhere, who only that place knows?
On my return to England, I used to visit the homes of poor people as part of my medical duties. Bear in mind that I had returned from some of the poorest countries in the world, where—in one case—a single hen’s egg represented luxury and the people wore the cast-off clothes of Europe that had been donated by charity. When I returned to England, I was naturally inclined to think of poverty in absolute rather than in relative terms—as people not having enough to eat, having to fetch water from three miles away, and so forth. But I soon ceased to think of it in that fashion.
In the course of my duties, I would often go to patients’ homes. Everyone lived in households with a shifting cast of members, rather than in families. If there was an adult male resident, he was generally a bird of passage with a residence of his own somewhere else. He came and went as his fancy took him. To ask a child who his father was had become an almost indelicate question. Sometimes the child would reply, “Do you mean my father at the moment?” Others would simply shake their heads, being unwilling to talk about the monster who had begot them and whom they wished at all costs to forget.
I should mention a rather startling fact: By the time they are 15 or 16, twice as many children in Britain have a television as have a biological father living at home. The child may be father to the man, but the television is father to the child. Few homes were without televisions with screens as large as a cinema—sometimes more than one—and they were never turned off, so that I often felt I was examining someone in a cinema rather than in a house. But what was curious was that these homes often had no means of cooking a meal, or any evidence of a meal ever having been cooked beyond the use of a microwave, and no place at which a meal could have been eaten in a family fashion. The pattern of eating in such households was a kind of foraging in the refrigerator, as and when the mood took, with the food to be consumed sitting in front of one of the giant television screens. Not surprisingly, the members of such households were often enormously fat.