Anthony Daniels is a 57-year old recently retired psychiatrist. He began his career in Africa and worked for many years as a hospital and prison doctor in Birmingham before he moved to the South of France in 2005. Using the pen name Theodore Dalrymple he writes about the collapse of Western civilization in Europe, analyzing the social pathologies of our time. When he chose his pen name, he says, he opted for a name that would evoke the image of a severe and serious man. Though Daniels sets out to describe decadence, obviously not a cheerful topic, he himself is far from being a misanthrope. He is a “compassionate conservative,” The New York Sun wrote two years ago, “Stocky and balding, he has a wheezy laugh, a pugnacious mouth, and the devil-may-care smile of the born provocateur.”
Saturday morning Dalrymple gave a speech for Pro Flandria, a group of conservative, Flemish-secessionist entrepreneurs and intellectuals, in a renowned restaurant in Berlare, a small village not far from the Flemish town of Sint-Niklaas. The previous day, I collected Dr Daniels in Brussels, saving him from having to spend more time than necessary in a city he (like many) utterly dislikes, and drove him to Sint-Niklaas, a place well known to Mark Steyn, one of his fellow contributors to the American conservative monthly The New Criterion.
We had a pleasant afternoon together, discussing various topics. Daniels/Dalrymple is deeply saddened at the plight of the Europeans who are at the lower end of the social scale. They have become victims of both the welfare society, which has made them utterly dependent on the state and robbed them of their self-respect, and of the hatred for Western culture, values and traditions – a hatred which our intellectuals and leaders cultivate. By destroying Western civilization the liberal élite is depriving the ordinary people of their sense of belonging to something worthwhile. As Dalrymple says of the people at the lower end of the social scale in contemporary Britain: “They are not highly educated, so they have no culture; there is no religion, there is no belief that the country is involved in a transcendental purpose, so there is very little left for them; they live in their own soap opera.”
Immigrants can give meaning to their lives in our decadent society by turning towards Islam. For our indigenous young people nothing of purpose is left. According to Dalrymple, his native Britain has probably gone furthest on the slope towards decadence, with more outspoken social pathologies than elsewhere. Fortunately, in the United States Western civilizational decline has not progressed to the extent that it already has in Western Europe. Overall America is a healthier society than Europe, although Dalrymple sees an impending danger: America might follow Europe’s social and cultural decline if it loses its predominant role in world politics.
Paul Belien: Mr Dalrymple, you are a well-known analyst of the cultural disease of our society. What do you see as the main problem?
Theodore Dalrymple: The underlying problem is a lack of purpose, a lack of feeling of belonging to anything larger than one’s own little life. This gives rise to quite a large amount of social pathology.
PB: Does this have to do with immigration? Does the problem lie mainly with second generation immigrants? Or do we find the same problem among our indigenous population, the young people, as well?
TD: I think it is our indigenous population which suffers from a lack of purpose. They have no religious belief. Quite a large proportion of the population does not derive any selfrespect from having to work for a living because some people are no better off if they work than if they do not work. They also have no cultural and intellectual interests. Therefore they do not feel they belong to any larger project than their private lives.
PB: Isn’t it paradoxical that this is happening in a time where people tend to study longer and be at school longer than any time before in history?
TD: What I am saying is not true of everybody, of course. I am talking about a section of the population. However, and unfortunately in Britain anyway, the so-called educational system has become a means of reducing youth unemployment, rather than providing people with either vocational training or intellectual and cultural capital which is of use to them throughout their lives. So the vast expansion of tertiary education in Britain – the government wants fifty per cent of the population to go to university – is just another means of disguising unemployment.
PB: To what extent has our welfare system exacerbated this sense of purposelessness in the younger generation?
TD: There certainly is a section of the population in which it has undermined this sense of purpose. Obviously it is not the majority of the population. However, a substantial proportion of the majority in the lower classes feel that if they work they are not very much better off than if they do not work. Therefore they actually resent working, in a sense understandably if you are no better off when you get up and go to work every day than when you don’t. You can understand why people would feel bitter.
PB: For young immigrants things are easier if they are looking for a purpose: they can turn to Islam.
TD: Well, Islamic immigrants can. Other immigrants in Britain do quite well. For example if you take the Hindus: they have a lower unemployment rate than the native white population. Obviously, if you are looking for an existential solution some kind of fundamentalist Islam does appear to be that solution. Though it is a very poor and rather stupid solution, it offers a solution of a kind.
PB: I can understand that some immigrants, if they look at our culture and the decadence of it, they despise it. In a way they regard the Muslim faith as a kind of antidote to the decadence of the West. Do you agree with that analysis?
TD: I think that is right, though I do not accept what they are saying entirely. You see, one of the problems, in Britain anyway, is that those parts of the Western culture that they see are genuinely the least attractive side: gross promiscuity, the idea that one’s whim is law. They do not understand anything of the better aspects of our culture. If we lack the confidence to pass our culture on to our own children it is hardly surprising that we do not have the confidence to pass it on to other people. If, for example, I ask a younger patient to name a British Prime Minister other than the present British Prime Minister or Mrs Thatcher (they have all heard of Mrs Thatcher) they will answer something like “I don’t know, I wasn’t born then,” as if one could not be expected to know anything except by personal acquaintance. Even our own children do not feel any connection with the past of their own country.
PB: Where does this come from, this Western pathology of having lost trust, confidence in their own culture?
TD: I am not quite sure where it comes from. I think the Second World War must have played a very large part in it, because people feel that a culture that produced Auschwitz must have something deeply wrong with it and cannot be worth preserving.
PB: You could also say that it was the loss of culture in the West that actually produced Auschwitz?
TD: I personally would say that. The answer to a lack of civilization is not barbarism; the response to barbarism is not to destroy civilization. However, that has been the response of intellectuals in the West and, of course, this has had its effect on the population as a whole.
PB: You are also very familiar with the United States, where you have often been, and you write mainly for American publications [The City Journal, The New Criterion, National Review]. Is the pathology as bad there or is it less obvious?
TD: It is better in the United States. It is not that the pathology where it exists is not severe – and it is very severe in parts of America as well. The difference is that in America it has not entered the core of the population. There is more resistance to it. I think, and this is very important, that Americans still believe in their own country. Americans believe that they are part of a larger project – that is that of the United States. This can sometimes have bad as well as good effects, but it does actually keep the civilization together. I think the United States is more civilized than Europe now.
PB: Of course America was not involved in the atrocities of the second world war – Auschwitz and so forth – to the degree that the Western countries were. And the welfare state is not so big there as it is here.
TD: That is true. However, it is also true that Britain was not involved in the atrocities either. Yet the culture in Britain has probably fallen apart to a greater extent than in many other countries in Europe.
PB: So what is the reason for that? Why is Britain in such a bad situation, even worse than continental Europe?
TD: I would not be too adamant that it is far worse than in continental Europe, because things are quite bad in Holland, too. There are, however, certain factors that might explain why the British situation is worse. I think the explanation is that Britain has lost power to a degree that is far greater than any other country. After all, Britain was a world power for 200 years. Today it is fundamentally of no bigger consequence than Luxemburg. In addition, Britain is itself just a province of the English speaking world, whereas for example France is still the center of the French speaking world, although of course the French speaking world is very much smaller than the English speaking world. This great loss of power has produced a great loss of confidence in the culture that once accompanied the exercise of that power.
PB: Then the relative decline of America might also lead to a dangerous situation for the Americans, in the sense that it might affect their cultural self-confidence.
TD: Yes, I think it could affect their cultural confidence. That could be a very bad thing for America and probably for the world because the Americans have some of the same causes of social pathologies that we have. If America remains the most powerful country in the world I do not think that pathology would expand, but if China becomes equal to the United States, or even more powerful, it might spell a lot of danger for the United States because many of the cultural phenomena that we see in Europe are visible in the United States. It is not as if they do not exist there.
PB: Do you see a way to remedy the situation in Europe?
TD: It will be very difficult. It would help if the government would get out of the way. It is necessary to reduce the welfare state. I think it is also necessary to halt the so-called “European project,” which in my view is a vast pension-fund for politicians who are thrown out of power in their own country. The European Union is fundamentally undemocratic, but it is worse because EU policies are actually obstructive of productive work. Underlying it all, however, we need to persuade people intellectually. If we do not persuade people that there is something valuable in our culture and our tradition – artistic, scientific, philosophical – then I do not see how we can preserve ourselves.
PB: And is there a role to be played by religion, for instance?
TD: I find this a difficult question because I am not myself religious. However, I am not anti-religious. I am pro-religion provided that it is not theocratic, so long as there is still a division between church and state. In Britain it has de facto been like this for a long time. Officially Britain is a Christian country with a state church but de facto it has been a secular society.
PB: You would not see secularization as cause of the problem?
TD: I think it is part of the cause of the problem, because if people cease to believe in a transcendental purpose in life then they seek it elsewhere. If, however, at the same time you have destroyed all other possible sources of transcendental meaning to life, then the destruction of religion is a problem. I personally do not have much of a problem with not being religious, because I have a belief in trying to contribute to the culture of my country. But if I did not have anything like that, or if I were not a doctor who felt that by research I could contribute something, or if I had no cultural interests, then what would be the purpose of my life other than the flux of day to day existence?
PB: Many young immigrants are looking to Islam in order to find a sense of purpose. This might be good as long as it is not theocratic?
TD: In prison I saw black people converting to islam. These were not immigrants of course, but native British-born people. Conversion to religion can lead to an improvement in day to day behaviour, if people do not become extremists, because religion can give a transcendent purpose. The question, however, is whether Islam is inherently unstable and will always tend to extremism. That is the question that has to be answered.
PB: What is your view? Is Islam inherently unstable?
TD: I personally think it probably is, because it does not have anybody to define the doctrine. There is no hierarchy in Islam.
PB: There is no Pope?
TD: There is no Pope, there is nothing to be laid down. A moderate person can always be outflanked by someone who claims to be more Islamic than he is. That is a very serious problem. Of course if you have a pope who himself is a theocrat, then that is a problem, too. But there are two things about Christianity which mark it out. The first thing is that it actually started out, and for quite a long time was, in opposition to a state and not itself a state. The second thing is that there has always been a theoretical divide between the Christian church and the state: the “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” It has of course not always been in existence, but it has always been there in the doctrine as a potential space between church and state. And that does not exist in Islam.
PB: But isn’t it strange that people who in are jail – and you have known a lot of them, for instance these black people you referred to – if they look for a religious purpose, they look to Islam rather than Christianity. Why is this?
TD: In the case of black people my explanation is the following: Most criminals at a certain age wish to give up criminality or want to find a reason to give up criminality. They do not want to come back to prison, they do not want to be a criminal anymore, they are looking for a reason not to be criminal, and religious belief is one reason to give up. However, they also do not want to feel that they have surrendered to what they believe they were struggling against for all those years. In a sense for a black person to convert to islam kills two birds in one stone. It answers his need for a religious reason to start behaving better and at the same time it also allows him to think that he has not surrendered to the predominant society around him against which he believes himself to have been in opposition for most of his life.
PB: How do you explain that when society has problems with Islam it is mainly with the young men and not with the young women?
RD: I think the young women are not strongly Islamist on the whole. In fact, many of them are very anti-Islamic, or would be if they had the opportunity. I also believe that the main interest of Islam for young men in Western countries is the predominance that it gives them over women. I will give you the reasons why I have come to that conclusion, and I accept that they are not scientifically foolproof. There could be arguments against them.
There are large numbers of Muslims in British prisons today. I have noticed that their behaviour is not that of religious persons. They are not interested in hallal meat, they are not interested in praying five times a day, they are not interested in keeping ramadan (except as a reason not to go to court), but they are very interested in preventing their sisters from going out with a boy of their own choosing. Furthermore, if you go into the center of British towns with large Muslim populations you will see young Muslim men partaking in what I would say are generally pretty disgusting activities of popular culture, but you won’t see any women. And finally in my work I used to see a lot of young Muslim women who had attempted suicide, or made a gesture of suicide in order to avoid a forced marriage, say a marriage with a first cousin ‘back home’ – someone they had not met, who was less educated than they and whom they did not wish to marry. They knew perfectly well they have no choice in the matter; some of them might even be killed if they did not accept the marriage. You do not see young men trying to commit suicide because of forced marriages, even though they are partaking in those kinds of marriages as well. Hence, it is very different for the men than the women. If you put all these things together you could conclude that the main interest for Islam for these young men is the control over women.
PB: You see many young Islamic women or girls wearing veils or the headscarves, nowadays, when they did not do so before.
TD: It is very difficult to assess how much comes from a desire to do so from the girls themselves and how much from pressure from outside. A dean of a medical school told me a very instructive story. Four Muslim medical students, women, suddenly started appearing dressed in the full veil. The college authorities did not want this to continue. They found an old law which goes back well before there were any Muslim immigrants in Britian, which says that any doctor or medical student who examines a patient must reveal his face to that patient. In other words no doctor is allowed to examine a patient with his face covered. So the girls, the medical students, were told that they either had to remove the veil or they had to leave medical school. They removed the veil and told the dean afterwards that they had never wanted to wear it in the first place, but had been intimidated into doing so by certain islamists at the university. It is inherently difficult to know what the meaning of the veil is, it is very difficult to find out whether people are doing it voluntarily or involuntarily because on a micro-level people are now living in a totalitarian climate.
PB: In our Western societies.
TD: Within our Western societies there is a micro-totalitarian climate and to ask people what they mean by it is very difficult. It is a bit like asking people in North Korea whether they like the government.
PB: Of course this totalitarian mentality is also affecting the original population, who are not allowed to raise certain topics anymore.
TD: I do not know whether they are not allowed to, but they feel hesitant to. Maybe it is worse in Belgium than in England. The problem of course with not speaking our mind is that if we do not speak our minds there is likely to be an explosion.
Other Brussels Journal interviews:
Vladimir Bukovsky on the impending EU dictatorship, 22 February 2006
George Weigel on Europe, America and politics without God, 16 October 2005
Mart Laar on the flat tax, 27 August 2005
Richard Miniter on winning the war against terror, 20 July 2005
James Taranto on blogging and journalism, 20 July 2005