"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Life at the Bottom and How to Get There

This remains one of my favorite pieces of writing, and of social criticism---it's an excerpt from John Derbyshire's review of Theodore Dalrymple's Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass:


"The knife went in," three different stabbers told Dalrymple, when he pressed them, in the prison, to describe the deed that landed them there. Why should a low-IQ barely-literate youth believe in the doctrine of free will, when, for all he can see, his intellectual superiors have given up on it?

Dalrymple is particularly good on the squeaky-wheel syndrome that is so characteristic of modern social services. Defy your circumstances; manage to get some scraps of education; win some decent, if low-level employment; stay out of trouble; stay off the dole; maintain some minimal standards of honesty and chastity; and see what happens to you! If you are lucky, the authorities will ignore you; if not, they will actually harass you. Should your less disciplined neighbors make your life a misery, you will get no help from police or social workers. If, on the other hand, you follow your peers into the world of dysfunction and dependency, all the attentions of England’s extravagant welfare state will be lavished on you. You will be given a free apartment furnished with all modern appliances, a regular supply of money, free medical attention, and the doting ministrations of “health visitors,” “case workers,” “counsellors” and so on.

Americans may find it surprising that most of the people wallowing in this slough of ignorance, illiteracy, promiscuity, bastardy, intoxication, vice, folly, lawlessness and hopelessness are white English people. Much of what is described here is the sort of thing Americans instinctively associate with this country’s own black underclass. There is some satisfaction, I suppose, though of a very melancholy kind, to be drawn from the revelation that sufficiently wrong-headed social policies, persisted in with sufficiently dogged refusal to face simple truths, will visit moral catastrophe on people of any race.

6 comments:

Matt Huisman said...

Defy your circumstances; manage to get some scraps of education; win some decent, if low-level employment; stay out of trouble; stay off the dole; maintain some minimal standards of honesty and chastity; and see what happens to you!

Good stuff, but not much in the way of inspiration - and ultimately that's the problem. It's just too stinking hard to believe that anything will work. As Mr. Dalrymple said:

Why should a low-IQ barely-literate youth believe in the doctrine of free will, when, for all he can see, his intellectual superiors have given up on it?

Indeed. How about we just exchange a little money and we can all go away mumbling under our breath about what a bad deal the whole thing is for everyone involved?

Free will? Hope? Hah! Better to curse God and die.

James Elliott said...

I cursed God once. The lightning bolt tickled. But I'm sure it was just a coincidence.

James Elliott said...

Silliness aside:

I think much of the Left-Right critique in social welfare matters becomes a matter of overgeneralization and platitudes. Neither side stops to listen to what the other side is saying, when the solutions lie somewhere between the two. The Right is quite right (ack!) to remind the Left that hard work, responsibility, a little bit of restraint, and a family and community structure go a long, long way towards an individual's success and resiliency. Where the Right gets it wrong is ignoring how situational factors, out of control of the individual, can throw up barriers that appear insurmountable to the individual.

I agree that social workers often ignore the working poor and struggling lower middle class in a scramble to help the visibly poor and destitute. But then, when you have a governmental philosophy (conservatism, hello!) that makes sure you don't have the resources, a social services worker will focus their limited resources on where they judge the most efficacy will result. If someone is struggling but doing okay, they won't get attention; the same occurs to those who look like complete lost causes. My fiancee, a pediatric speech-language pathologist who works with kids with autism, put it a similar way in describing how many of her colleauges (in schools and group treatment) work - "Okay, I have ten minutes to devote to this kid or this kid. Kid one is close to talking. Kid two needs massive intervention. I'll go to Kid one, where I might do some good with the little time I have." It's endemic to a social services situation with frozen or no resources.

One of the biggest critiques of my profession (By the way, @#$% you very much, Derbyshire.) that I tend to levy is a focus on the external world's challenges and helping our clients to "cope" with their situation as opposed to changing it - trying to get the external world to change rather than to change the external world (Get the distinction?). I took it to heart when I read Saul Alinsky's diatribe against us social workers.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Although I'm unfamiliar with that particular diatribe, I'm familiar with Saul Alinsky, the great labor organizer, because Ed Asner agreed to do a fundraiser if he could play Alinsky in an unpublished play he knew of. (A bit of self-typecasting, that.) There were lyrics but no music, and I ended up playing some spacy bass while the cast spoke-sang. It came out pretty cool/artsy.

If I follow your distinction correctly, it's between asking the world to change and being a part of a changed world, effecting its change by joining it. (I do not know how you propose to organize autistics, but that's another matter.)

My objection to that collective-action worldview is that it ignores the individual and is not self-empowering. I believe it doesn't address the real philosophical problem that Dalrymple chronicles so clearly.

Again, we see the classical and modern views of the teleology of man and thus the role of society once again in conflict---the pursuit of man's excellence (which we might call individual freedom) vs. the relief of his estate (material security).

Still, I'll take any worldview, including Alinsky's (and apparently yours) that does not feed hopelessness and the nihilistic view that life's just a crap shoot ("the knife went in...").

It's hopelessness that is man's greatest enemy and it's the enabler of the self-destructive pathologies which in turn victimize both the individual and society as a whole. Go for it.

Matt Huisman said...

It's hopelessness that is man's greatest enemy and it's the enabler of the self-destructive pathologies which in turn victimize both the individual and society as a whole.

This sentence may be exactly right, well said.

James, I should probably first say that I really appreciate what you have had to say on this topic here and in the past - good stuff.

The thought that keeps coming to my mind is that Tom's notion of the optimistic worldview is virtually the whole game on this topic. However, your insights on how the rest of us participate in the solution - though secondary - are incredibly important in a different way. Our willingness and effectiveness in this process says something important about who we are (and what we are becoming).

Forgive me for the religious analogy, but one of the things that I've noticed about ministry (acts of service, evangelism, charity, etc.) is that what is significant is not the fruit of the effort, but rather the fundamental change that has happened in the life of the minister that has led him to that point. This transformation is the real fruit - I believe that God is just really cool and uses the results of that transformation process to kick start someone else down a similar road.

Anyway, whether you agree or not, thanks to both you and Tom for your excellent posts - and your efforts to make this topic more than another flame-out session.

Matt Huisman said...

The thought that keeps coming to my mind is that Tom's notion of the optimistic worldview is virtually the whole game on this topic.

I might change this to say that it is not so much the whole game as the absolutely essential ingredient to transformation. All of us need help from others in order to progress - to become what we want to become. But this is the pre-condition that enables us to take advantage of and unlock the real value of the help we receive.