More Wisdom from Theodore Dalrymple

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I’m reading his Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics & Culture of Decline. It’s chock-a-block with wisdom, as is almost everything Dalrymple writes. This is from the essay “How Not to Do It”:

The state has become a vast and intricate system of patronage, whose influence very few can entirely escape. It is essentially corporatist: the central government, avid for power, sets itself up as an authority on everything and claims to be omnicompetent both morally and in practice; and by means of taxation, licensing, regulation and bureaucracy, it destroys the independence of all organisations that intervene between it and the individual citizen. If it can draw enough citizens into dependence on it, the central government can remain in power, if not forever, then for a very long time, at least until a crisis or cataclysm forces change.

At the very end of the chain of patronage…is the underclass, who (to change the metaphor slightly) form the scavengers or bottom-feeders of the whole corporatist ecosystem. Impoverished and degraded as they might be, they are nonetheless essential to the whole system, for their existence provides an ideological proof of the necessity of providential government in the first place, as well as justifying many employment opportunities in themselves.… I have seen myself…large numbers of people corrupted to the very fibre of their being by having been deprived of responsibility, purpose and self-respect, void of hope and fear alike, living in as near to purgatory as anywhere in modern society can come.

Of course, the corporatist system…is a house of cards, or perhaps a better analogy would be with a pyramid scheme. Hundreds of thousands of people are employed to perform tasks that are not merely useless but actually obstructive of real work and economically counterproductive. The bureaucracy insinuates itself into the smallest cracks of daily life.

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Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension

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Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels), drawing on his experience as a psychiatrist who worked with prisoners, writes  about “The Gift of Language” in Not With a Bang but a Whimper: The Politics & Culture of Decline:

With a very limited vocabulary, it is impossible to make, or at least to express, important distinctions and to examine any question with conceptual care. My patients often had no words to describe what they were feeling, except in the crudest possible way, with expostulations, exclamations and physical displays of emotion.… Complex narrative and most abstractions were closed to them.

In their dealings with authority, they were at a huge disadvantage – a disaster, since so many of them depended upon various public bureaucracies for so many of their needs, from their housing and health care to their income and the education of their children.…

All this, it seems to me, directly contradicts our era’s ruling orthodoxy about language. According to that orthodoxy, every child, save the severely brain-damaged and those with very rare genetic defects, learns his or her native language with perfect facility, adequate to his needs. He does so because the faculty of language is part of human nature, inscribed in man’s physical being, as it were, and almost independent of environment.…

It follows that no language or dialect is superior to any other and that modes of verbal communication cannot be ranked according to complexity, expressiveness or any other virtue. Thus, attempts to foist alleged grammatical ‘correctness’ on native speakers of an ‘incorrect’ dialect are nothing but the unacknowledged and oppressive exercise of social control – the means by which the elites deprive whole social classes and peoples of self-esteem and keep them in permanent subordination.…

The locus classicus of this way of thinking, at least for laymen such as myself, is Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct.…

Pinker nails his colours to the mast at once. His book, he says, ‘will not chide you about proper usage’ because, after all, ‘[l] anguage is a complex, specialised skill which… is qualitatively the same in every individual… Language is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture,’ and men are as naturally equal in their ability to express themselves as in their ability to stand on two legs. ‘Once you begin to look at language… as a biological adaptation to communicate information,’ Pinker continues, ‘it is no longer as tempting to see language as an insidious shaper of thought.’ Every individual has an equal linguistic capacity to formulate the most complex and refined thoughts. We all have, so to speak, the same tools for thinking. ‘When it comes to linguistic form,’ Pinker says, quoting the anthropologist Edward Sapir, ‘Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam.’ To put it another way, ‘linguistic genius is involved every time a child learns his or her mother tongue’.…

Children will learn their native language adequately whatever anyone does, and the attempt to teach them language is fraught with psychological perils. For example, to ‘correct’ the way a child speaks is potentially to give him what used to be called an inferiority complex. Moreover, when schools undertake such correction they risk dividing the child from his parents and social milieu, for he will speak in one way and live in another, creating hostility and possibly rejection all around him. But happily, since every child is a linguistic genius, there is no need to do any such thing. Every child will have the linguistic equipment he needs, merely by virtue of growing older.

I need hardly point out that Pinker doesn’t really believe anything of what he writes, at least if example is stronger evidence of belief than precept. Though artfully sown here and there with a demotic expression to prove that he is himself of the people, his own book is written, not surprisingly, in the kind of English that would please schoolmarms. I doubt very much whether it would have reached its 25th printing had he chosen to write it in the dialect of the slums of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for example, or of rural Louisiana. Even had he chosen to do so, he might have found the writing rather difficult. I should like to see him try to translate a sentence from his book that I have taken at random – ‘The point that the argument misses is that, although natural selection involves incremental steps that enhance functioning, the enhancements do not have to be an existing module’ – into the language of the back streets of Glasgow or Detroit.…

Over and over again, Pinker stresses that children do not learn language by imitation; rather, they learn it because they are biologically predestined to do so.…

It is utterly implausible to suggest that imitation of parents (or other social contacts) has nothing whatever to do with the acquisition of language. I hesitate to mention so obvious a consideration, but Chinese parents tend to have Chinese-speaking children, and Portuguese parents Portuguese-speaking ones. I find it difficult to believe that this is entirely a coincidence and that imitation has nothing to do with it. Moreover, it is a sociological truism that children tend to speak not merely the language but the dialect of their parents.…

The contrast between a felt and lived reality – in this case, Pinker’s need to speak and write standard English because of its superior ability to express complex ideas – and the denial of it, perhaps in order to assert something original and striking, is characteristic of an intellectual climate in which the destruction of moral and social distinctions is proof of the very best intentions.

Pinker’s grammatical latitudinarianism…has the practical effect of encouraging those born in the lower reaches of society to remain there, to enclose them in the mental world of their particular milieu. This is perfectly all right if you also believe that all stations in life are equally good and desirable and that there is nothing to be said for articulate reflection upon human existence. In other words, grammatical latitudinarianism is the natural ideological ally of moral and cultural relativism….

…Everyone, save the handicapped, learns to run without being taught; but no-one runs 100 metres in ten seconds, or even fifteen seconds, without training. It is fatuous to expect that the most complex of human faculties, language, requires no special training to develop it to its highest possible power.

Pinker, whose fatuousness extends to a risible belief that human nature is changing for the better, has contradicted his thesis in “Why Academics Stink at Writing–and How to Fix It,” which is available here in exchange for your name, your job title, the name of your organization, and your e-mail address. How can a person who claims that ‘linguistic genius is involved every time a child learns his or her mother tongue’ turn around and criticize his academic peers for their general lack of linguistic genius? Pinker the linguistic theorist is wrong; Pinker the critic of bloated, impenetrable prose is right,

As Dalrymple suggests, Pinker’s linguistic latitudinarianism gives aid and comfort to the moral and cultural relativists of the left. Almost nothing, it seems, is beneath a leftist’s condescension; if it’s inferior it’s praiseworthy.

This pattern fits my version of Arnold Klng’s three-axis model, in which I characterize the leftist (“progressive”) axis: privileged-underprivileged. As I say in “Another Look at Political Labels,”

Privilege, for Ps [“progressives”], implies that the possessors of certain positive attributes (high intelligence, good looks, high income, access to political power) have come by those things undeservedly, and even at the expense of those who lack them: the underprivileged. Ps believe implicitly in a state of nature wherein everyone would have equal endowments of intelligence, looks, etc., if only it weren’t for “bad luck.” Ps believe it necessary to use the power of government to alleviate (if not eliminate) unequal endowments and to elevate the “victims” of inequality.

The left’s mantra should be “If it’s bad it’s good.” When a leftist praises or defends something, it’s a good sign that it’s substandard in morality or quality.

Quotation of the Day

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Political correctness is communist propaganda writ small. In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to co-operate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to.

Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels),
interview August 31, 2005