I read books.

Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass (Theodore Dalrymple)

on September 21, 2009

I used an entire package of post-it flags on this insightful non-fiction winner. Dalrymple hits the nail on the proverbial head on page after page, as he analyzes and scrutinizes our post-modern, relativistic culture through the case studies in his psychiatric office in England.

In his opening chapter, “The Knife Went In,” Dalrymple laments, “The collapse of the British character has been as swift and complete as the collapse of British power.” As he listens to people give account of their lives, he is struck by the awesome lack of control people express over their own lives, the exact opposite of Francis Bacon’s famous proverb, “the mould of man’s fortune is in his own hands.” Instead, Dalrymple states, they “experience themselves as putty in the hands of fate.”

What is the source of this cataclysmic paradigm shift? Dalrymple traces it to the worldview that equalizes everything, and in so doing devalues everything as well. Many of Dalrymple’s patients arrive at his office suicidal; one case study illustrates the mindset of these tragic victims of themselves. He writes:  “…An eighteen-year-old girl lies looking  up at the ceiling. She took her overdose…after a row with her boyfriend, ten years older than she, an ex-soldier dishonorably discharged from the army for smoking marijuana…He is very jealous of her, wants to know where she is every minute of the day, accuses of her of infidelity…Though he has not yet hit her, he has been threatening at times. She is frightened now to go anywhere without him, for fear of his reaction…’ What should I do?’, she asks.  Dalrymple advises her, “Your boyfriend will imprison you. He will take over your life completely, and if you go to live with him he will become violent. You will spend several years being ill-treated and abused; eventually you will leave him, but you will not have been a victim. On the contrary, you will have been the co-author of your own misery, because I have now told you what to expect, just as your parents and your friends have told you.”  Her response?  “But I love him.”

Dalrymple claims that deliberate self-harm (attempted suicide) is the most common cause of emergency admission to the hospital in England among women and the second most common among men, one of the highest rates in the world. However, the completed suicide rate is relatively low. He muses that it is unlikely that they are incompetent in this area, but rather that most do not intend to die. In fact, the legalization of this behavior in the 1960’s was followed by a huge increase–“Within a few years, overdosing was a traditional as Christmas.” Why this increase in such pecular behavior? While Dalrymple admits that no simple cause and effect can be proven, he does notice that in countries where one must struggle to simply survive, virutally no one “attempts” suicide. He theorizes that in modern welfare states, and subsistence is more or less assured, people have nothing to fear and nothing to hope. (p. 24) Nothing is left but “entertainment and personal relationships.” And when entertainment informs us that so many enjoy glamorous wealthy lives with apparent ease, resentment and jealousy arise which cannot be satisfied.  They become” stars of their own soap operas.”  And nothing says drama like suicide.

Dalrymple continues his analysis of  the loss of a value system upon which to build our lives. Offering case studies drawn from his years of medical practice, he artfully describes the decline of the culture until I forgot he was talking about England. Everything he said applies so perfectly to today’s American mind: adrift in a sea of relativistic, liberal thinking, Cut loose from the Judeo-Christian moorings which anchored our nation’s beginnings, Dalrymple could have been writing from New York, Miami, or Temple, Texas.

Sadly, the author does not offer any good solutions, but complains loudly that liberalism is going to be the death of us all. If not for the gospel, I would have to agree.

However, I still marked more quotes in this book than any other book I’ve read in recent memory, excluding the Bible. So I must chronicle some of those here, for my own reference later. Skip them and read the book if you can. Highly recommended.



p. 27 And it is clear from what I see almost every day that not all cultural values are compatible or can be reconciled by the enunciation of platitudes. The idea that we can all rub along together, without the law having to discriminate  in favor of one set of cultural values rather than another, is worse than merely false; it makes no sense whatever.

p. 35 The idea that it is possible to base a society on no cultural or philosophical presuppositions at all, or alternatively, that all such presuppositions may be treated equally so that no choice has to be made between them, is absurd.


p. 42 The fact remains that a hospital such as mind has experienced in the last two decades a huge increase in the number of injuries to women, most of them the result of domestic violence and many of them of the kind that would always have come to medical attention…and there is a very good reason why such violence should have increased under the new sexual dispensation. If people demand sexual liberty for themselves, but sexual fidelity from others, the result is the inflammation of jealousy…I meet at least five Othellos and five Desdemonas a week, and this is something new.”

p. 45 But why does the woman not leave the man as son as he manifests his violence? It is because, perversely, violence is the only token she has of his commitment to her…In the absence of a marriage ceremony, a black eye is his promissory note to love, honor, cherish, and protect.”


P. 58 -59 Entertainment should require as little active mental contribution as possible. Primum inter pares is, of course, television. The average English adult now watches twenty-seven hours of it per week, it is said, twice as much as two decades ago…In the hospital is is now regarded as cruel to deprive the patient of their daily screen: so much so that watching it has become virtually compulsory for them, or at least inescapable for those not in a position to remove themselves. Gone are the days when the hospital was a place of quiet and repose; no one dies nowadays without benefit of chat-show.


P.  70-71  Education has always been a minority interest in England. The English have generally preferred to keep the bloom of their ignorance intact and on the whole have succeeded remarkably well, despite a century and a quarter of compulsory schooling of their offspring…Very few of the sixteen-year-olds whom I meet as patients can read and write with facility; they do not even regard my question as to whether they can read or write as in the least surprising or insulting…Most of the young whites I meet cannot name a single writer and certainly cannot recite a line of poetry…To them, 1066 is more likely to mean a price than a date.

p. 70  These are the young condemned to live in an eternal present, a present that merely exists, without connection to  a past that might explain it or to a future that might develop from it.

p. 73 This is where the baleful effect of education as mere entertainment makes itself felt. For to develop an interest requires powers of concentration and an ability to tolerate a degree of boredom while the elements of a skill are learned for the sake of a worthwhile end.


P. 79 In modern Britain, the direction of cultural aspiration has reversed: for the first time in history, it is the middle and upper classes that aspire to be taken for their social inferiors.  (see also the chapter analyzing the rise in the popularity of tatoos)

p. 79 The signs of the reversal in the flow of aspiration are everywhere. Recently a member of the royal family, a granddaughter of the queen, had a metal stud inserted into her tongue and proudly displayed it to the press. Such body piercing began as a strictly  underclass fashion…


p. 89 Opposite my house…stands a Victorian Gothic church…Its interior is unspoiled, its stained glass windows magnificent. It is almost always empty. The architect…could not have imagined that, a century and a quarter later, the established church that commissioned his splendid building would be on the verge of distinction…more interested in Third World Indebtedness and Global Warming than Sin.


p. 102 The British have a curious attitude towards wealth; they desire it for themselves but wish to deny it to others. And so, not surprisingly, there are very few methods of acquiring wealth of which they approve. Among them is gambling.

p. 103 The poorest and worst-educated section of the population spends the most, both relatively and absolutely, on lottery tickets…Most Britons equate inequalities of wealth with inequity and injustice, and explain away their own urge for sudden enrichment as a kind of poor man’s revenge upon a system that allows men to accumulate an unfairly large portion of the world’s goods by talent and hard work.

p. 109 You can bet on anything, it seems: the results of individual soccer and boxing matches, the forthcoming election, the outcome of a debate in the House of Commons…and even on the likelihood of the end of the world happening by the year 2000, though presumably collection in the event of being right would in this instance prove difficult.

p. 110 The third type of gambling establishment is the casino…They are businessmen  with money to throw away: to lose a few thousand in front of their peers and retain their sangfroid brings them prestige. They must be doing well if losing a sum like that within a few minutes hardly affects them.

p. 112  As Dostoevsky remarks, no other human activity provides so many and such strong emotions in so short a space of time: fevered hope, despair, elation, joy, misery, excitement, disappointment. This is crack cocaine without the chemicals.


p. 114 The children of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent make up a quarter of all British medical students, twelve times their proportion in the general population…Among the Indian immigrants who arrived in the country with next to nothing, moreover, there now reportedly some thousands of millionaires.

p.  114  It is the mind, not society, that forges the manacles that keep people enchained to their misfortunes. But where there can be upward mobility, there can be mobility in the opposite direction. And the children of Indian immigrants are dividing in to two groups: a segment that chooses the upward path, and a segment that chooses descent into the underclass.

p. There are many outward signs of the acculturation of Indians into the lower depths…tattooing is fast on the increase among them…gold in the front teeth…is imitative of the black underclass and is itended as a signal of both success and dangerousness…They now walk with the same self-assured vulpine lope as their white compatriots, not merely as a means of locomotion but as a means of communicating threat…He slouches in the chair at so acute an angle to the floor that I would not have thought it possible, let alone comfortable, for a man to retain the position. But it isn’t comfort he is after: he is making a statement of disrespect in the face of what he supposes to be authority.

p. 118 The liberal would no doubt argue that the formation of the Indian underclass is the inevitable response to poverty and prejudice and the despair  they evoke…But if they are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty, why do so many of their compatriots succeed, and succeed triumphantly?

p. 119 He (a young addict) was under the influence of an idea that the seedy side of life is more genuine, more authentic, than the refined and cultured side…

p. 123  The underclass life offers the prospect of freedom without responsibility…they are left to discover for themselves that the exercise of freedom requires virtue if it is not to turn into a nightmare.


P. 133  Does not antisocial behavior increase in proportion to the excuses that intellectuals make for it?

p. 220 No one gains kudos in the criminological fraternity by suggesting that police and punishment are necessary in a civilized society. To do so would be to appear illiberal and lacking faith in man’s primordial goodness. It is much better for one’s reputation, for example, to refer to the large number of American prisoners as “the American gulag,” as if there were no relevant differences between the former Soviet Union and the United States.

p. 222 We hate nothing so much as the living refutation of our cherished ideas.


One response to “Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass (Theodore Dalrymple)

  1. Lindsey says:

    I normally struggle to get through non-fiction, but I found this book to be very readable. I agree that Dalrymple makes a very strong case for the problem without proposing much of a solution; if we didn’t know the true solution, it could be a very depressing cultural commentary! I enjoyed your selected quotes…made me want to go and re-read!

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