Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist, contributing editor of the City Journal and Dietrich Weissman Fellow of the Manhattan Institute.

A Plea-Bargain Before Dying

Murder is a subject of perpetual interest, as the history of bestselling fiction amply demonstrates. Having met more than my fair share of murderers in the course of my professional life, I find it fascinating. There are genres of murder as there are of painting. Because I am a doctor, the murders committed by doctors and nurses get my attention, all the more so since one of my close friends is a great expert on the pharmacological aspects of such crimes.

Murder by healthcare staff is one of the few genres of murder in which poison remains the weapon of choice. When, therefore, I happened by chance on a book that promised to explain to me why the doctors and nurses in question killed, I bought it. Disappointingly, by the end of the book I was none the wiser. However, I was not too disappointed; in my heart of hearts I had never really expected enlightenment. Understanding murderers is a tall order, as opposed to describing, as this book did, some murderers’ acts and personal backgrounds.

But the book did fill me in on—and alarm me about—the state of plea-bargaining in the criminal justice system in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Britain.

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Failure in the Use of Knowledge

Good sense, said Descartes at the beginning of the Discourse on Method, is the most evenly-distributed thing in the world. However displeased we may be with the distribution of anything else, each of us believes that we have a sufficiency of it (unlike, he might have added, everyone else).

I suppose the question of who are the wise men and who the fools will never be settled once and for all—certainly not in matters that touch on politics. For my own part, though not over-endowed with political perspicacity, I am often surprised by the utter foolishness of the great ones of the world. They seem to me to take the Bourbons, who learnt nothing and forgot nothing, not as a warning but as a model. Over and over they make the same mistakes and fall prey to the same illusions. It is almost as if ineducability were the key to success in a political career. That, or naivety.

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Killing Them Softly

The only man whom I ever knew personally who was executed was the Nigerian writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa. The charge was trumped up, of course. “In this country,” he is said to have said as the hangman put the noose around his neck for a fifth attempt, “they cannot even hang man properly.”

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The Eagle and the Insect

RevenueThe expansion of the state and the services it provides, well or badly as the case may be, inevitably changes the relations between citizen and state. Among other effects, it corrodes the idea of privacy and even the very possibility of privacy: for the more the state does for citizens, the wider its locus standi to interfere in their lives. It becomes, in the wonderful phrase of the Marquis de Custine about Nicholas I in his great book, Russia in 1839, eagle and insect: eagle because it soars above society, taking its capacity for an overview as an entitlement to direct everything, and insect because it bores into the smallest crevices of what lies below, though perhaps nowadays vulture and termite might be a better zoological metaphor.

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Herbert Marcuse’s Revenge

MarcuseHerbert Marcuse, a man who managed somehow to reconcile revolutionary romanticism and opposition to all that exists with the cushy lifestyle of the high-profile academic, once enthused the spoiled brats of the whole Western world with his turgid prose, Teutonic pedantry, vacuous utopian abstractions, and destructive paradoxes. All that endures of his work, I suspect, is a familiar two-word phrase: repressive tolerance.

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Did Thatcher Leave a Legacy of Freedom?

ThatcherIt was Robert Louis Stevenson who said: “Man is a creature who lives not upon bread alone but principally by catchwords.” Refining our thoughts with qualifications can get tiring, so we recur to slogans to capture a reality that is almost always complex.

Alas, what should be the shorthand of thought often turns out to be the short-circuit of thought. When we think of Margaret Thatcher, for example, we think of free-market reforms—whether we are for such reforms or against them, whether we welcome or abominate them.

Is this right? Was Mrs. Thatcher’s legacy one of free markets, of laissez-faire? I am far from sure.

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Oxfam’s Flimflam

A report of the British charity Oxfam recently drew attention to the fact that Britain’s five richest families had more assets than the lowest 20 per cent of the population put together. It called upon the government to consider instituting a wealth tax to reduce the gap, by how much it did not say. Would the poorest fifth be much the better off, or at least happier, if 20, say, or 50, rather than five families now had more wealth than they?

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Bitten by Socialism

No doubt marketing is an exact science but I doubt that it can fully account for the choices made by people in second hand bookshops. Purchases there depend much on chance and whim; for example, I was in a bookshop in Dublin recently and I found myself irresistibly drawn to a book with a photographic plate of some children, sitting on fences in a wilderness, looking very happy, with the caption ‘Under Socialism the barefooted children ran terrible risks from venemous snakes.’

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