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.

Rationalizing Discrimination

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When I was young, discrimination had a good name. It was the ability to distinguish between the good from the bad and to prefer the former to the latter. My teachers tried to form my taste so that I could discriminate, and I am grateful to them – more grateful than I seemed at the time – for that.

Since then, of course, the emotional charge of the word discrimination has changed. It is now entirely negative. It means to treat people not according to their individual merits, but badly because of the supposed characteristics of their group as assumed by brute prejudice. To discriminate is to be unfair, unjust and cold-hearted. Discrimination is at the root of many ills, not least of them poverty and inequality.

But is it ever rational to discriminate on the basis of group characteristics?

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Bolivar with a Burr

The words that Lord Falkland is supposed to have said—that when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change—are a lesson that humanity and above all politicians are reluctant to learn.

There’s no profit in it for “projectors,” Edmund Burke’s term for those who place at the center of their own sense of importance change brought about by them.

And there’s no greater projector than the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond. Mr. Salmond does not so much promise to solve specific problems as arouse hope, a hope that is vague, general, and unfocused. He has been very successful at this, assisted as he is by the fact that there is good cause for discontent in Scotland. Deindustrialization has not been kind to the country, and there are parts of Glasgow, its largest city, where living standards and life expectancy are at levels found in the old Soviet Union.

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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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