Bringing into the world a child you have no intention of raising is fundamentally evil, but few of us will dare to say that. As a word describing private behaviour, "evil" has lost its currency. Of course it's more current than ever in global politics. People avoid it. Most of us hope to be considered tolerant and "nonjudgmental."
We don't like blaming people who have babies and then mistreat or abandon them, making it likely they will grow into criminals and addicts. We much prefer denouncing "society." In the same way, we depict the murders among Toronto blacks as the result of a prejudiced, gun-crazed city and we attribute the breakdown of civilized life on an Indian reserve to Ottawa rather than Indian band leaders or the adults directly involved.
Most people who discuss these issues in the public arena are desperate to avoid seeming insensitive. Theodore Dalrymple claims they ask themselves, first of all, "How do I appear concerned and compassionate to all my friends, colleagues and peers?"
Dalrymple is the pen-name of an English psychiatrist who understands this subject far better than most social critics. For 14 years, up to his retirement a few months ago, he worked as a general practitioner in a wretched Birmingham slum and spent part of every week treating prison inmates. His practice involved him with an astounding range of humanity. On one day he tried to understand a prisoner who cheerfully confessed to fathering four or five children, none of whom he knew. On another he talked with a suicidal Muslim girl tyrannized by a marriage choice made for her by her parents. Dalrymple's new book, Our Culture, What's Left Of It: The Mandarins and the Masses (Ivan R. Dee Publishing), brings together articles he's written for the City Journal in New York, including one remarkably prophetic piece about young Muslims in France.
He writes with an urgent clarity, and when collected in a book his essays display an exceptionally broad intelligence. He writes on sex in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, on Astolphe de Custine's prescient 19th-century book about Russia, on the childishly sentimental mass hysteria that followed the death of Princess Diana, on the painful snobbery of Virginia Woolf. ("A self-pitying lack of proportion was the signature of her mind.")
Dalrymple's father, a communist and a businessman, worried about humanity's future but didn't like people and couldn't enter an equal relationship with anyone. This left Dalrymple permanently suspicious of anyone selling grand schemes. More important, his parents fought a long silent war over his head. They never spoke to each other in his presence and "created for themselves a kind of hell on a small domestic scale, as if acting in an unscripted play by Strindberg." For a long time Dalrymple pitied himself. Finally he decided, "One's past is not one's destiny, and it is self-serving to pretend that it is." He decided if in the future he became miserable, it would be his own fault.
The single parents he has treated often are at fault -- and they know it. They also know they will not be censured. When discussing social issues it is forbidden to blame "the victims," and women burdened with fatherless children automatically become victims, therefore not responsible for their acts.
He has learned that men who carelessly impregnate women know perfectly well the consequences. "They all know that they are condemning their children to lives of brutality, poverty, abuse and hopelessness." Yet many do it often. Government, by its (unavoidable) decision to provide some support for children, "absolves the men of all responsibility. The state becomes the child's father, reducing the biological father to the status of a child."
He has treated many young women who know "it is both foolish and wicked" to have children by a man without considering whether he could be a good father. His female patients repeatedly choose men who are obviously bad candidates for fatherhood, being some combination of unreliable, drunken, drug-addicted, criminal or violent. In his telling, it sounds as if evolution has gone into reverse, females selecting the males least likely to collaborate in successfully perpetuating the species. They consider transitory pleasure more important than the human beings they create -- not the banality of evil, says Dalrymple, but "the frivolity of evil."
But even Dalrymple faults society. Elite opinion-makers (the "mandarins" in his subtitle) have created an easygoing culture that tolerates just about anything. It abandons traditional values without replacing them and then wakes up surprised to find that millions of young people don't much care about the civilization that makes life bearable.