Theodore Dalrymple very kindly agreed to answer some questions put to him by the Coffee House Wall and his thoughtful responses provide a great deal for conservative readers to consider.
Would you very briefly summarise your understanding of how and why we have seen our Western culture and civilization put under such pressure that it seems on the point of collapse?
I think the loss of confidence in Western civilisation has been a long-drawn out process, but particularly important were the First and Second World Wars. Let me quote something from All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque:
How pointless all human thoughts, words and deeds must be, if things like this are possible! Everything must have been fraudulent and pointless if thousands of years of civilization weren’t even able to prevent this river of blood, couldn’t stop these torture chamber in their hundreds of thousands…
And that was before the Holocaust!
Why does it seem that this process of collapse is accelerating and is now out of control?
Collapse is generally an accelerating process, and cultural amnesia is a process that will also accelerate as teachers of (for example) art no longer have the skills themselves to teach others. But we must beware of being too apocalyptic: there are certain small signs of resistance and revival too.
To what extent, as an atheist, do you ascribe value to the Judeo-Christian tradition? Is this a necessary foundation of Western civilization?
It seems to me obvious that western civilisation is Christian in origin, and those who decry Christianity are in effect decrying western civilisation. I say this as someone who is not myself religious. I believe it is possible for some people to live without religion, but probably not for whole peoples to live without it. To have a sense of transcendent purpose without religion necessitates a political ideology (which is likely to be very bad), or a belief that one is contributing to a culture. Without this, one is living in an eternal present moment, without past and without future.
Have we seen a different type of person arise in the West, as Mr. Boot proposes? How else would you explain that the virtues of respect, duty, deference and self-sacrifice seem to have been universally derided if not abandoned?
Certainly I am worried about a shallowness in the human personality that, if I may so put it, appears to be deepening. Even such things as the electronic media of communication, for those unfortunate enough to have been brought up with them, seem to hollow out human relations, making them extensive rather than intensive. As to derided ideas such as humility, proper deference and so forth, I think we live in an age of inflamed egotism, and of individualism without individuality. Never has it been more necessary, and at the same time more difficult, to mark yourself out as an individual. The slightest subordination in any circumstances is therefore felt as a wound, because the ego is so fragile, and relies on such props as the brand of trainers you are wearing.
Has party politics in the UK now become divorced from democracy? If so, how and when has this happened? What is different in our present politicians compared to those of 100 years ago, or are all politicians always driven by the same motives? What are those motives and is it possible to be involved in party politics without being corrupted?
I think that the professionalization of politics has corrupted it. Young rich men who once devoted themselves to politics did so from a sense, at least in part, of noblesse oblige. Where politics is a career, pure and simple, it is bound to be corrupted both intellectually and financially. We have not so much rich men in parliament, as men who go into parliament to become rich. I do not see much prospect of change because it would require the political class to reform itself, and as the American senator said, you can’t get a hog to slaughter itself. I think pretty profound constitutional change would be needed, and resistance would be formidable.
Can the Conservative Party be considered conservative in any meaningful sense? Was it ever conservative in the sense of valuing and privileging that which makes Western civilization what it is at best?
I think the Conservative Party is now pretty useless and not conservative in the cultural or dispositional sense at all. I think it was more viscerally conservative once, but not for a long time, and not very effectively, partly because conservative arguments are very hard to put in a single sentence, and that is what has been required now for a long time.
Is it possible to imagine the present Conservative Party discovering conservatism or is some more catastrophic political situation likely to be required to revitalise that normal conservative impulse?
No, I think not. As to catastrophe, it is likely to arouse radicalism more than conservatism, for example a collectivist revolutionism such as Nazism.
Is it necessary for conservatives to become committed activists and even revolutionaries? Is it now too late to think in terms of conservation and must we consider sweeping away the false structures and culture of the left and rebuilding what has been lost?
This is a very difficult question. We must remember, as conservatives, that things can almost always get worse as well as better (that is one of our essential insights, after all). How many of us could truly say that life could not be worse than it is now? So I think we must be patient and just plug away. We can only hope that the truth will (eventually) set us freer, if not free.
Why is the conservative front so fractured and apparently impotent? What is it about conservatism that makes it so?
Conservatism is fractured because it is not an ideology with premises from which conclusions can be drawn syllogistically, as Lenin did in his pamphlets. And, as I have said, much of what we think is not reducible to the 15 seconds of air-time any of us is likely to be granted. And we have important dilemmas to resolve. We believe in limited government; we believe in a self-regulating population. But to have a self-regulating population, you have to have one that exhibits the traditional and cardinal virtues. When it does not, how do you inculcate them? We don’t like authoritarian answers, but laissez-faire does not work either. That is why the work of cultural destruction and social reform, that eradicated many virtues, was so destructive of liberty in the long-term.
What must we do? What are three things that could be done of should be done to slow and even reverse the collapse and subversion of the West? We may now be living in occupied territory but how do we subvert the occupying forces.
I cannot answer for others, but for myself I can only make my little contribution to public awareness. Let me end on a mildly optimistic note: I never said in any of my articles, which I think were not generally emollient, anything that I was not prepared to say to my patients (with a few exceptions, of course); and the vast majority of them were able to recognise the not very recondite, indeed obvious, truth of what I was saying. This means that if only we could change the intellectual and moral atmosphere a little, we might just get somewhere. At any rate, that is what I have tried to do.
(h/t: The Skeptical Doctor)