by Rebecca Bynum (April 2010)
The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism
By Theodore Dalrymple
Encounter Books, 2010
Anthony Daniels writing as Theodore Dalrymple is a humanist in the best and truest sense of the word. When reading him, one has the impression Dr. Dalrymple bears a deep love for human beings as they are, even if he also desires to change our minds about certain issues, knowing that ideas and attitudes are prime movers in societal matters.
In The New Vichy Syndrome, Dalrymple tackles the issue of the Islamization of Europe in measured tones, and while he clearly does not think much of Islam as a religio-political system, he places primary responsibility, and correctly in my opinion, on the Western world for the problems it is causing for us. He identifies the Muhammad cartoon crises as a much more crucial test of leadership than the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq: a test President Bush and other Western leaders failed miserably.
In fact, Dalrymple characterizes the overall modern attitude as “miserablist,” meaning that while the Western world is better off than ever before by all material measure, there is a creeping malaise and sense of doom hanging over the West which he traces to a few historic trends. One is the writing and teaching of history itself:
[The] kind of historiography, which traces a current discontent or complaint backwards and then claims it to be the whole of history, is now predominant. The number of grievance-bearers is so great that it includes almost the whole of the population, and is much increased since mass immigration so greatly balkanized the populations of Europe. In Europe, even the rich and powerful can now imagine themselves to be an oppressed minority.
A belief that one’s history contains nothing good or worthwhile leads either to utopian dreams of a new beginning, or a failure to resist those utopian dreams: in other words to fanaticism or apathy. Fanaticism is resentment in search of power; consumerism is apathy in search of happiness. (pg. xi)
The second is the decline of Christianity and the rise of an only partly understood (by the majority of people) existentialism and nominalism bordering on nihilism. As Dalrymple explains,
No doubt the decline of religion accounts for the rise in self-obsession and self-importance that is everywhere observable. One of the great advantages of the Christian philosophy was that it managed to reconcile the unique importance of each man with humility. Every man was important in the eyes of God, and in that sense was at home in the universe because the universe was expressly created for beings such as he. His every action was known to God and was therefore not without significance, however ordinary in other respects it might be; moreover, death itself was not without meaning, nor was it the end of his existence. Yet, by comparison with the author of his being, he was infinitely small, as indeed was every other human being. However scholarly a man might be, God, being omniscient, was infinitely more knowledgeable; howsoever powerful a man might believe himself, it was finally God who disposed, so that all human power was both illusory and transitory. In the midst of life we are in death, the funeral service of the Church of England puts it; and it might have added, in the midst of importance we are in insignificance. (pg. 63)
It was not so long ago that only a very small percentage of the population attended university, and of that small percentage, only a small percentage concerned itself with philosophy in general and epistemology in particular. However deadly earnest philosophers were in their work, philosophy amounted to a game, a pastime, or a hobby as far as the rest of society was concerned. (pg. 52)
[Today] unprecedentedly large numbers of people, who would once have had little exposure to philosophical arguments, have now been exposed to epistemological relativism. It is probably true to say that, in proportion as their numbers have increased, so their critical faculty decreases. They are therefore likely to accept on authority that there is no such thing as truth, that everything depends on one’s initial point of view, and the one opinion is as “valid” as another (the weasel-word “valid” has almost replaced the word “true”). They accept on authority that there is no authority: except, of course, what they themselves think, which is as good as what anyone else thinks. Intellectual weight is replaced by egotism.
This is not a good position from which to resist the claims of others in a principled way. Nagging uncertainty about one’s own right to demand anything of others will be interspersed by gusts of hurt outrage that one’s own rights are not being respected, but the latter will not last for long or lead to any long-term solution of any problem. Apathy masquerading as tolerance will alternate with short periods of violent reaction. (pg. 53)
Here I would suggest that as society has become unmoored from its former anchoring belief in transcendental values, we have searched for some virtue to replace them. The current object of elevation is “tolerance.” Rightly viewed, tolerance is ultimately derived from Goodness (a transcendental absolute), which allows for Mercy which in turn allows for Justice and finally arrives at personal virtues which include tolerance, forbearance, a forgiving nature and so forth. Tolerance, while rightly viewed as an outgrowth of justice, cannot be elevated to an absolute value over justice without creating injustice. So, for example, when the Dutch courts attempt to enforce tolerance as an absolute societal good by making any argument for the suspension of tolerance illegal by prosecuting Geert Wilders for “hate speech,” they are creating an unjust situation for the majority. Obviously, when society tolerates everything, it is no longer an ordered society but one in dissolution, yet the confusion between tolerance and justice persists.
On the Muslim demographic explosion in Europe, Dalrymple is of the mind that common sense will prevail and policies will be put in place to keep the Muslim population in the minority. And that minority, Dalrymple describes in very human terms. Remarking that “87 percent of European converts to Islam are men,” he understands that in the Western world, young Muslim men are drawn to Islam while the young women are drawn away.
There are two lines of evidence regarding the hold of Islam, or pseudo-Islam, on these young men. The first is that they joyfully join in the mass debauchery to be witnessed everywhere in Britain on weekends, though they rigidly exclude their sisters from joining in; therefore they have no principled objection to mass debauchery as such. They regard young white women as vulgar sluts, often openly and publicly calling them sluts, ex officio as it were, when they venture into the predominantly Moslem areas of the city, and keeping one or more of them in a state of contemptuous concubinage after their own marriages to a girl deemed suitable for them by their parents.
The second line of evidence arises from the different responses of young Moslem men and women to the marriages that are arranged for them by their parents and forced upon them if they are unwilling. As a doctor, I saw over the years scores and perhaps even hundreds of young women who had made a suicidal gesture because of such a forced marriage; in the same period, I saw only one young man make a similar gesture. (pg. 32)
Power over women, power in numbers, power in gangs and in prisons, all this is a lure for young Muslim men on a personal level. Of Islamic scholarship, however, Dalrymple writes that it “stifles originality, is wasteful of human intelligence, and is intellectually claustrophobic” (pg. 37) and that the longing “among those who want to see the green flag of Islam flying everywhere, in the fatuous hope or expectation that, even if not refuted by the most elementary reflection on human nature, is belied by the history of Islam from its very first years.” (pg. 19) He continues:
It is, of course, easy enough to find tenets of Islam and interpretations of such tenets that make it completely incompatible with a free society. Perhaps the most important example is the penalty of death for apostates, endorsed (I believe) by all four major schools of Sunni jurisprudence, though there is some dissension. I am for from being anti-religious, even though I have no religious belief myself; but this tenet seems to me to be quite beyond the pale of civilized discourse in the twenty-first century. While it is no doubt efficacious in controlling and suppressing religious dissent in countries such as Afghanistan and Bangladesh, nothing can detract from its primitive savagery. (pg. 42)
It is the genius of Islam that it early found a method of binding people to itself once and for all, of never letting them go once they had adhered to it; it is by far the most enduring of politico-religious ideologies that has yet been devised. Even where the penalty for outright apostasy is not death, the social penalties applied to apostates such as ostracism are sufficiently strong that only fanatics of abstract truth are willing to suffer them. The great majority of humanity everywhere is unwilling to risk much for philosophical principles. This means that there will remain outward adherence even by the fun-loving and humorous Moslems, who will never go to the trouble of exposing their skepticism or incipient unbelief. Why bother, when the alternative is an easy life, lived high in the regard of others? Hypocrisy and dissimulation are what keeps social systems strong: it is intellectual honesty that destroys them. (pg. 26)
Another thing about Islam is it is confidently militaristic whereas now the Western world, especially Europe, is extremely anti-military and anti-nationalistic. Dalrymple traces the development of these attitudes to the period after the First World War when numerous plays and novels were written expounding on the futility of war and intellectuals argued that nationalism was the root of warfare. This viewpoint seemed to have been completely vindicated by events during the Second World War from which no European nation emerged completely guilt-free. Dalrymple argues that European shame over the past has undermined the courage it needs to face the future, and that intelligent nationalism which once bestowed on the ordinary man a sense of continuity between past and future is rapidly being destroyed. Furthermore, he argues that the European Union, created for the express purpose of diluting nationalism and creating a structure in which war would be impossible between European states, is completely unnecessary, given the psychological state of Germany and France, and has in fact exacerbated frictions between nations and magnified resentments between peoples unnecessarily.
Dalrymple takes particular issue with George Bernard Shaw and his contention that only the creation of a world government will end war for all time. On this one issue, I’m afraid I will have to disagree with Dalrymple and agree with Shaw even though I think such a development is a thousand years in the future. Perhaps being an American it is easier for me to imagine voting for representatives in a body that decides and regulates international affairs just as I now vote for representatives in national affairs, state affairs, and local affairs. I think the major problem with the EU is that it does not represent the people, but decides matters to be imposed on them from “above” so to speak. The American model, in which there is a balance of power between the states and the nation (even if that is being eroded at present), as well as balance between the three branches of government and where the people are represented throughout, is of course out of the question for Europeans. What the EU has become is an artificial government of the elites, by the elites and for the elites. As such, it is unlikely ever to elicit the affection required for lasting allegiance. Writes Dalrymple:
What is left for Europeans? This present life being all that counts, indeed all the truly exists, it remains for them to seek the good life, the enjoyable and comfortable life, for themselves and themselves alone…
So important is the standard of living to them that they see children not as inheritors of what they themselves inherited, as essential to the meaning of life, but as obstructions to the enjoyment of life, as a drain on resources, an obstacle to next year’s holiday in Bali or whatever it might be, a commitment that forecloses on certain possibilities, a hurdle in the way of the exercise of choice…If all this means that life will not continue after them, at least not in the same way, and if it means that Italy (for example) becomes before long an Albano-Somali peninsula, so be it, there was never anything worth preserving anyway, if history is understood correctly; and if a man enjoys life, and life is for enjoyment, what more is to be said? (pgs 148-9)
Dalrymple ends by an appeal to America not to follow Europe down the road to dissolution and sees some evidence for hope in American optimism, religiosity and military power. Of American religion, he observes that it “keeps alive the little platoons that are so important in maintaining the health and vigor of civil society independent of government.” However, he continues:
The religiosity of Americans strikes foreigners as superficial and as much a kind of communal psychotherapy as a genuine faith. (Of course any generalization about 300,000,000 people must have exceptions, who in aggregate are numerous). American religion is Dale Carnegie transposed to a mildly and unconvincingly, transcendental plane; a lot of American religious services are like meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous without the alcoholics. (pg. 152)
I certainly think that is true, but is a phenomenon found mainly in the mainline Protestant churches which have become almost wholly secularized. On the other hand, I believe we are also witnessing, if not a Great Awakening, at least the beginnings of a religious rediscovery in America. The secular churches are not quenching the spiritual thirst of the people and in consequence, are in grave decline at present. There may not be any real correlation anymore between church attendance and religious faith. In this, I find a great deal of hope.
In conclusion, it is possible to assert that Theodore Dalrymple is one of the most perceptive, witty and penetrating writers on current events and the psychology of the common man today. Though embued with a healthy pessimism, his work is never dreary or without hope born of a basic belief in the best works of man. Let us end this review by reproducing a quote by Gustave Le Bon found toward the end of The New Vichy Syndrome which sums up Dalrymple’s philosophy very well.
The great upheavals which precede changes of civilizations such as the fall of the Roman Empire and the foundation of the Arabian Empire, seem at first sight determined more especially by political transformations, foreign invasion, or the overthrow of dynasties. But a more attentive study of these events shows that behind their apparent causes the real cause is generally seen to be a profound modification in the ideas of the peoples. The true historical upheavals are not those which astonish us by their grandeur and violence. The only important changes whence the renewal of civilizations results, affect ideas, conceptions, and beliefs. The memorable events of history are the visible effects of the invisible changes of human thought. The reason these great events are so rare is that there is nothing so stable in a race as the inherited groundwork of its thoughts.
–Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd
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