Theodore Dalrymple's new book explores malaise European-style.

Charlotte Hays | Posted on 04/21/10

There are a number of causes for Europe's predicament, including the rise of moral relativism. In this, Dalrymple, a retired British physician who is himself not a religious believer, sounds like Pope Benedict XVI. Ironically, the claim of relativists is advanced with great confidence. "They accept," Dalrymple writes, "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."

The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism, by Theodore Dalrymple, Encounter Books, $23.95

During the Vichy Republic, Marshal Philippe Petain and others collaborated - to their everlasting shame - with the Nazis after the military fall of France. In The New Vichy Syndrome, Theodore Dalrymple, one of the most delightful purveyors of gloom and doom around, details how Europe today is collaborating with her enemies - within and without - at a time when there is no outward and visible reason for this collective failure of nerve. "There is something rotten in the state of Europe," Dalrymple writes in the first sentence, "but it is not easy to say what it is or where it comes from."

"It is strange," Dalrymple continues, "that Europe should be the sick man of Europe. In many ways, things have never been better on the old continent." Life expectancy, prosperity, and the physical standard of living that prevail in Europe today would have amazed previous generations. But Europe suffers from malaise. Her workers lack a sense of purpose, she fears the rise of China and India, and she is militarily weak. Such weakness has consequences. When a Muslim mob outraged over a newspaper cartoon attacked the Danish embassy in Damascus, Dalrymple recalls, Denmark could muster no response other than acquiescence.

It is interesting that Dalrymple believes that, contrary to their radical image, many Muslims living in Europe are quite eager to be Westernized. He quotes entries from a Muslim dating site that, like the Western garb worn by would-be dates, reflect a high degree of assimilation. One Muslim woman describes herself as "a fun loving woman." But when the West responds tepidly to challenges such as the attack on the embassy, these moderate Muslims, caught between the Europeans and their own extreme flank, get the message that the West is cowardly, while their own Muslim elders are to be respected. England's response, even under Margaret Thatcher, to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie is a case in point. England's Offences against the Person Act (1861) made such threats illegal. But England did nothing. "To have prosecuted and punished rigorously, even at the cost of some temporary inconvenience such as a riot or two, would have sent a clear and unambiguous message that Western society was determined to defend its freedoms against thuggish obscurantism (the fact that, to many, Rushdie was an unattractive figure would only have strengthened the message)," Dalrymple asserts. 

Europeans seem to believe that knuckling under for the sake of harmony is the best policy. "The quiet life was clearly preferred to the costs of securing a free one; if only we appeased enough, there would be peace in our time," is how Dalrymple puts it. This is not to advocate attacking another's religion an impulsive, unreasonable response to attacks on one's embassy. The question Dalrymple raises (and it's the question today) is why Europeans refuse to defend their civilization and values - indeed, European intellectuals actively disparage these values. One reason, put forward in the book, is that Europe sees her history as nothing but a tale of woe and violence, nothing that inspires pride.

Europe has developed what Dalrymple calls a "miserabilist historiography." The only response to what miserabilists see as history devoid of decency is guilt. Guilt for the past thus becomes "a diploma of righteousness." "A kind of miserabilist historiography has become the mark of the sensitive and well-informed, proof against any facile optimism about the past," Dalrymple writes. Europeans feel less inclined to defend a thoroughly rotten civilization. And the reach of miserabilism is extensive: science, the methodical investigation of nature, which has produced so many material benefits, was developed in Europe, and for this reason is under attack. Science is seen by many advanced Europeans as being irrational, provisional, and not objective. While most discoveries are provisional and can be revised on further experimentation, this advanced view attacks the very idea of objective research. This means that Europe's scientific contributions aren't really that important. European art is no longer beautiful. Belief in God is out of the question. There is nothing worth preserving.  No more gloire, only self-hatred.  

Figuring out how this happened - "Why are we like this?" Dalrymple asks at the beginning of several chapters - is the gist of this book.  There are a number of causes, including the rise of moral relativism. In this, Dalrymple, a retired British physician who is not himself a religious believer, sounds like Pope Benedict XVI. Ironically, the claim of relativists is advanced with great confidence. "They accept," Dalrymple writes, "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." Philosophers have long debated the question of ultimate meaning, many in the modern era concluding that there was no such thing. What was once an academic nihilism largely confined to university ghettos has, in an era of widespread but shallower education, entered into general circulation. Being exposed to other cultures, Europeans also have developed "practical relativism of everyday life" to go along with philosophical relativism. "Choice as a good in itself, even as the only good in itself, is now almost an unthinking orthodoxy in the West," the author writes.

Of course, bad things did happen in Europe's history. Bad things happen whenever human beings are involved. But to be a good miserabilist you must deny that anything good happened. There must be a wholesale denigration of European civilization's achievements. Trendy intellectuals have proven themselves quite apt at doing this. They have portrayed European civilization not as sometimes evil but as intrinsically evil. Nazism, for example, is seen by many (including the vastly influential historian Daniel Goldhagen) not only as a terrible epoch in German history but as the result of something innate in German civilization - the telos, as it were, or inevitable end of what it means to be German.

Of course, there is, as Dalrymple notes, "plenty of grist" for the miserabilist mill. "But I don't see how anyone can walk around Paris, say, or Venice, or Rome, or indeed anywhere (when rightly considered) and see only crime and folly, and no achievement, almost all of it that of European civilization." Dalrymple's counterintuitive argument is the anti-history view grew up not because Europe had been powerful but because she was becoming weak.  

It turns out that guilt has its reward: "[L]imitless guilt being a form of grandiosity, the past commission of great crimes is a consolation for those who have lost power. It assures them that, notwithstanding their loss of the most immediate trappings of power, important, indeed determining, factors in the current situation are traceable to them. If Africa is an abominable mess, it is because of what we, the former colonizing nations did to it: ergo, we are still important."

This historiography helped create the European Union. "If the past of a country is nothing but a record of crime and folly, it is clear that it must have been led by quite the wrong people." With vast numbers of educated people, these bureaucracies offer employment, expense accounts, and meaning to those eager to right the supposed wrongs of the past. "Miserabilism thus combines business with pleasure," Dalrymple argues.

I have to say that I was blown away by this latest Dalrymple opus. For one thing, Theodore Dalrymple is a sparkling writer. He delivers the bad news with wit and wisdom. But this book seems to explain why Europe is supine. It's a frightening thesis, and unfortunately Dalrymple doesn't offer any ideas on how things might change or be changed. He ends on the question that was in my mind throughout the book: wat does this portend for the United States?

I had dinner in Washington several years ago with Theodore Dalrymple. I asked him if he thought the United States was in as bad shape as Europe. He felt that things were much better here, that we are a religious country, that this gives meaning to individual lives, and that we were resistant to government hegemony in our lives. But I gather from this book that he thinks we Americans are now on the precipice. We are seeing enlarged government along European lines, and we are faced with the rise of China, a challenge to America's power. If we decline in power, will we too embrace guilt as a way to feel important?




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