Life at the Bottom, Kindle Edition, by Theodore Dalrymple. Originally published in 2001. Print edition: 263 pages.
I became interested in this book solely on the force of Thomas Sowell’s recommendation of it. I didn’t know anything about Theodore Dalrymple, but Sowell’s endorsement was enough to intrigue me. His concise description of the book was as follows:
An incisive and brutally honest eye-witness account of the social degeneracy created by the welfare state among the white underclass in Britain– remarkably similar to the social pathology in American ghettos but without such supposed causes as slavery or racism.
Indeed, Dalrymple himself made it clear very early on in this book that his frame of reference was separate, distinct, and unrelated to the perception of lower socioeconomic life commonly held by average Americans. In fact his documented experiences were relegated almost solely to Britain’s white underclass with a small percentage of Muslim immigrants.
Before buying this, I read the Amazon reviews of “verified purchasers”. Very few of those who reviewed this book liked it. However, the tone of the negative reviews almost immediately indicated that I might like this book for the same reasons that Thomas Sowell recommended it. It wasn’t politically correct, and it summarily dismissed poverty alone as an excuse for bad behavior and life choices.
Many of the stories Dalrymple recounts from his years of practice in the London’s tougher neighborhoods are heart rending. His attempts to offer help and counsel to those who repeatedly make terrible decisions bear no fruit most of the time. He points out that what we consider poor is hardly poor when compared to those in less developed parts of the world:
“This underclass is not poor, at least by the standards that have prevailed throughout the great majority of human history. It exists, to a varying degree, in all Western societies. Like every other social class, it has benefited enormously from the vast general increase in wealth of the past hundred years. In certain respects, indeed, it enjoys amenities and comforts that would have made a Roman emperor or an absolute monarch gasp. Nor is it politically oppressed: it fears neither to speak its mind nor the midnight knock on the door. “
“It is the prerogative of the unthinkingly prosperous to sneer at the bourgeois virtues.”
The people who reviewed Dalrymple’s book negatively accused him of blaming the poor for their plight. In reality, his book did no such thing. While it is true that Life at the Bottom repeatedly notes that many of the perils of Dalrymple’s patients are a result of their own poor decisions, in the end, he places the ultimate blame elsewhere:
“And if I paint a picture of a way of life that is wholly without charm or merit, and describe many people who are deeply unattractive, it is important to remember that, if blame is to be apportioned, it is the intellectuals who deserve most of it. They should have known better but always preferred to avert their gaze. They considered the purity of their ideas to be more important than the actual consequences of their ideas. I know of no egotism more profound.”
Grade: B-. The content is good, but the writing is a bit disjointed.