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A realist writer examines uncomfortable topics

book“Evil is no more at an end than History, and so long as there are men there will be no final victory over it.”

—Theodore Dalrymple

Regarding politics and language, George Orwell once wrote that modern speech and writing are “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Read nearly any government report, peruse the writings of many economists, examine the politically correct vocabulary of universities and institutions, decipher the lingo of corporate bureaucrats, and we see that Orwell was right on target.

Take, for example, the use of the word “war” by the government: “the war on poverty,” “the war on drugs.” These are not actual wars, of course, but government and media use images of combat to give a sense of urgency and struggle to issues, and to propagandize the rest of us into closing ranks behind our leaders. On the other hand, real wars are in turn often described as “interventions” or more amusingly, as “police actions.”

Moreover, some words fall into disuse because they embarrass or frighten us. “Evil” is one such word. In an age and a place dominated by statistics, polls, technology, and a slithery relativism, many are loath to speak of evil in a public forum. The last public figure to use the word — and his usage caused an enormous stir — was George W. Bush when he called Iran, Iraq and North Korea ‘the axis of evil.”

So what’s up with Theodore Dalrymple, the pseudonym used by Anthony Daniels? How dare he write a book of essays — Anything Goes (New English Review Press, 218 pages, ISBN 978-0-578-08489-3) — in which he explores the nature and presence of evil when so many no longer recognize evil as a valid concept, or else use the term as a label to muddy the character of their social and political enemies?

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Dalrymple dares because, more than any living essayist, he has personally witnessed evil in many different forms. He served as a prison doctor and psychiatrist in England for many years, and in his earlier collections wrote intimately of the depraved behavior he found there among inmates. In addition, he has traveled to such places as Gabon, Liberia, North Korea, Nigeria, and Albania, recording political oppression, bloody massacres, the imprisonment of dissidents and the effects of lies and twisted language in the modern world. Dalrymple has taken the measure of evil not from the shelves of a library, but from a lifetime of face-to-face encounters.

Let’s look at a central essay in this collection: “On Evil.” Here Dalrymple takes us into Rwanda, where in 1994 the Hutu tribe began systematically exterminating their neighbors, members of the Tutsi tribe. Machetes and clubs, not guns or bombs, were the weapons of choice used in this genocide, where 50,000 of 59,500 Tutsis perished. 

The Hutu did not carry out these attacks in some deranged state of rage. Instead, for three months they rose each morning, ate their breakfasts, grabbed their machetes, and began their hunt, hacking to death any Tutsi found. At five o’clock in the evening, they would return home, wash up, eat their suppers, gloat over their kills and over the property stolen from their victims, and retire to bed.

In other essays from Anything Goes, Dalrymple examines other scenarios in which he finds evil present, most of them less drastic than the Rwandan conflict, but with perhaps as great an import in politics and culture. He takes a swing at Austria for its former Nazism and its failure to deal with that past. He makes the distinction between unhappiness, which all of us feel at times, and depression, which is a medical condition, and condemns the heavy use of Prozac to take away ordinary misery. He reminds us that our failure to take charge of ourselves, to blame others for our own flaws, not only takes away the guilt we should feel for our failures, but also places us in an infantile condition.

Because of the magazines in which Dalrymple is published, many on the Left doubtless regard him as a conservative, one more doom-and gloom curmudgeon who can’t come to terms with the 21st century. This is an unfortunate point for view for three reasons.

First, Dalrymple is a fine writer. He is an admirer of Orwell, and his careful use of language, his humor and his willingness to admit his own failures in coming to grips with a question all make him worthy of readers. If nothing else, his writings on prison inmates, found in earlier volumes, should be required reading by anyone seeking to perform social work or to reform society. 

Second, Dalrymple’s engagement with horror and corruption is based on experience. Most of us take our worldviews from our computer screens and the opinions of friends. Dalrymple has explored the world, has visited some of its strange nooks and corners, and comes back to tell us what he saw there.

Finally, Dalrymple is a realist. (Realists are rare public figures in our benighted times, when political arguments start with a set of premises on both sides as inflexible as Aunt Mildred’s views on whisky). He doesn’t engage in diatribe. Instead, he presents us with an idea and then examines that idea, using examples from his past and the lives of others in his analysis. While reading Dalrymple, the reader has the feeling of standing at his shoulder while he writes, watching him as he thinks and picks at his arguments.

Read him. 

Anything Goes by Theodore Dalrympl. New English Review Press, 2014. 218 pages.

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