The tragedy of penological deflation

In 2003, Dalrymple writes, the ‘rock’ exponent Bertrand Cantat

brutally did to death the actress Marie Trintignant, with whom he was having an affair. He beat her so severely that she died not long afterwards of her head injuries. He was under the influence of alcohol and cannabis at the time.

For this terrible crime, in which there were no mitigating circumstances, Cantat

spent four years in prison, a derisory punishment.

Dalrymple asks:

If you have to serve only four years for such a crime, what punishment can a lesser, but nonetheless serious, crime attract, assuming that the principle of proportionality of punishments has still to apply?


Enunciators of unctuous pieties down under

Dalrymple writes that the underlying function of the manufactured grievance over Australia Day is

rent-seeking by political entrepreneurs who claim they will lead their clientèle to the promised land of something for nothing.

There are

ritual Pecksniffian incantations to aboriginal ownership, or at least first occupancy, of the land on which events—the Sydney Harbour opera, for example, or the celebration of Anzac Day—are held.

The problem, Dalrymple points out, with verbal gestures

is that people often take them with deadly seriousness—language is a kind of gesture—and these ritual incantations will one day be taken as literal IOUs. But the logic of appeasement does not work: every satisfied demand leads to a further such demand, which fails to satisfy, or even to reduce resentment. Of the staking of claims there is no end.

Dalrymple does not mean by this to deny that the history of the aborigines in Australia—as those of Canada and the United States—since the arrival of the Europeans has been, and continues to be, tragic. But

having caused tragedy (or more precisely being the inheritors of those who initiated the tragedy) is not the same as moral guilt, nor is the wound to be healed by turns of phrase which are about as sincere as Iago’s friendship to Othello.

‘The white race is the cancer of human history’

Dalrymple comes across an article by Susan Sontag in the American quarterly Partisan Review. It reads in part:

Neither do I dare deride the turn toward the East (or more generally, to the wisdom of the nonwhite world) on the part of a tiny group of young people — however uninformed and jejune the adherence usually is. (But then nothing could be more ignorant than Fiedler’s insinuation that Oriental modes of thought are ‘feminine’ and ‘passive,’ which is the reason the demasculinised kids are drawn to them.) Why shouldn’t they look for wisdom elsewhere? If America is the culmination of Western white civilisation, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilisation. This is a painful truth; few of us want to go that far. It’s easier, much easier, to accuse the kids, to reproach them for being ‘non-participants in the past’ and ‘drop-outs from history.’ But it isn’t real history Fiedler is referring to with such solicitude. It’s just our history, which he claims is identical with ‘the tradition of the human,’ the tradition of ‘reason’ itself. Of course, it’s hard to assess life on this planet from a genuinely world-historical perspective; the effort induces vertigo and seems like an invitation to suicide. But from a world-historical perspective, that local history that some young people are repudiating (with their fondness for dirty words, their peyote, their macrobiotic rice, their Dadaist art, etc.) looks a good deal less pleasing and less self-evidently worthy of perpetuation. The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don’t redeem what this particular civilisation has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone — its ideologies and inventions — which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself. What the Mongol hordes threaten is far less frightening than the damage that western ‘Faustian’ man, with his idealism, his magnificent art, his sense of intellectual adventure, his world-devouring energies for conquest, has already done, and further threatens to do.

Dalrymple comments:

The question with assertions of this nature is whether they can ever correspond to any genuine feeling, or are but the manifestation of a straining after feeling. To me they have the authentic ring of humbug, which is the besetting sin of our age (which is not to say that it has existed or been prevalent in no other).

Hazlitt (‘On cant and hypocrisy’, London Weekly Review, 1828) tells us that

sincerity has to do with the connexion between our words and thoughts, and not between our belief and actions. The last constantly belie the strongest convictions and resolutions in the best of men; it is only the base and dishonest who give themselves credit with their tongue, for sentiments and opinions which in their hearts they disown.

To this, says Dalrymple,

he might have added feeling, for expressed feelings can be as divorced from true feelings as cant can be from true belief. The complexity of the human mind is such that we can easily disguise the divorce from ourselves and deny that it exists, the denial leading us to act as if the false were true.

Dalrymple does not believe that Sontag

thought or felt of herself as a cancerous cell, for such a sincere thought or feeling is really possible only to someone with a mental state akin to Cotard’s syndrome, the rare delusion that one is already (and deservedly) dead or putrefying: and people with Cotard’s syndrome do not write essays, not even for the Partisan Review.

He adds:

The grandiose moral exhibitionism of which the Sontag quotation is so notable an example serves another function in our moral economy: to divert the locus of our moral concern from the pettiness of our daily existences to the largest general problems facing the world.

It renders alien to us, he says, the Blakean thought (Jerusalem, f. 55, ll. 48–53, 60–6):

And many conversèd on these things as they labour’d at the furrow,
Saying: ‘It is better to prevent misery than to release from misery;
It is better to prevent error than to forgive the criminal.
Labour well the Minute Particulars: attend to the Little Ones;
And those who are in misery cannot remain so long,
If we do but our duty: labour well the teeming Earth.…
He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer;
For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organised Particulars,
And not in generalising Demonstrations of the Rational Power:
The Infinite alone resides in Definite and Determinate Identity.
Establishment of Truth depends on destruction of Falsehood continually,
On Circumcision, not on Virginity, O Reasoners of Albion!

God save the Queen

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, who has reigned since 1953 as Elizabeth II, was, Dalrymple reminds us,

thrust into the rôle of heir to the throne at the age of 10, and that of monarch at age 26, without choice, consultation, or inclination. She was reared to be a function incarnate. Her wishes counted for nothing, except in the most trivial matters.

Supremely unfree

She was

imbued with an iron sense of duty by an adored father who died at a comparatively early age (and whose portrait she still wears on her bosom at official functions), and was obliged repeatedly to make emollient speeches and appear always to be deeply interested in the dullest of dignitaries. The highest standard of living in the world was probably insufficient recompense for the sacrifice—that of herself as an individual human being—that she had to make.

Bound to obey the dictates of the government that acted in her name

Aware of her limitations, educated in the arcana of her constitutional rôle but little else, interested mainly in thoroughbred horses, Elizabeth had constantly to juggle several, often conflicting imperatives:

  • the need to preserve her throne
  • the need to do her duty by her country
  • the need to act morally (for she was clearly a highly moral person)
  • her need to please her family

Wedded to duty

These, Dalrymple points out,

were not things always easy to reconcile, and sometimes they were irreconcilable. Prince Philip did not want to live in Buckingham Palace, whose grandeur is cold and forbidding, nor did she; but as it was customary for the reigning monarch to live there, she overruled her husband’s and her own inclinations. This was a decision typical of many others. In the struggle between what she wanted and what she thought was her duty, the latter always won.

It is curious, says Dalrymple,

how, in a democracy such as the British, the unelected head of state should have been so much more wedded to duty than any popularly elected politician.

The royals fascinate millions — but not Dalrymple

The doctor-writer says that the British monarchy is odd at many levels.

  • It has no justification in philosophical first principles
  • Its flummery is often ridiculous
  • It exacts a toll on those caught up in it

He notes that the enthusiasm of the population

for what is, after all, a group of self-confessedly ordinary people who are obviously acting a part, is mysterious. Yet the monarchy costs much less than the Italian presidency and is of a fascination to millions (myself not included).

Why Dalrymple backs the monarchy

The doctor-writer says:

I am a believer in constitutional monarchy, at least for my own country, in part because I find the prospect of any of my fellow-countrymen being head of state appalling.

Storm clouds on the horizon for the British monarchy

The kitsch industry

The English intelligentsia, writes Dalrymple,

are hostile to the monarchy as never before. Ever on the lookout for old institutions to destroy, little but the monarchy remains for their attention. Thanks to the expansion of tertiary education and the decline of industry, the intelligentsia are larger and more influential than at any time in history; they never rest until they get what they want.

Made in China

Moreover, the British population is

so disconnected from its country’s past that it has not the faintest idea of the constitutional role of the monarchy. So weak has understanding become that those who defend in public the extravaganza of the royal wedding and its expense are reduced to performing a cost-benefit analysis. The security and other arrangements will cost £x; but the receipts from the extra tourism, television rights, and kitsch industry — royal memorabilia such as plates, mugs, biscuit tins, and bogus commemorative coins — will amount to an estimated £x+n, even if most of the kitsch will be produced in China.

There is, says Dalrymple,

something undignified about the use of the language of profit and loss about a monarchy that has lasted, with a short break for revolution, a millennium. If after a thousand years the best or only thing you can say for a political institution is that it brings in a few extra tourists, who are a market for foreign-produced junk, attachment to that institution in an age that prides itself on its rationality and ability to found itself on self-evident first principles is not likely to be very strong or to last long.

Foreign-produced junk

The whole point of a constitutional monarch,

that he is head of state and symbol of national unity not by virtue of a popularity contest or of any personal qualities, and is therefore above the fray to whose violence his very existence places a limit, is entirely lost on young British people, who believe in their own unlimited sovereignty. If they celebrated the wedding at all, it was for them just another occasion to get drunk.

Can divorce be far behind?

Dalrymple writes:

A marriage these days, unlike a diamond, is definitely not forever, and the British royal family, though it remains somewhat different from the average or median British family in many respects, has not been able to insulate itself entirely from the social trends of the age, the instability of relations between the sexes being among them. A large dose of social realism, indeed, has been insinuated into the Saxe-Coburg-Windsor fairy story.

Perhaps he will grow out of it

Prince Harry, writes Dalrymple,

whose paternity almost everyone in the country doubts, conducts himself, at least when free to do so, as the worst (and largest) element of the young British male population conducts itself.

That is to say, he is

  • drunken
  • aggressive
  • foulmouthed
  • arrogant
  • graceless
  • stupid

Perhaps, says Dalrymple,

he will grow out of it, as burglars grow out of burglary, but what it leaves behind remains to be seen. My guess is that it will not be very much, but I would be most happy in this instance to acknowledge prophetic error.

Do you need anything more than this to understand the modern world?

The health authority grows tired of boys smashing the windows of its offices and replaces them with unbreakable glass; a boy throws a brick at the unbreakable glass and it flies back and hits him on the forehead. The boy’s father sues the health authority.