Category Archives: humanity

No wonder Dr Johnson is not in fashion

Engraving from James Barry’s portrait (1778-80)

An incomparably greater psychologist than Freud, having no axe to grind and no sect to found

Samuel Johnson, writes Dalrymple,

  • contrived to be a moralist without moralising
  • was humane and charitable without sentimentality

This is a contrast to today, Dalrymple points out, for

we prefer mental contortions, self-justifications, evasions, rationalisations, and all the other methods of avoiding the truth about ourselves, to Dr Johnson’s discomfiting clarity of mind.

Johnson had a gift, Dalrymple notes, for saying things that were

both startling and obvious. As he himself put it, we have more often to be reminded than informed.

Johnson’s prose style

would no doubt strike many people (if they read it) as formal—we prefer expletives and the demotic now.

The hope of a dilemma-free world is naïve where it is not power-hungry

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-19-05-57The problem, says Dalrymple, with a nationalised health system’s

incontinent sharing of risk

is that

it deprives people of one possible motive for behaving responsibly. They believe, not without reason, that someone will always pick up the pieces for them at no cost to themselves. Irresponsibility thrives where there is no penalty for it.

He points out, however, that the problem with individualised insurance is that

it may place intolerable or unsustainable burdens on people through no fault of their own.

In short,

incontinent sharing of risk is unjust: too little sharing of risk is inhumane. Since both justice and humanity are desirable qualities, but not always compatible, now one, now the other, will be the more important; but the tension between them will remain.

Dalrymple writes:

That ethical decisions sometimes cannot be made that are indisputably correct, that entail no injustice or no inhumanity, is difficult for rationalists and utilitarians to accept. They want every division to be without remainder. They want a formula that will decide every question beyond reasonable doubt. They want a universal measure of suffering, so that the worth (in units of suffering averted) of every medical procedure can be known and compared. There is a cognitive hubris at play, according to which information will resolve all our dilemmas; and if our dilemmas have not been answered, it is only because we do not have enough information.

As for the doctor,

he cannot be so limitlessly compassionate as to deny patients’ responsibility where it exists, nor should he deny his patients his compassion by blaming them even when they are to blame.

Theodore is priceless

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New York: Horace Liveright, 1928

Faithful friend of the Soviet Union

Strolling in Amsterdam, Dalrymple finds that

there are some excellent second-hand bookshops.

At one of them he picks up

an irresistible book entitled Dreiser Looks At Russia. It ends with the unintentionally hilarious words:

Sleep well, Ilitch, father of a new and possibly — how shall we say? — world-altering force. How fortunate, you, its chosen if martyred instrument. How fortunate indeed.

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Theodore Dreiser: ‘a friend of the Soviet Union because he is a friend of Man, a champion of the democratic masses everywhere’

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Our Ilitch: ‘only the humanity of his spirit, enveloping aura-wise, could have evoked in those underprivileged millions the necessary faith in, if not an understanding of, his immense wisdom and human charity’

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Sleep well, Ilitch

Sleep of the righteous: Ilitch in his mausoleum

Charitable and wise

Ilitch the charitable and wise

'Chosen if martyred instrument of the world-altering force. How fortunate are the Russian masses!'

Ilitch the chosen one, the martyr

'Father of a new and possibly — how shall we say? — world-altering force'

Radiant Ilitch: ‘father of a new and possibly — how shall we say? — world-altering force’

‘Lenin, his Russia, the humanithy and justice which at last, and fully, he introduced into its government and statecraft, will succeed. The social illustration which he provided and which his associates and followers have since carried to its present great power and beauty will never be lost on future generations'

Power and beauty: ‘his Russia, the humanity and justice which at last, and fully, he introduced into its government and statecraft, will succeed. The social illustration which he provided and which his associates and followers have since carried to its present great power and beauty will never be lost on future generations’

The Russian masses, Dreiser wrote, ‘are determined never again to be enslaved. I do not doubt the outcome. Lenin, his Soviet empire, will triumph’

Ilitch triumphant: ‘the Russian masses are determined never again to be enslaved. I do not doubt the outcome. His Soviet empire will triumph’

When he was in Russia in 1927-28 in Russia Dreiser saw 'peasants and mechanics, women and men, kneeling here and there in worship, if not prayer, before Ilitch's candle-lighted bust, or standing uncovered with bowed heads before it, feeling him to be, as I assumed (and truly enough in my judgment), their saviour'

Ilitch the saviour: ‘I saw peasants and mechanics, women and men, kneeling here and there in worship, if not prayer, before his candle-lighted bust, or standing uncovered with bowed heads before it, feeling him to be, as I assumed (and truly enough in my judgment), their saviour’

A whining pretension to goodness

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From Johnson’s 1755 dictionary

Dalrymple says his father

was always espousing great and grand principles expressive of his love for humanity, but had difficulty in expressing love for anyone in particular.

Dalrymple points out that cant, or humbug,

stands in the way of achieving an authentic relationship with the world. To be a humbug is to wear distorting lenses.

He confesses that

I am a humbug on occasion, and in my youth was a humbug practically all the time. Youth is the golden age of humbug — the expression of supposedly generous emotions that it has to a much lesser extent than claimed.

Dalrymple explains the difference between hypocrisy and cant.

  • Johnson

    Ibid.

    hypocrisy is, or can be, a social virtue. To express a sympathy or an interest that you do not in the slightest feel can be almost heroic when it is done for humane reasons, and is often socially necessary. Hypocrisy is to social life what oil is to axles

  • cant is always poisonous, among other reasons because it is designed to deceive not only others but ourselves. It doesn’t entirely succeed in this latter task because a still, small voice tells us that we are canting, to which our preferred solution is often to cant harder, like drowning out something we don’t want to hear by turning up the wireless. That is why there is so much shrillness: people are defending themselves against the horrible thought that they don’t really believe what they are saying

There is no subject, says Dalrymple, to which cant attaches more than humanity.

Who will admit that he doesn’t love humanity, that it wouldn’t matter to him in the slightest if half of it disappeared, that he can sit through the news of the worst disaster imaginable (provided far away) and eat his dinner with good appetite?

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José de Páez, Sacred Heart of Jesus with St Ignatius of Loyola and St Aloysius Gonzaga, Mexico, c. 1770

No,

in order to be a good person you have to pretend to be lacerated by awareness of suffering anywhere and show your wounds like Christ showing his heart in one of the Baroque Spanish colonial paintings.

But in fact

most people do not love humanity; misanthropy is far more widespread than love of humanity.

As soon as we are in the public arena,

we must start to mouth sentiments that are not ours in words that mean nothing. We start to cant. We must display the wounds we feel at the imperfections of the world. We must award ourselves, and pronounce, creditable motives that we know are not ours.

Commercial concerns

are in the canting game. They claim to be working to bring about greater equality, survival of rainforests, amelioration of climate change, participation of fat children in sport, and anything other than their true aim, which is mostly to sell products that are superfluous to people who don’t need them. (I accept that this is the necessary force that makes our economic world go round.)

We are now

chronically humanitarian.

The world is rotten but I am not

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The student prig’s moral grandiosity has a coercive quality, for he has liberated his inner totalitarian

Such, writes Dalrymple, is what the student prig, in his self-importance and complacency, wishes to communicate.

The student prig’s chief aim is to convey

the militant purity of his heart and soul. The world is rotten, he is saying—but I am not. I am pure. If the rottenness continues, it won’t be because of me.

Awareness of his virtue shines from the student prig’s face.

He glows with it, virtue for him consisting of the public expression of the correct sentiments. Virtue requires no discipline, no sacrifice other than of a little time and energy, instantly rewarded by the exhibition of his goodness.

The painlessness of virtue as the expression of correct sentiment is its chief attraction for the student prig.

Who would not wish to achieve goodness merely by means of a few gestures, verbal or otherwise? In that way, you can avoid genuine self-examination.

The student prig

feels a youthful impatience with the intractability of the world, hence a desire that its problems should be solved by symbolic means. This desire partakes of magical thinking: incantations will bend reality in the desired direction.

The student prig’s

moral grandiosity has a coercive quality. His virtue gives him the locus standi to dictate to others for the good of humanity. The expression he wears is that of someone who has liberated his inner totalitarian.

Well, much may be forgiven youth, says Dalrymple. But what is craven is

for older people in positions of responsibility to surrender to youth, even if the once in their lives that they were young happened to be in the 1960s.

The characteristic deformation of the liberal conscience

'I have learned to be polite to the people who make these calls. I imagine that for them it is just a job like any other. Some of their contemporaries went into sales, others into the bank, yet others into insurance; they went into fraud (only a relative, not an absolute, distinction).'

‘I have learned to be polite to the people who make these calls. I imagine that for them it is just a job like any other. Some of their contemporaries went into sales, others into the bank, yet others into insurance; they went into fraud (only a relative, not an absolute, distinction).’

We are enjoined to put ourselves in other people’s shoes before judging them too harshly, but…

When (doubtless ill-paid) telephone fraudsters ring up from India, Dalrymple asks whether showing them politeness is humanity or pusillanimity. He writes:

We often think that to make excuses for others is kindness, to make excuses for ourselves dishonesty.

Therefore should we show a bit of kindness, a bit of consideration, to members of the telephone fraudster community?

After all, perhaps not. Dalrymple says:

To make excuses for others but not for ourselves easily becomes condescension or a sense of superiority moral and even existential. We are responsible for what we do, they are not. We act, they only react.

The moral grandeur of Western leaders

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 08.07.27The honour of being governed by the likes of these

Thank heaven, writes Dalrymple, for our enlightened Western leaders, with their

profound — and profoundly humane — views

on the matter of, for instance, criminal justice.

They see things all so clearly.

Finding himself in the West Country, Dalrymple picks up a local paper, the Western Daily Press, and lights on the following report:

A Chard [near Yeovil] teenager has been jailed for his part in what a judge called ‘an horrendous attack’ on a vulnerable and defenceless man with autism. Daniel Rodrigues, 18, of Beckington Crescent, and two co-defendants subjected their victim to a ‘brutal’ attack after a bout of heavy drinking. A police officer who attended the blood-spattered scene in a flat said it was ‘like something out of a horror movie’, Taunton Crown Court was told. All three attackers had blood on them and at one time they were all hitting their 20-year-old victim, Robert Macdonald, at the same time.

Macdonald was struck over the head a number of times with an iron bar and was taken to hospital with multiple cuts to his forehead, face and scalp, said Fiona Elder, prosecuting. Forensic scientists found he had been hit while already bleeding. He needed surgery with a general anaesthetic and a blood transfusion. In a victim impact statement, he said the vision in one eye was affected, he had scars to his face and head and had to move away from Taunton because he felt so scared.

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 08.08.51Rodrigues, the paper reports,

was jailed for 15 months for inflicting grievous bodily harm.

Dalrymple explains that in other words, Rodrigues will serve

at most 7½ months in prison (remission of 50% is an inalienable right) and quite possibly fewer, if he is granted early release.

Dalrymple asks:

If he gets 7½ months for a crime like his, which sentence must lesser criminals, such as mere burglars, get?

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 08.19.23Punishment, he says,

must be proportionate to the seriousness of the offence; and surely anyone can see that to send a burglar to prison for (say) six weeks is utterly futile. It follows from this that to send Rodrigues to prison is itself totally pointless; Rodrigues ought to be released at once, to prevent the terrible absurdity, the mockery, of it all.

Primitive punishment impulse is overcome

Thank heaven, writes Dalrymple, that

we have a justice secretary who sees this all clearly. Really it is an honour for a population to be ruled by people of so deep an insight, so sincere a compassion and so uncompromising a realism. We may be proud of our state that it has at last overcome the primitive impulse to punish, incarcerate and incapacitate young men like Rodrigues, who so badly need help. Pity about Robert Macdonald, the victim of the attack, but the question we must surely all ask ourselves is, Did he have a triple lock on his front door? And if not, why not?