Spoilt Rotten

Theodore Dalrymple applies the scalpel to Britain's toxic cult of sentimentality.
Francis Phillips | Nov 30 2010 | comment  

“Theodore Dalrymple” is the pen-name of a well-known writer and former prison doctor, Anthony Daniels. Before his retirement Dalrymple used to entertain and shock the English reading classes in equal measure, with his macabre stories and anecdotes about the underclass whom he encountered daily in his work. I was always a little wary of these entertaining articles; as much as I was engaged by his consistently elegant style and mordant wit I sensed a certain rather brutal pessimism in his outlook.

This book, a study of the way a nauseating public sentimentality has become a substitute for clear thinking, confirms my earlier impressions. Dalrymple writes like a surgeon amputating a gangrenous leg: the job is carefully and expertly done but there is no hope that the patient will ever walk again. An atheist, though a believer in Original Sin, “that most useful of all myths”, he sees his task as cutting through the cant and hypocrisy of modern modish attitudes to enable his readers to recognise certain harsh truths.

The targets for his scorn are now familiar and more acceptable than when he first started writing about them. When even Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, can now state publicly that multiculturalism has not worked in Germany, and the Coalition in the UK is busy dismantling the hugely swollen welfare state with all the social ills that accompany it, Dalrymple’s views have become mainstream; he is not a prophet in the wilderness of political correctness any longer.

“Sentimentality”, in his view, is behind all those educational dogmas that think children will learn spontaneously without being taught, corrected, informed, disciplined or trained. The result is the functional illiteracy of a large section of the population. “Children want to save the planet though they can’t find China on a map”, he comments.

Behind the breakdown of traditional educational methods, lies the breakdown of the family unit. Dalrymple observed the consequences of our long experiment in alternative-style families during his working life: “He who promotes step-parenthood in society, promotes neglect and violence towards children”, he writes with some feeling. Indeed, he argues that sentimentality and violence are closely linked; bogus feelings, a substitute for honest, authentic emotion, are close to irrational swings of mood, of the kind that can become coercive and bullying in the media and ugly in personal relationships.

Dalrymple illustrates this link with a trip to WH Smith’s, traditionally the respectable book-selling outlook of the British high street. Here he discovers shelves of “Tragic Life Stories” next to more shelves filled with “True Crime”. “I walked away ... feeling as if I had immersed myself in a mixture of syrup and blood”, he comments. (I might add that where WH Smith’s would in the past have also stocked standard religious works like the Bible, you now find rows of self-help books, yoga and aromatherapy).

The author provides notorious examples of (angry) public sentimentality: the ‘mourning’ that followed the sudden death of the late Princess of Wales and the vicarious interest in the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. What condemned the Queen and Kate McCann in the eyes of the people was their emotional restraint in public, their refusal to grieve in the way the populace demanded. Although he does not say so, I think the author would blame the media for much of this cult of sentimentality; not trained to discriminate or to be in control of their emotions, it is no wonder that, manipulated by strident headlines and nauseating television chat-shows, and fed a diet of lurid “True Stories” in glossy magazines, the ordinary public cannot tell the difference between sham and authentic emotion.

Dalrymple rightly observes that “To control the expression of one’s emotions in order not to inconvenience or embarrass others, and for the sake of one’s own self-respect, is now seen as far from admirable.” It is as if the famous ‘stiff upper lip’ of the English peoples has, within the space of one generation, becomes its opposite. The unrestrained expression of mawkish emotion must at all times be on display. This makes for a complete divide between those of the wartime generation, stoically accepting the harshness of their lot and recognising that self-sacrifice must sometimes come before personal fulfilment, and succeeding generations who have been taught the dictum – Dalrymple quotes the poet William Blake – that it is better to murder an infant in its cradle than nurse an unacted desire. As he points out from his prison experience, the insistence on acting on one’s desires can lead precisely to the murder of an infant in its cradle.

At root, sentimentality is a refusal to take responsibility for one’s life as well as one’s emotions; when things don’t work out there is always someone else to blame and money to be made out of the ensuing publicity. “For the sentimentalist there is no such thing as a criminal, only an environment that has let him down.” Those who speak most harshly against paedophiles are often wilfully neglectful of their own children. Dalrymple tells us that his young male patients who had their children’s names sentimentally tattooed on their forearms were invariably not living with their child’s mother and had little contact with the child.

The book leaves one with the impression that it is a somewhat hotchpotch compendium of views and articles already well rehearsed by the author – though nonetheless true for all that. What is disheartening is his bleak attitude towards human nature; having diagnosed the disease he is at a loss to suggest a remedy.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK. 


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