5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass (Paperback)
Theodore Dalrymple is a physician and psychiatrist. As a young doctor he practiced medicine in Africa and the Pacific islands. Then he returned to England and practiced in the East End of London and inner-city Birmingham while volunteering in a nearby prison. He's observed, treated, and talked to thousands of London's poor. He's noticed a few things.
"It is the ideas my patients have that fascinate - and, to be honest, appall - me: for they are the source of their misery." Rather than accept responsibility for their lives they see themselves as victims of external forces. They often talk in the passive voice about their alcoholism and drug use--the beer and heroin do things to people. When they shoot someone, criminals talk about what "the gun did." They use the term addiction to "...cover any undesirable but nonetheless gratifying behavior that is repeated." The entire society is unjust and they are the victims of it. They act as they do because of their environment and background. When it is suggested that someone hurting them is similarly driven by outside forces, they become incredulous and enraged.
Another common attitude is extreme cultural relativism. There is not even "correct" spelling or grammar. Because all cultures are of equal value, there is no such thing as high culture to aspire to as part of improving oneself. This is accompanied by contempt for education. There is nothing to learn that is any better than what they already know. Dalrymple wonders if this is the first time in history when upper classes are imitating lower classes in clothing, music, and language.
The author notes that we no longer define poverty in terms of hunger or need. "Poverty has been redefined in industrial countries, so that anyone at the lower end of the income distribution is poor by virtue of having less than the rich. Entertainment, absorbed passively, informs them, through television and films, of a materially more abundant and more glamorous way of life and thus feeds resentment... [T]hey are deprived of any reasonable standards of comparison by which to judge their woes. They believe themselves deprived, because the only people with whom they can compare themselves are those who appear in advertisements or on television."
Dalrymple describes self-defeating behavior cycles involving family violence, increasing dependency on public assistance, and pursuing immediate gratification over long-term rewards. He presents a catalogue of poverty mindset indicators that include tattoos, fast food and asocial, solitary meals, suicide attempts, gambling, and repeated requests for medical solutions to chosen behavior patterns. And on top of it all, a violent defensiveness. "[This is] English underclass life: the easily inflamed ego, the quick loss of temper, the violence, the scattering of illegitimate children, the self-exculpation by use of impersonal language."
Many of the underclass's problems have their origins in ideas filtered down from the liberal intelligentsia. Uncritical cultural relativism is espoused by liberals who enjoy feeling broadminded. They "refrain from making a judgment" about the bad behaviors of others, allowing them to continue. They have taught the poor that human unhappiness comes from the artificial restraints that society places on satisfaction of appetite. Education is merely brainwashing in middle-class values. An unjust society forces people into a life of crime, therefore punishing criminals further victimizes them. "Of course, the tendency of liberal intellectuals... not to mean quite what they say, and to express themselves more to flaunt the magnanimity of their intentions than to propagate truth, is a general one."
The book's comparison of entrenched poor to new immigrant lifestyles is revealing. The indigenous poor and the immigrants who adopt their ways remain in squalor. Other new immigrants maintain their work ethic, strive at substandard jobs, live many to a house, and within a few years, work their way out of poverty. The difference in outcome results from the attitudes and behaviors of individuals, not from external forces. This point is much like Eugene Robinson's comparison of African immigrants to the "Abandoned" African-Americans in Disintegration. Dalrymple's analysis escapes the clouding effects of race, thereby achieving greater clarity.
These are insights from a professional lifetime spent trying to help the poor. Too many refuse to help themselves. Those who try to escape these patterns must fight for their identities and their very lives. I highly recommend this book to anyone trying to understand poverty and what causes it.