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A dissenting view
on 7 August 2010
From the start: I don't like the Doctor (I think he probably was a good doctor, but I do wonder sometimes when I read what he was really thinking when he was talking to patients), I don't think he writes clearly, and I am surprised that so many take him seriously as a philosopher. For example, his views on linguistics don't, I think, warrant his being regarded as an equal of Pinker, who is a real, deep, virtuoso experimenter and thinker, whether or not you agree with him (and who writes with a light elegance and humour that the plodding Doctor never achieves). Yet Dalrymple's views seem to be considered as a proper academic contribution to the field, rather than a commentary; this I find strange, though I may have missed his exhaustive book on linguistic theory somewhere. Adulation for him pours from the great and good (obviously mostly of the wide right) and even Lynn Truss considers his writing to be sublime, an extraordinary view of his congested and baroque sentences, which often conceals banal views, and requires at least this reader to go over his paragraph-length sentences to extract the sense. Try these for purple puffery:
`The idea that those who certifiably suffer are victims has a further undesirable corollary, namely that assistance should be rendered according to need and not according to desert. Again, at first sight, this seems compassionate, for it avoids the need to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving, a distinction that can easily be made in a harsh or censorious fashion or spirit, and moreover can be mistaken even made with genuine compassion and goodwill.' [p.199]
...but he never gets to the `but', which I presume would be something like: `however, really clever doctors like myself CAN make the distinction, and I know because I saw this spineless manipulative behaviour in many of my patients in prison, but it didn't fool me, no sir'. But `rendered'? `Desert'? It may be my illiteracy, but I'd be surprised if `desert' (ie what is deserved) has been used in this sense since about 1900. This isn't sublime, it's plodding and affected, and his prose is commensurately impenetrable (as he would no doubt say, and probably did somewhere, probably about Steven Pinker). Lots of doctors of his generation write like this, and they probably use silly words and byzantine sentence construction to compensate for existential anxiety that they may no longer be the most respected profession (compare John Riddington Young, The Hospital Revolution, 2008, which has very similar writing - heavy on irony and superior `cleverness', almost devoid of humour [ASIN:1844545954 The Hospital Revolution: Doctors Reveal the Crisis Engulfing Britain's Health Service]).
The difficulties of penetrating this linguistic fug mean that the underlying views are always a bit hidden, and when you do manage to uncover them, they aren't always so pleasant (but he would consider me an unreconstructed 1960s sentimental socialist). This time he conflates romanticism, sentiment, sentimentality and liberalism and in about 200 pompous pages consigns all of them to the garbage-heap of history and thought, a brave move. To Dalrymple there's nothing that isn't sentimental. The tired stuff on communal sentimentality (roadside shrines) and victimhood (impact statements and another 50 meandering pages) is aired for the umpteenth time; I agree these are genuinely toxic to the point of nausea, but they are remarkable phenomena, worthy of analysis and not simple dismissal; most of the examples he tears into are from the popular press, or fodder from WH Smith (why does he bother?) Take on someone your own size, Theo. His broad-brush view is that all of this signals terminal moral decline, and happened because 1960s liberals felt that teaching grammar was unnecessary. I exaggerate, but not that much. However, it puzzles me why it is then that the `let it all hang out' sentimentality seems to have waited some 30 years before hitting us full on in the early 1990s. He is on dangerous ground arguing that Holocaust studies are based on sentimentality (some may be, but they don't invalidate the pursuit), and he is wrong to contend that history teaches only about death and conflict (yep, both sentimental). He doesn't like universal education programmes in Africa, because nasty people with unpleasant motives have been in charge of them (true, but again most people wouldn't consider that to invalidate the principle). When he finishes with that argument he moves to a wholly unrelated one, declaring that peasants first need to understand free markets (there's a surprise) before aspiring to literacy; sentimental liberals might argue that education about economics might be quite a good thing. I clearly don't get it.
We all need a bit of self-indulgent spleen at times, for relaxation, and to reassure us that we are middle-aged and grumpy, but for truly scrumptiously erudite spleen Hitchens is unbeaten, for measured medical spleen read Raymond Tallis, and for the genuinely surprising, beautifully written, closely argued and wickedly iconoclastic stuff, Pinker beats them all. Dalrymple writes too much, too much of the same, and should now take a couple of years off to cool his heels, put his feet up, read Pinker's masterly The Blank Slate (start to finish, please, Theo, because it is magically complex, neither of the right nor the left, and is perfectly argued, whether or not you agree with it), and give up on Red Top frothing for a while. That should bring his blood pressure down a bit, which I do worry about, because I am a concerned citizen.