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Thursday, October 13, 2005

Dalrymple, Galston And Kamarck

"The Friviolity Of Evil" by Theodore Dalrymple is a must read. It's about the social problems in the UK:
My work has caused me to become perhaps unhealthily preoccupied with the problem of evil. Why do people commit evil? What conditions allow it to flourish? How is it best prevented and, when necessary, suppressed? Each time I listen to a patient recounting the cruelty to which he or she has been subjected, or has committed (and I have listened to several such patients every day for 14 years), these questions revolve endlessly in my mind.
I optimistically supposed that, in the absence of the worst political deformations, widespread evil was impossible. I soon discovered my error. Of course, nothing that I was to see in a British slum approached the scale or depth of what I had witnessed elsewhere. Beating a woman from motives of jealousy, locking her in a closet, breaking her arms deliberately, terrible though it may be, is not the same, by a long way, as mass murder.
Men commit evil within the scope available to them. Some evil geniuses, of course, devote their lives to increasing that scope as widely as possible, but no such character has yet arisen in Britain, and most evildoers merely make the most of their opportunities. They do what they can get away with.

In any case, the extent of the evil that I found, though far more modest than the disasters of modern history, is nonetheless impressive. From the vantage point of one six-bedded hospital ward, I have met at least 5,000 perpetrators of the kind of violence I have just described and 5,000 victims of it: nearly 1 percent of the population of my city—or a higher percentage, if one considers the age-specificity of the behavior. And when you take the life histories of these people, as I have, you soon realize that their existence is as saturated with arbitrary violence as that of the inhabitants of many a dictatorship. Instead of one dictator, though, there are thousands, each the absolute ruler of his own little sphere, his power circumscribed by the proximity of another such as he.
When the barriers to evil are brought down, it flourishes; and never again will I be tempted to believe in the fundamental goodness of man, or that evil is something exceptional or alien to human nature.
Of the thousands of patients I have seen, only two or three have ever claimed to be unhappy: all the rest have said that they were depressed. This semantic shift is deeply significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is itself pathological, a medical condition, which it is the responsibility of the doctor to alleviate by medical means. Everyone has a right to health; depression is unhealthy; therefore everyone has a right to be happy (the opposite of being depressed). This idea in turn implies that one's state of mind, or one's mood, is or should be independent of the way that one lives one's life, a belief that must deprive human existence of all meaning, radically disconnecting reward from conduct.
Whether you read Dalrymple's article and nod, or read his article and get angry, will largely determine whether you reject the modern form of liberalism, i.e. "progressive" thought. Progressive thought does seek to shift all moral responsibility from the individual to the state.

Most Americans don't subscribe to this philosophy, and that is why such a gulf is growing in our society between the progressive block and the rest of the people. Most Americans subscribe to the idea that humans are essentially flawed and must be taught to exert self-control in order to defeat their own internal flaws. Most Americans think individuals must be taught to do right by themselves and others. In other words, the choice between behaving well and misbehaving is considered to be a fundamental part of life.

The idea of individual moral responsibility is anathema to progressives, who seek to explain bad human behavior as an aberration from the normal caused by poor social structures. They view it as a social pathology that can be diagnosed and treated with another set of social programs. Timothy Shelton is an excellent example of this mindset.

David Broder wrote an excellent column commenting on Democratic strategists Galston and Kamarck's "The Politics of Polarization":
In 64 pages, notably devoid of academic jargon, and 24 easy-to-understand tables, they attempt to steer their party directly back toward the path to power.

Because that path aims down the political center, it will not be easily accepted by many of the activists in the organizations that control the Democratic Party at the grass roots and dominate its fundraising, whether they be Hollywood millionaires or Internet Deaniacs.
Kamarck and Galston are making the case -- hard for these folks to acknowledge -- that victory for the Democrats requires more than ardent anti-Bush rhetoric. It requires, they say, a revision of Democratic doctrine on both national security and social and moral issues.
The perception that Democrats are weak on confronting terrorism and hostile to the culture of the deeply religious has cost the party dearly, especially among married women and Catholics. Galston and Kamarck calculate that the odds of a married woman supporting the Republican candidate rose from just under 40 percent in 1992 to nearly 55 percent last year. Clinton, a Baptist, carried the Catholic vote by nine points in 1992, while John Kerry, a Catholic, lost among his co-religionists by five points.
David Broder seems rather concerned about the Catholic bashing, noting that the midwestern states have assumed more and more importance in presidential campaigns, and that these essential states also contain many Catholics. But the rift is not really between religious and non-religious people. The rift is caused by an extremely fundamental philosophical difference. The truth is that Christianity has both "conservative" and "liberal" elements as the political terms are used.

What is dividing the country is two philosophies about human nature. If one can recognize that human nature is innately capable of both good and evil, you tend more toward the modern "conservative" camp, and if you believe that human nature is fundamentally malleable and eventually perfectible by society, you almost certainly lean toward the progressive wing. Nor is this an American cultural phenomenon. It is the same in Europe.

I don't believe that the progressives will win, because Theodore Dalrymple's observations fit too well with the idea that human nature is innately flawed. Societies abound with wealthy, fortunate people who turn to crime or abuse others. The "reality-based" party can claim the title all it pleases, but if the majority of the electorate doesn't see life the same way as the progressives the words will get them nowhere.

Do the progressives control the Democratic nomination? I think we are going to find out as we watch Hillary Clinton tack in the progressive wind. If she has to tack too far she can never win the presidency. Broder seems to have become uneasy by watching the Democratic handling of the John Roberts nomination. Hillary was forced to say "no" to Roberts, and that alone may be telling.

I read Darlymple's article a couple of weeks ago and it was still on my mind this morning. I did a google search and was surprised that only two results came up, the original article and your post.

Most people if asked to guess where I stand based on my appearance or my profession would assume that I aligned myself with the left, but I'm one of those who reads Darlymple's article and nods.

It seems to me that, similar to what you have said, the fundamental divide is between people who believe that there is such a thing as human nature and those who believe that human nature is infinitely malleable. Neither the experience of current events nor science can any longer support the latter notion.

A good book on the science behind this is Stephen Pinker's "The Blank Slate, The Modern Denial of Human Nature." Which makes an excellent point of stating the facts, raises some necessary moral issues but has its flaw, in my opinion, in Pinker's efforts to paint the conclusions that we draw from the science as acceptable to either end of the political spectrum. Its a book that I nod in agreement with at some parts but find myself angry and frustrated when reading other parts.
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