The doctor is in
[Posted 1:37 PM by James Panero]
More on Anthony Daniels, from page 1 of today’s New York Sun :
By BRENDAN BERNHARD Special to the Sun
BIRMINGHAM, England ï¿½ Late on a Saturday night in Britainï¿½s second-largest city, what looks like an enormous street-party is in full, Bacchanalian bloom. Dance music pulsates from the nightclubs as thousands of men and women shout and scream on the sidewalk, tumble out of doorways, and bellow from passing cars. Most of Birmingham is asleep, but here on Broad Street no one will go to bed for hours.
Despite the near-freezing temperature, people are dressed in astonishingly little. Women in mini-skirts, high heels, and halter tops shiver visibly, hugging their sides with cold. A girl staggers down the sidewalk on stiletto heels, bent over and clutching her stomach: Sheï¿½s about to vomit.Another collapses entirely, and her friends howl with laughter as policemen stare impassively. The crowd, which is multiracial, ranges from white men with shaved heads to Bangladeshis with gold-capped teeth. People eat as they walk, dropping fast-food wrappers on the ground.The noise is unbelievable.
The throng includes the unlikely figure of Anthony Daniels, better known to readers of City Journal, the New Criterion, and the London Spectator by his pen name, Theodore Dalrymple. Stocky and balding, he has a wheezy laugh, a pugnacious mouth, and the devil-may-care smile of the born provocateur.
ï¿½If you can have ideological drunkenness, this is ideological drunkenness,ï¿½ Mr. Daniels says, almost shouting to make himself heard.
ï¿½And what is the ideology?ï¿½
ï¿½The ideology is, ï¿½Iï¿½ve got a right to do whatever I like, and youï¿½re not going to stop me.ï¿½ï¿½
Mr. Daniels has invited me to look at whatï¿½s going on not because itï¿½s unusual, but because itï¿½s commonplace, ordinary, and to be seen every weekend in urban centers all over the country. ï¿½This is British culture,ï¿½ he says. ï¿½What you are now seeing is British culture.ï¿½
ï¿½Most intellectuals of the middle classes are just not interested in this,ï¿½ he continues as we stand in the midst of the swaying, inebriated crowd. ï¿½And itï¿½s partly because they donï¿½t think their fellow citizens are real human beings at all.They donï¿½t expect people to conform themselves to a certain kind of behavior. They just expect them to be savages.ï¿½
Sounding rather like a Victorian evangelist or campaigner against prostitution (his own analogies), he rails at sloppy clothing styles, fast food, dirty streets, tattoos, omnipresent music, aggressive behavior, rampant commercialism, lack of responsibility, the welfare state, soft policing, and almost every other item in the lexicon of middle-aged conservative disaffection. But his critique comes from a unique vantage point. He has spent most of his professional life working with the people he is criticizing ï¿½ for the last 14 years as a doctor and psychiatrist in a Birmingham slum hospital and a nearby prison.
Mr. Daniels estimates that in his years as a doctor in Birmingham he has seen more than 10,000 patients ï¿½ almost all of them working class, many of them criminal, and some downright murderous. (One patient boiled three babies alive.) And from them he has heard intimate details about the lives of their friends, relatives and neighbors.
He is also a prolific journalist-for-hire. Mr. Danielsï¿½s regular work includes the weekly ï¿½Second Opinionï¿½ column in the Spectator and pieces for the Daily Telegraphï¿½s opinion pages. The New Criterion features him almost monthly ï¿½ youï¿½ll find him in the April issue writing about the history of prostitution and crime. He also writes ï¿½Oh, to be in Englandï¿½ for City Journal, and these columns have been collected into the book ï¿½Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclassï¿½ (Ivan R. Dee, 256 pages, $27.50). The current issue of City Journal carries two of his essays: a lengthy look at Islamï¿½s relationship with the West seen through the prism of his experience with Muslim prison inmates, and an analysis of what the media circus surrounding a child murder case tells us about our views of childhood. Mr. Danielsï¿½s best essays cast a spell almost from the opening line. ï¿½How Criminologists Foster Crimeï¿½ begins: Last week in the prison I asked a young man why he was there. ï¿½Just normal burglaries,ï¿½ he replied. ï¿½Normal for whom?ï¿½ I asked. ï¿½You know, just normal.ï¿½ He meant, I think, that burglaries were like grey skies in an English winter: unavoidable and to be expected. ï¿½Lost in the Ghettoï¿½ starts:One of the terrible fates that can befall a human being is to be born intelligent or sensitive in an English slum. It is like a long, slow, exquisite torture devised by a sadistic deity from whose malevolent clutches escape is almost impossible.No one alive to the rhythms of English prose could claim that the writer of that last passage was indifferent to the destitute or to suffering. At home the next day, dressed unassumingly in corduroy pants and a sweater, Mr. Daniels is hospitable and extremely polite. When, preparing to go up to Birmingham from London, I called to say that my train had been delayed and possibly canceled, he apologized repeatedly, as if he were personally responsible for every delayed and canceled train in England. His house, which sits in a large square dominated by a beautiful Victorian Gothic church, is filled with paintings and drawings and thousands of books. Mr. Daniels was born in 1949. His mother was a German-Jewish refugee who arrived in England in 1938. His father was born before World War I in a London slum where children could be seen going to school in their bare feet. Daniels senior was taught Latin, French, and German, using textbooks whose difficulty, according to his son, ï¿½would terrify a modern teacher, let alone child,ï¿½ and was treated ï¿½as if he were fully capable of entry into the stream of higher civilization.ï¿½ Had his father been born in similar circumstances today, Mr. Daniels believes he would never have made it out. Not only would he not have learned any foreign languages, he would barely have learned his own.
He contends that the poor today are not even poor anymore in an economic sense. Many of them, he wrote in ï¿½Life at the Bottom,ï¿½ enjoy amenities and comforts that would make ï¿½an absolute monarch gasp.ï¿½ Nor does he think they are oppressed politically, though he describes the police as ï¿½sinister,ï¿½ ï¿½militarized,ï¿½ and ï¿½simultaneously bullying and ineffectual.ï¿½ What he does think the underclass suffers from is a deep unhappiness caused mainly by ï¿½bad ideas.ï¿½ As an example, he cites the death of respectability, which he says has been almost completely expunged from white working-class life, though not from some immigrant communities.As a result, old-fashioned workingclass striving disappears, and those lost in the ghetto stay there.
If Mr. Daniels were to finger the culprit for most of societyï¿½s ills, it would probably be education ï¿½ both in the school and in the home. As a psychiatrist, he frequently has to deal with young Muslim women whose fathers force them to leave school at the age of 12, for fear that they will become ï¿½contaminatedï¿½ by Western ideas. Though he is highly critical of the practice, and describes how the girls are often abused and pushed into arranged marriages, he is not entirely unsympathetic to the fathersï¿½ plight. In his experience, he says, a 17-year-old Muslim girl plucked from school at 12 is effectively much more intelligent and cultured than a white girl who stayed there another five years.
ï¿½One of the problems with the scene you saw last night,ï¿½ he tells me, ï¿½is that the Muslim fathers would see that and say, ï¿½Well, I donï¿½t want our children to grow up like that.ï¿½ And I canï¿½t really blame them. Can you blame them? So then they become even more conservative and entrenched. Because they think thatï¿½s all there is to Western society, and no one will tell them any different. Because no one in Western society dares to criticize it, because it is ï¿½the people.ï¿½ ï¿½
Before he moved to Birmingham in 1990, Mr. Daniels worked as a doctor in various parts of Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific. All his work has been with the indigent, but he denies any missionary impulse. He has traveled all over the world and, North Korea aside, says the ï¿½mental, cultural, emotional, and spiritual impoverishment of the Western underclassï¿½ is the worst he has seen.
On a drive around Birmingham, Mr. Daniels shows me the outside of the prison in which he works as a consultant psychiatrist. He is there three afternoons a week, and is on call one night a week and one weekend in four. Being on call usually means spending a lot of time there, as ï¿½people always swallow razor blades and take overdoses.ï¿½ He says he gets on well with most of the prisoners. ï¿½To me, when a prisoner says, ï¿½Thank you very much for your help,ï¿½ that is something really worth-while. Because on the whole theyï¿½re a despised group, and if I can help them, I will.ï¿½
Mr. Daniels writes about more than the underclass. He has published travel books, lectured on Shakespeare, and frequently weighs in on broader cultural and political issues as well.
Last year he went after a new $65 million shopping center in Birmingham that has won accolades from architecture critics around the world. The building, which houses the department store Selfridges, is in the Bullring, Birminghamï¿½s 800-year-old commercial center. From a distance the ï¿½Digbeth Dalek,ï¿½ as locals call it, looks like an enormous blob of putty, but up close you see that its cobalt blue skin is covered with thousands of glittering aluminum discs.
Writing about it in the Spectator, he first delivered his verdict on the buildings erected by the city a few decades ago (ï¿½The only suitable penalty for the architects, town planners and city councillors of the Birmingham of the 1960s is deathï¿½). Then he launched an all-out attack on the new Selfridges, inside and out. He compared the tangle of pipes on the ceiling to a permanent laparotomy ï¿½ an operation in which the muscles of the abdominal wall are sliced through ï¿½ and the wired security guards to high-tech Ton Ton Macoutes. The competing waves of music from different parts of the store reminded him of prison, where each prisoner blasts his own music from inside his own cell.
ï¿½They knocked down all of Victorian Birmingham to build this kind of rubbish,ï¿½ he laments, pointing out that the only demand made by the city council to those seeking a building permit is that whatever they put up should last at least 30 years. ï¿½Well, compare that with the Victorian attitude. They were building for eternity. The central library here was a magnificent building. They knocked it down, built a concrete dump, and now thatï¿½s got to be knocked down. Itï¿½s terrible.ï¿½
In the end, Mr. Danielsï¿½s writing, no matter what the subject, is all of one piece. It is conservative in the sense that it is skeptical of the revolutionary impulse. Architects and city planners tear down historic city centers to build ephemeral, monstrously ugly junk. Ideologues pick away at centuries-old notions of morality and behavior and take it upon themselves to reinvent education though they are less educated and cultured than the people who educated them. Mr. Daniels wonders how people would react if he, as a doctor, were to ignore centuries of precedent and ï¿½reinventï¿½medicine while they were getting treatment in his office.
In January Mr. Daniels announced in the Spectator that he and his Frenchborn wife,Agnï¿½s ï¿½ who is also a doctor ï¿½ will retire in 2005 and leave Birmingham for a new home in the south of France. A cautious Francophile, he is ready for the next phase of his career. Even without patients and criminals to feed him stories, itï¿½s unlikely that heï¿½ll ever run short of material. Two years ago he wrote an essay for City Journal about ï¿½La Zone,ï¿½ the ribbon of immigrant housing projects that surrounds Paris. The piece ended with a horrifying description of a kind of automated hotel in which everything ï¿½ the bed, the wash basin, the furniture ï¿½ was constructed of theft-proof concrete. It was as powerful as anything heï¿½s written about from Birmingham. Trouble, you might say, is his business.
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