Sunday, November 19, 2006

Don't be stupid, Theodore!

A response to an attack on Theodore Dalrymple

I was reading this thought-provoking post by Callimachus at Done With Mirrors. It' s talking about Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan. You won't know his name. But you will, if you're old enough, remember the picture of him shooting Nguyen Van Lem in the head on a Saigon street.
Callimachus' post is about newsworthiness, images and one-sidedness, and I strongly recommend reading it very carefully.
However, that's not really the point of this post.
When I'd finished reading the post (Media Icons), I started to read the comments. One of the first I came across was this one from (the) probligo:
" For me personally?

The image that defined Vietnam was that of the girl fleeing the napalm at My Lai.

Remember that one?
"What does this little piece of history prove, Cal? That Vietnam was hell? That America was wrong to get involved? Or that America should never have left? That you should have nuked Hanoi out of existance?
Why not use the images of AbuGhraib and Guantanamo and the images of the aftermath of IED's and snipers from Iraq instead? Or how about some of the images from both sides in the last Lebanon war?
Any of those would equally "prove" that war is hell.
Oh, the General was the martyr?
Is there a message there Cal? Bush should be a martyr? Rummy is a martyr?"

I was very struck by two things: first, the mistake about My Lai, and second the almost wilfull ignoring of the original post's messages. So... I turned to the author's blog: The Probligo. Probligo and Callimachus obviously have a bit of history since they refer to each other as Pro and Cal. But never mind that either. My eyes soon lit on this post, since Theodore Dalrymple is one of my favourite writers.
I am not going to attempt to give a proper summary of it since I would do neither it nor my blood pressure justice. I shall therefore merely permit myself a few brief observations.

The post references this article by Dalrymple. It is, as many readers might suppose, rehearsing some of Dalrymple's themes in the context of a visit to New Zealand.
With stylistic elegance Dalrymple talks of the murderer who wrote In the Belly of the Beast and relates his experience and that of the author's sponsor, Norman Mailer. The key quote is
Mailer lived in a world (that of radical politics protected by a bourgeois order) in which words never really meant what they said or said what they really meant, in which moral exhibitionism was the highest good and the sine qua non of the regard of one‘s peers. So safe were they in their literary enclave that reality didn’t matter much; what counted was the ability to use words in the approved fashion, and truth was nowhere.

Then Dalrymple relates this to New Zealand as follows:
While I was in New Zealand, I learned of two cases that seemed emblematic of the Mailerian developments in the new Zealand criminal justice system. The first concerned a man with 102 convictions, many for violence including rape. (I should point out that 102 convictions means many more offences, since the conviction rate is never 100 per cent of the offending rate, and is sometimes only 5 or 10 per cent of it.)

This man nevertheless became eligible for parole. As conditions of parole, the board told him he must not drink, smoke cannabis or frequent certain places. The man told the board that he would abide by none of these conditions, but he was released on parole anyway. Within a short time, he had killed three people and so maimed a fourth that she will never recover.

The second case was of a man with many previous convictions, some for violence, who abducted and murdered a young woman aged 24. He was imprisoned and applied for bail. Three times he was turned down, but a fourth judge granted him bail. He was sent to live at a certain address, where he befriended his neighbours, who did not know that he was accused of murder. Eight months later, while babysitting their children, he killed one of them.
Perhaps the most extraordinary twist of this terrible tale is that the parents of the murdered child then had another baby, which the social services then removed from them on the grounds that they had previously entrusted a child to the care of a murderer and were therefore irresponsible parents. The state blames its citizens for the mistakes - if that is what they are - that it makes.

Dalrymple ascribes this to the `moral frivolity' of the NZ criminal justice system. He goes on to blame Rousseau as one of the main sources for the terrible moral confusion that pertains in most criminal justice systems in the Western world, to say that`most criminals come from a very bad background' but finishes by pointing out that we ` confute two questions: first, how do we prevent people from becoming criminals in the first place, and second, how do we prevent those who have become recidivist criminals from committing further crimes? The two questions have different answers, and there is not a single answer to them both.'

Now what has (the) Probligo to say?
Well he starts like this:
It would be a perfect world if we could stop all of these killings and maimings. It would be a perfect world if we did not have road traffic deaths as well.

But commentators like Dalrymple, and organisations like SST [Sensible Sentencing Trust, of which Dalrymple was the guest] as well come to the point, really do piss me off more than just a little.

Yes, I have a problem with them, and it is very simple.

Like so many people, they take a single instance or a very small number of instances and make sweeping generalisations covering the whole population. I can not argue against the figures, they pretty much speak for themselves.

What is missing -

* A meaningful and supportable discussion of the causes of increased crime levels.

* A meaningful and supportable discussion of possible and effective measures that would reduce crime.

* A meaningful and supportable discussion of effective crime prevention.

He concludes with
How about some sensible, workable, suggestions on how it can be stopped?
My first reaction, as someone on the right and an enthusiastic reader of Dalrymple (did I already say that?) is simply to tell him that Dalrymple has spent a long time advancing solutions to these problems and indeed attempting to do his bit to implement them whilst working as a psychiatrist in an inner city hospital and in a nearby prison. Read this book!
My second reaction, as I guess it should be for any mathematician is "there's only a finite amount of time available, so let it go!".
But this time I decided not to.

I shan't take long.
Preamble. We on the right tend to believe in the imperfection of man. We don't believe (with Rousseau) in the noble savage (if he did), indeed we believe that, along with his life, he himself was probably nasty, brutish and short. We note with no surprise whatsoever that some modern archeology has estimated that in the past 25% of males died at the hands of others. We are not in the least taken aback to learn that "the great majority of Aboriginal people themselves are voting with their feet and assimilating into white society." In short, we think that civilization can do better.
I should add that Dalrymple writes very well about this (did I say he's good?).

First main point. How is man improved from his state of innocent imperfection? By teaching, training, example and punishment.
We learn to care for others and treat them with respect by a mixture of experience (I banged my head, it hurt), observation (when I pinch little Jemima, she hurts like me), punishment (I hit little Jemima and I was smacked) and example (Jemima forebore to hit me and got a sweet). Much of this was (in the past) provided by good, or even fairly average parents. They were strongly encouraged in this task by society's approbation, encouragement and the threat of sanction.
The Golden Rule was commonly taught and widely understood as a recipe for a good society.

Second point. Where parents and the immediate environment fail, and occasionally they will, the wider society needs to be seen to step in. A process must be initiated which will rigorously attempt to establish the facts [and it's not a game]. If a transgression is established to have taken place then the process must impose punishment.
The purpose of punishment is threefold: to signal to the individual society's disapproval; to signal to society the fact that transgression will not go unpunished; to exact retribution and enable the individual to regard the transgression as "spent" so that they may be rehabilitated. In the interests of these purposes, other consideration of circumstances must take place and should affect the level and nature of the punishment.

Third point. It's much easier and more effective to run such a system with very limited chances to be `let off'. I.e. at most one warning should be given before a full punishment takes place and even minor transgressions need to be noticed else more serious ones will follow. In the language of parenting, "we need clear boundaries, which are firmly adhered to".

Fourth point. No system is perfect. We say with Flaubert [for we never despise wisdom, whatever the source] "perfection is the enemy of the good". Thus, to spell it out for the dullards, society will fail (if you like to put it that way). Some people will become hardened in their wickedness whom a different system might have saved. We accept this as the cost of imperfection. The alternative costs are even worse since they will penalise the innocent.

Final point. Look around you. Do you see any of this sort of thing happening? No, we see someone with 102 convictions being considered for parole rather than being required to serve his whole sentence. We see the prison population climbing fast in the UK despite more and more attempts to restrict imprisonment to fewer and fewer crimes (recorded crime 1 per 360 individuals per annum in 1921, 1 per 10 individuals per annum in 2001; 1 in 3,400 in prison in 1921, 1 in 850 in prison in 1999).

This last is a common phenomenon across Western civilization. And this Theodore Dalrymple has written a lot about (did I say he has a beautiful prose style?). This is what is available to anyone with a brain, the power of observation and the courage to believe that their current perfection may not be entirely due to their own efforts or the state of [no doubt secular] grace in which they were born.

Enough already.

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