When Pascal Parked His Porsche

Libertarians and free marketers are relatively relentless in their criticisms of labor regulations as actually hurting the middle and lower classes, so it seems almost fitting that the owner of the Porsche burned by defenders of such regulations in Nantes, France turns out to have been a humble electrician.

“On Twitter I saw that it was called a boss’s car, though I am only a worker,” Pascal told Le Figaro. The article noted that support for him quickly sprung up on social media under the rubric, “I am Porsche.” What Pascal and his defenders said is interesting though not entirely reassuring.

His comments implied that if indeed he had been a boss, which is to say a plutocrat, then the burning of his car would or at any rate might have been justified. This, in turn, implies that there is no such thing as justified or justifiable wealth: only if we had all the same incomes would the ownership of such a fine car be morally acceptable. Moreover, what applies to the ownership of fine cars would presumably apply to the ownership of everything else.

A Substantial Island

A recent article in the Guardian on the Pacific island nation of Nauru causes Dalrymple to recall his visit there in the 1980s:

When I visited it all those years ago it had become immensely rich because of the phosphate rock that covered its surface…Not more than twenty years before, the inhabitants had lived by subsistence on fish and coconuts, but now they had one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world.

This sudden accession to wealth was not altogether a good thing for the local population (4,000 when I visited, 10,000 now). There was little for them to do, either in the way of work or entertainment. Practically everything—rent, telephone, electricity, water—was supplied to everyone free of charge. One of the major occupations of the population was eating, which it did on a vast scale. Many Nauruans became enormously fat…

This is all explained in greater (and very entertaining) detail in his second book, Fool or Physician: The Memoirs of a Sceptical Doctor.

The Pleasures of Resentment

Many of us like the idea of Harriet Tubman replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. But will it actually lead to any reduction in the rancor of our national disagreements over race?

This has been hailed as progress in the equalisation of American society, and is typical of the gestural politics of our time. Strangely enough, though, the gestures never seem to assuage resentment, but seem rather to accentuate and aggravate it. They are never enough and more are demanded. It is a bit like the Cultural Revolution, during which no confession was ever grovelling enough for the Red Guards and no admission ever of sufficient crimes.

Dalrymple’s Australia speech

You can find audio of Dalrymple’s speech from his recent speaking tour of Australia in a few places around the net. There is audio here, and you should also be able to find it on the Podcast app on your smartphone. He gave the same speech in each location, so there is some redundancy, but there are also audience questions on these recordings, which are of course different in each location (if you find that interesting). Enjoy!

There Is No Charity in Bureaucracy

Why bureaucracies and large charities are, almost by definition, unsentimental:

The welfare state in fact dissolves the very notion of desert, because there is no requirement that a beneficiary prove he deserves what he is legally entitled to. And where what is given is given as of right, not only will a recipient feel no gratitude for it, but it must be given without compassion—that is, without regard to any individual’s actual situation. In the welfare state, the notion of a specially deserving case is prohibited, for it implies a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving. In my career, I was many times startled by the unfeelingness of welfare bureaucrats in the face of the most appalling, and non-self-inflicted, suffering.

Let Us Praise Ordinary Men

William Fletcher, Jr. was an ordinary man who lived from 1840 – 1863 in Dalrymple’s town in England. In New English Review the good doctor recounts Fletcher’s diary, published in 2009, which is fascinating in its depiction of daily life in Victorian England: the formality of his letters courting a young lady, his religiosity, and the dignity with which he handled his developing tuberculosis.

No one would call the diary a literary masterpiece, and yet its immediacy, its recording of day-to-day life, its sometimes painful honesty, and its record of the developing disease that would soon kill the writer at a tragically early age, are deeply moving.


He was not extraordinary in any way and made no claims for himself. It is his decent ordinariness, in fact, that draws me back to his grave or rather to his tombstone, for his actual place of burial is unknown. Let us praise famous men, certainly, but let us not altogether forget the ordinary ones.

Sadism Begets Sadism

In Taki’s Magazine, a warning to ensure that we aren’t over-zealous in our opposition to evil.

We should fear our own worst thoughts and refrain from giving them expression, for far from assuaging such thoughts, expression of them only goes to make them more frequent and more extreme. By means of such thoughts and such expressions, we become more like (a little more like) those who are supposedly the occasion of them, who have also persuaded themselves that there exist human vermin in the world to be eradicated.

This is a call to decency and self-control, not to political correctness. Political correctness is the means by which we try to control others; decency is the means by which we try to control ourselves. There is no doubt which is the easier to undertake, and the more pleasurable and gratifying. There is a considerable element of sadism in political correctness.

Books Reviewed

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

When you laugh out loud while reading on the London Underground other passengers are inclined to edge away from you – which is one good reason for doing it, of course. The other good reason is that the book you are reading is funny, and recently I did so while reading Books Reviewed, a collection of reviews published in The Observer newspaper by J. C. Squire during the second decade of the last century.

Sir John Collings Squire (1884 – 1958) was one of those regrettably many literary men who were inclined to drink too much. Now more or less forgotten, he was in his day a critic of such eminence that his rule over the literary world was known as the Squirearchy. He was a wonderful prose stylist, and if I had known him earlier in my life I should have used him as a model.

The review that made me laugh was titled Glands. It is one of the funniest reviews I have ever read. It begins:

The book before me is entitled The Glands Regulating Personality, and its author is Dr. Louis Berman of Columbia University. This is not the kind of book which I normally review, or have any scientific competence to discuss… Finding the phrase, “A man’s chief gift to his child is his internal secretion composition,” I knew I must go through with it.

He continues:

Here, beyond doubt, was one more of these men with an explanation, satisfactory to himself, of everything that exists. So through thyroid and pituitary, pineal, adrenal and thymus I pursued my way, marvelling at one of the most remarkable medleys of erudition, illogicality, lack of taste, disinterested passion, complacency and bad English that I have seen…

Squire quotes some of Berman’s larger claims for the glands:

He compares them to the Directors of a Large Corporation: he might almost call them our Glandlords… “Masculinity,” he says, “may be described as a stable, constant state in the organism of lime salts, and the feminine as an unstable variable state of lime salts.”

Squire tells us that Dr Berman proposes a glandular theory of history:

He uses Mr. Strachey’s account of Florence Nightingale for a ruthless analysis of the glands that made her what she was; Caesar, Napoleon and Nietzsche are other of his specimens. He regrets that they did not live later, so that science could have rectified them.

Indeed, Dr Berman proposed a glandular utopia:

He looks forward – and, indeed, reading his book, one is tempted at times to share in this Larger Hope – to a time when statesmen will make it their business to raise the the general level of intelligence by a “judicious use of endocrine extracts.”

Squire then says something that has a certain resonance today:

The frontiers of psychology and physiology are infested by hosts of these ill-balanced persons who get hold of a little truth and turn it into an idol.

My copy of the book is inscribed by Squire to his mother, to whom he owed even more than a man usually owes to his mother. She was abandoned by Squire’s father when her son was young. She ran a boarding house in Portsmouth in order to pay for his education. I, too, am grateful to her.

The Hippocrates Prize

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Literature and medicine have a closer connection than, say, literature and accountancy (the only literary accountant I can think of offhand, though this may be due to ignorance and lack of sleep, is Sydney Fowler Smith, who lived from 1874 to 1965 and wrote much dystopian science fiction and many crime novels). Accountants, like doctors, must be privy to many secrets but do not seem to turn their insights into human nature into literature. On the other hand, there have been a surprising number of bank or insurance clerks who were great writers, among them Kafka, Italo Svevo and T.S. Eliot. But it is not certain whether certain professions favour the muse, or the muse favours certain professions.

The Hippocrates Prize is an annual award for poetry, now in its fifth year, open to anyone who works, or has worked, in the NHS; there is also a category for poetry about a medical subject, open to anyone in the world writing in English. Altogether there are thousands of entries and the winning poems, the two runners up and all the commended poems, are published in a slim but elegant volume. It is rather difficult to imagine a poetry prize open to people who have worked in accountancy, or to anyone who has filled out an income tax form, attracting quite so many entries.

The pleasures of the poems are various, as you would expect. Valerie Laws, for example, raises a purely intellectual problem in her witty poem, A Question for Neuroscientists:

Where does a memory sit, when it’s at leisure?
Where does it cool its heels, await our pleasure?

There are several poems about anatomy, suggesting that the former discipline – or was it a ritual? – of dissection of a corpse in the education of medical students was of deep cultural and emotional significance. In Anatomy, for example, Jane Kirwan describes, perhaps laments, the decline of dissection:

Professor Cave bustles up to the raised dais,
skullcap, snuff, spotted bow-tie, twiddles his cuffs.

Nothing to be thrown away. “The rules” he tells us
“are plain. No skipping with intestines,
no jokes.” Just formalin…
On each table is a yellowed leathered corpse.

But things have changed:

Thirty years later,
Sue can’t give away a dead body.
Her step-father had said – when the time comes – donate.

At the tenth teaching hospital she’s less subtle:

“do you want it or not?”

No one digs out Gray’s for him,
No Cunningham’s Anatomy, no battered zinc pail.

Sometimes images in the poems are very striking, for example this one in a poem about doctors’ interpretation of MRI scans by Andrew Thomas Martin:

They observe the emergence and
dissolving of all the bats, angels and butterflies
that fill your body…

And in Intensive Care, Friday Afternoon, Kev O’Donnell describes each of the sixteen beds in two lapidary lines:

Bed 15
a foreign student who hung herself, found with a stopped
heart, now
doing her best to die again.

Bed 4
empty, cleaned by a nurse aid
low winter sun through blinds.

Bed 2
dying, curtains pulled
cold air falls.

The power of poetry to concentrate and compress emotion is illustrated in a poem by Frances-Anne King about the wig of a child treated for leukaemia with chemotherapy. The wig is discarded as the child lies dying:

Her scalp shone smooth then,
translucent as the linings of an oyster shell,
her freckles, pale tracings on a fading sea of face.

Diary Australia

I’ve just realized that we’ve missed several articles by Dalrymple in the Spectator. His most recent piece there is a short diary of musings about his just-completed speaking tour of Australia, in which, I was surprised to read, he says that he regularly turns down offers of appearances on British television:

I am plunged into a round of appearances in the media. In England I refuse invitations to go on television by claiming subsequent engagements, or by telling them that in my opinion television is one of the great curses of the last century — which in part, I believe. This generally puts producers off, though not before they tell me that they agree with me. But in my role as a visiting scholar for the Centre for Independent Studies, I am pressganged into my press duties. Still jet-lagged, and with my head feeling as if it were full of lead shot, I find myself in the absurd position of having to give an opinion on the Government’s proposal that the states of Australia should have charge of their own income tax.

Anyway, it’s comforting to know that Dalrymple still writes occasionally for the journal that gave him his start as a writer. Rather than post all of these missed pieces individually, I will just list them here.

24 Oct 2015: Notes on Notes

18 Feb 2016: How references became meaningless in our culture of mistrust

5 Mar 2016: British expats in the EU fear a stronger euro far more than they fear Brexit

26 Mar 2016: Why Britain (and Europe) depends on migrants