We missed this piece from the Spectator in September in which Dalrymple reported on the growing population of rats in Paris. (That is not a metaphor.) An effort by the city to reduce their numbers is actually being met with opposition from some quarters — the usual ones.
Rat catchers have been accused of ‘genocide’ by Parisians: pity the poor rats! They too are sentient creatures, with as much a right to live as we, even if they sometimes give us rat-bite fever and leptospirosis (and pity the poor spirochaete, the causative organism of leptospirosis, which without the rat would be reduced to mice as a reservoir). At the last count, 25,000 people have signed a petition to halt the slaughter.
Fear of rats is socially constructed, don’t you know?
Read it here
Hillary Clinton has a new memoir called What Happened, in which she explains why she thinks she lost the election to Donald Trump. At City Journal, Dalrymple quotes from an acerbic review of the book by a French intellectual. He won’t review it himself, he says, because nothing could induce him to read it.
In fact, no memoir by any modern politician would tempt me to read it, since the main characteristic of such politicians is mediocrity tempered by unbridled ambition and lust for power. Better to reread Macbeth. Hillary Clinton, after all, is Lady Macbeth to Bill Clinton’s Felix Krull, the confidence trickster.
Disclaimers, waivers, acknowledgements, assumptions of liability. We are surrounded, in an environment of legalistic arcana, by pointless forms that do nothing but create an atmosphere of threat and fear:
We pride ourselves on living in free societies, but I think that, more and more, that is not how we experience them. As our obligations weigh on us, we live in an atmosphere of fear— though not the kind that results from finding a snake under the bed. It is a miasma rather than focussed on any specific threat. It is composed of a thousand petty worries.
We fear to say anything much lest we give offense, and there are subjects that we avoid entirely. We commit innumerable passwords, codes and PIN numbers to memory lest we be swindled. Everywhere we go we are cajoled into safety. People now often say “Take care” to one another as they part, as if catastrophe were just round the corner for the unwary.
Only today, at a barber’s in France, I saw a notice to the effect that the use of razors was forbidden, as if every barber were a potential Sweeney Todd. If we travel, we spend hours taking security precautions against the rarest eventualities, while reluctantly half-acknowledging that they are necessary. We sign lengthy documents that we have not read and possibly could not understand if we did read them, but which might be used one day against us by faceless organizations. If we are professionals, we conform to procedures we know to be pointless but which it is too much trouble to protest against.
Having spent a week in the Persian Gulf, Dalrymple notes the extremely difficult lives of the Indian day laborers there and wonders whether such a system should be stopped:
If we did so, hundreds of thousands of people (and presumably their dependents) would have lost a chance of betterment of their lives. Only if, by losing that chance, they would have a better chance of betterment, which is intrinsically uncertain, would the prohibition or destruction of the system be a benefit. And this would suggest in turn that, at least in certain circumstances, there are desiderata more important than justice. So all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds, after all: a comforting thought.
In City Journal Dalrymple discusses three words whose use “encourage[s] lazy and often deeply biased thinking”: liberalism, austerity and (below) poverty…
The connotation of poverty is that of Dr. Johnson’s definition: the want of necessities. And no one will be found to defend hunger, lack of shelter from the elements, or nakedness. But the denotation of poverty nowadays is not the same as its connotation. Almost always, the denotation of poverty nowadays is the possession of an income below 60 percent of the median income, so that what is meant is not so much poverty as inequality. A society in which everyone had a guaranteed six-figure income could thus have a great deal of “poverty,” and an incomparably poorer country could have much less poverty, in the technical sense of the word. In recessions, poverty of this sort decreases not because anyone is richer—quite the contrary: because the higher incomes decline, while (at least where there is Social Security) the lowest do not. But no one is materially better off as a result. Of course, this leaves quite untouched the question as to whether equality of outcome is desirable, which is a separate issue.
The Las Vegas killer’s motivation(s), says Dalrymple in City Journal, will never be understood:
Whatever background factors supposedly contributory to his commission of an atrocity are found, their explanatory power is almost certain to be minimal, because the number of people who share them, and yet do not mow down people from the heights of hotels in Las Vegas, is likely to be large, possibly vast. In any case, the connection between such factors and the behavior in question is very far from a Euclidean proof. How does a disturbed childhood, a failed love affair, low self-esteem, or whatever else, lead to the murder of 59 strangers?
In First Things Dalrymple reviews Montaigne: A Life by Phillipe Desan, which he finds useful and “the product of immense and admirable erudition” but inelegantly written and incorrectly portrays the man as more a product of his times than as representative of universal truth:
When the author says, however, that “we have to demystify the conventional image of the essayist isolated in his tower, far from the agitations of his time, playing with his cat and inquiring into the human condition,” I think he sets up a false dichotomy between the particular and the universal. No human being lives in a world of complete abstraction (or abstractions), as if free from all circumstance whatever. To say that a man is affected by his surroundings and the times in which he lives is to say nothing more than that he is a man—for a man without any particular circumstances could not exist and is literally unimaginable (this is one of the reasons why heaven is so difficult to imagine and hell so easy, because the latter at least has events). But not every man who takes part in public events and writes about them is read more than four hundred years after his death, even by people who have no special interest in the times in which he lived or in events that he witnessed. For every thousand readers of Montaigne, there is only one person who makes the French wars of religion his special subject. Montaigne is not principally of antiquarian interest, though he may be that as well.
H/t Bill L.
Dalrymple praises the late writer and critic Christie Davies in this obituary in the New Criterion (login required):
No one could be long in conversation with Christie Davies without realizing that he was in the presence of a powerful, individual, and original mind. He had something interesting to say about practically everything, almost always from an unusual and unexpected angle on whatever subject came up, and drawing from a vast stock of information and experience of every kind. What he said was often simultaneously startling and obvious (obvious, that is, once he had enunciated it): his thought had a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that? quality about it. This is what gave a peculiar pleasure to talking to him. It was like going on a journey in which new vistas were likely to open up at any moment.
Dalrymple remembers the time he was accosted on radio for having suggested that an ugly building must have been the product of official corruption:
“Are you saying that Shrewsbury town councillors are corrupt?” he asked.
“Don’t you understand,” I said (though I may at this distance in time be paraphrasing), “that that is the charitable interpretation? We all like money, so we can all understand if the council allowed these buildings for money. But if it were for some other reason… No, no, I can’t think as badly of you as that.”
Dalrymple predicts that the Saudi decision to allow women to drive will have far-reaching consequences for the kingdom:
Slowly, Saudi Arabia is being dragged into Western-style modernity. This might well upset the two-century-old balance between the clerical and relatively secular powers in the desert kingdom. Clerical power is like pregnancy: it is difficult to have only a little of it. Tocqueville said that the most dangerous moment for authoritarian regimes was not when they were at their most repressive but when they begin to reform.
Considering the preeminence of driving in Saudi youth culture, giving women license to drive could lead to major changes in how the sexes interact and court. How will the emirs keep their daughters penned in seclusion, once they have seen the dashboard lights?