In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconcei

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Theodore Dalrymple is the pseudonym of Anthony Daniels, a British prison psychatrist well known I think to NRO readers for his dark, intimate views of the bottom of British society. His short new book, part of the “Brief Encounters” series generalizes from his observations into what can only be called a philosphical essay on ethics.

That might seem unexpected. The book is titled In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, a title that suggests a work on thinking and feeling. Too much attention to our own individual thoughts and feelings is precisely what Daniels diagnoses as the root cause of the ills of contemporary society. In Praise of Prejudice is less a defense of preconceived ideas – and more a defense of norms of behavior that once made Britain such a civilized place to live, and that have latterly gone out the window with the hat and corsage.

The little customs of politeness – refraining from putting a foot on the empty Tube seat opposite, eating at home or in a pub ather than grazing while walking in the street, putting trash in garbage cans – these have vanished, destroyed in Dalrymple’s view by new codes of conduct that ultimately trace to the self-emancipating liberalism of John Stuart Mill.

Mill haunts this book, he is Dalrymple’s chief intellectual antagonist, even as Dalrymple concedes that Mill the man was as respectable and considerate as a mid-Victorian English man of letters could be (ie, very!) Yet it is his teaching – so simple and powerful – that issues from the mouths of the various modern Britons whom Dalrymple queries as he goes about his business: “Wot harm is it? Wot business is it of yours?”

I have always found Dalrymple a congenial spirit, partly because of my own predilection for getting into altercations on the subway. When I was living in Brooklyn in the early 1990s, I spotted a man distributing leaflets on the seats of my car. I gathered them all up, shoved them back into his arms, and shouted at him: “Don’t leave your crap on my subway!” My friend David Warren, who witnessed the scene, wrote a funny column later warning, “Never underestimate the wrath of a Canadian confronted with littering.” A similar thing happened when I rode the subway to New York’s Police Plaza just a few weeks ago. Three teenagers hoisted drumsticks from their backpacks and begin to hammer on the floors and metal bars. The other passengers all looked away. I hate that! The banging teenagers were so amazed when I asked them to stop that they actually .. stopped, apparently on the theory that anyone rash enough to speak up must be some crazed Bernie Goetz character.

Dalrymple has channeled this irritation into the more high-minded form of a charming, appealing, and amazingly concise work of practical ethics. A thoughtful and often funny essay by an insightful man, printed with the elegance and style always associated with the work of Encounter Books.

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