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Theodore Dalrymple

Social pathology: disaster or goldmine?

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Whenever we try to assess the meaning and significance of particularly horrible cases, such as that of Nia Glassie in New Zealand or Baby P in Britain (between which there are several parallels), it is important to bear in mind that there is nothing new under the sun, that some people have always done terrible things to others, that some humans have always behaved with the utmost cruelty, that there has never been a golden age of universal benevolence and good will to all men, and that no social system will entirely eliminate the human capacity for evil.

Nevertheless, there is something peculiarly shocking about cases such as those of Nia Glassie and Baby P. We are incomparably more technologically advanced than ever before, and absurd though it may be after all the evidence to the contrary, we still cannot help but expect moral advance to go hand in hand with technical advance. We are, moreover, incomparably richer than we were a hundred or even fifty years ago; and however much we may deny that extreme poverty necessarily results in or excuses gross immorality, we cannot help but think that the absence of raw material deprivation – hunger and cold – ought to make us better people, and serve to eliminate the worst of human conduct.

These two cases seem so important because they are indeed emblematic of the disquieting gap between what we are and what we feel that we ought to be and no longer have an excuse for not being. It is the sheer, unforced exuberance of the moral squalor of these cases that appals us.

Yet while this moral squalor was unforced, no one can say that it was actively discouraged either, quite the reverse in fact. Here are another couple of cases from Britain. A woman with seven children by five different fathers (who called two of her children ‘the twins’ simply because they had the same father) hatched a plot with the uncle of her current young lover – not the father of any of her children – to kidnap one of her daughters and cash in on the public sympathy that a well-publicised missing child arouses. Her lover’s uncle was to hold the girl prisoner until the reward for finding her reached £50,000; he was then to release her on the street, find her and claim the reward.

Another woman, with nine children by six different fathers, none of whom supported their children, took eight of them to Goa in India with her then current lover (from whom she has since split up), and then left one of them, a 15 year-old girl, in the care of a 25 year-old man about whom she knew very little while she and the rest went to a different part of India (all at the expense of social security, of course). The girl, drunk and having taken drugs, was then brutally murdered.

What was striking about the way these cases were reported in the liberal British press and the broadcast media was the extreme tentativeness of the allusions to the abject squalor of the social milieu from which they emerged. When a BBC interviewer asked the first woman, at a time when it was not yet clear that the woman was herself the co-author of her child’s disappearance, whether she thought it was a good idea to have seven children by five different men, she (the interviewer) was criticised for the terrible crime of judgmentalism, or of trying to impose middle-class standards on a poor woman. And many liberal commentators saw nothing wrong in having nine different children by six different men, all supported by social security, or for that matter with leaving a child of 15 in the care of a virtually unknown man in a place known for widespread indulgence in drugs and alcohol. After all, they said, adolescent children had to learn to be independent, and it was always a question of judgement as to how much independence to grant them.

When a politician said that the case of the woman who plotted to kidnap her own child illustrated the broken nature of our society, he was immediately accused of tarring all single or unmarried parents on social security with the same brush. And so terrified have members of the middle class become of being regarded as narrow-minded or bigoted by the intellectual elite that they have become almost incapable through fright of answering such an accusation.

No one has ever suggested, for example, that all step-fathers are violent towards their step-children or are sexual abusers; but it can scarcely be denied that serial step-fatherhood, which is often associated with a lifestyle of excessive drinking and drug-taking, and which is now the home-life experience of many children, increases the likelihood also of those children experiencing violence and degradation. But this is precisely the pattern of home life that social policy over the last few decades, in Britain as in New Zealand, has made financially possible and even advantageous. The woman cited above with nine children was in receipt of upwards of NZ$100,000 per year from public funds. The dramatic cases that reach the newspapers are only the tip of an iceberg of neglect, cruelty and degradation.

In Britain, the official response to cases such as that of Baby P and the woman who kidnapped her own daughter has been to propose improvements in child protection services. These improvements are proposed every time there is a particularly terrible case that catches the public attention, but no proposal is ever made suggesting how such cases may be prevented from arising in the first place: for to do that would require facing down the intellectual terrorism of the intellectual elite, and that few politicians are prepared to do.

Besides, as a sixteenth century German bishop once said, the poor are a gold mine. The director of the child protection services of the London borough that failed to protect Baby P (whose household was visited no fewer than 60 times by various workers) and who was paid NZ$250,000 a year, was sacked and replaced by a new director who will be paid NZ$500,000 a year instead, at least until another similar case hits the headlines – as, of course, it will.

The fundamental point is that social pathology is an invaluable resource for a very large and possibly growing part of the state bureaucracy, which is an enormous employer of lengthily, but badly, educated people. A reasonably virtuous and self-regulating, self-controlled population is the last thing that the government apparatus now wants, for large parts of it would then be entirely redundant.

Incidentally, I can only hope that in the economic turmoil to come, we do not discover the hard way just how improvident a policy it has been deliberately to smash up all forms of social solidarity that do not pass through government departments.