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NZ Herald
September 30 2006

Into a dangerous void
by Carroll du Chateau

Psychiatrist and author Theodore Dalrymple, who is in New Zealand to talk about crime and how to combat it, knows why people go bad. Carroll du Chateau reports:

It is when Theodore Dalrymple says something outrageous, followed by that conspiratorial giggle, that he's at his most powerful. For an hour he's been rolling along, giving his views on the tougher challenges facing society. And then, out of the mouth of this erudite Brit, "they are in fact just parasites".

He's referring to highly paid consultants who, he says, are draining Britain's National Health Service of funds to a point where some large hospitals have been closed despite the government pouring more money into the health sector.

The sobering thing is, it's already happening here.

That's the thing about Dalrymple, unconventional psychiatrist, essayist, author, social commentator, intellectual. He thinks issues through, gets his facts right. He also believes in evil - and that criminals commit crime because they choose to.

Dalrymple's opinions on the criminal mind come from 15 years of treating 5000 perpetrators of extreme violence - most perpetrators and their victims have attempted suicide. For example, the 25-year-old man who arrived at Dalrymple's Birmingham hospital to have foil-wrapped packets of cocaine removed from his stomach. He had just left the latest of his three partners with their week-old baby - although he knew he was condemning her and the child to lives of brutality, poverty, abuse, and hopelessness.

Unlike other psychiatrists, Dalrymple did not sympathise with the plight of his patients who blamed their crimes on drugs, deprivation, or the system. He refused to prescribe heroin or substitutes to soothe their addictions, talked to them sternly - and wrote about them in right wing magazine, the Spectator.

As he says drily, yes he did interview people having a really bad time, "though not as bad as their victims". "They're kind of infinite in their ability to destroy themselves. They used to say the most revealing and hilarious things. I didn't know whether to fall about laughing or throw myself off the roof in despair."

He also formulated one of the most cogent rationales about why, in an age of plenty, crime has escalated to an all-time high, which is why Garth McVicar, of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, has invited Dalrymple to New Zealand to talk about crime and how to combat it. Dalrymple's "Cradle to Jail Tour" about the abdication of personal responsibility, nurtured by welfare states, starts in Wellington next Wednesday.

This is Dalrymple's third trip to New Zealand. In 1998 he wrote an essay, "What Causes Crime" (published in his book, Life at the Bottom) which discussed our post-1950s surge in crime. Dalrymple talked about the Parker Hulme, David Bain and Peter Ellis cases, and concluded about the Ellis sexual abuse affair, that "a New Zealand court has given credence to accusations that even the Spanish Inquisition might have found preposterous."

He also suggested our justice system was obsessed with lax enforcement, pleas of mitigation, excuse finding, and leniency - "anything but punishment".

Nearly a decade later, after talking to hundreds more criminals, Dalrymple hasn't changed his mind about why people go bad.

"If you believe that because you have had certain experiences in life you can't be expected to control yourself - then of course you won't control yourself," he says.

"And if, in addition to all that, you're actually rewarded for not controlling yourself [or at least there are no penalties] then well, you get the kind of mess that I think we are in."

The most pernicious combination, he contends, appears when over-generous bureaucracy and political correctness combine with a lack of self control and any shred of conscience.

When asked to discuss the Kahui case he replies "it's horrific". "But it's very dangerous to take one particular case, and say 'oh the world's going to the dogs'. What's striking is that not only do you get these horrible stories, but the statistics bear out the idea that things [child abuse and murder] are getting worse."

How to turn it around? "It's much easier to create these problems than to solve them once you've created them," says Dalrymple. He points to the large vested interest that has grown up round the British justice system - including politicians and the bureaucracies they fuel - which stands in the way of reform. "The solution, which would be good for the economy, would involve less government expenditure. Bureaucracies would have to decline in size and the government would have to become less powerful. "And," he adds, with a rueful laugh, "as an American senator once said 'you can't get a hog to slaughter itself'."

Dalrymple does have suggestions for New Zealand, but they are not of the quick-fix variety.

"If I may say so, you do have a habit of copying other countries - especially in their bad habits. You should look at Britain and learn ... I think you've been got at by sociologists, criminologists and, no doubt, politicians who use these kinds of ideas to increase their own powers over society - and have decreased people's will to self control."

Dalrymple says it is the void in people's lives that drives them bad - and often mad as well.

"I think quite a lot of social pathology is caused by boredom and the desire for sensation and interest. Then your life will be full at least. Because if there's no transcendent meaning to your life, if you don't feel you contribute to society or have any social purpose, if you take away from people the dignity of earning a living for themselves or feeling that they're doing so, and you have no cultural or intellectual interest, what is there?

"The generous-sounding idea that people behave badly because of social forces creates the idea that one can behave badly and therefore be justified in doing so."

He also thinks the experts have the link between drugs and crime wrong. In his experience opiates are not difficult to get off, withdrawal symptoms are not serious, and they've got the relationship between criminality and addiction - that people commit crime to feed their additions - the wrong way round. "Whatever causes people to become criminal causes addiction."

He acknowledges P is different. On the other hand, he says, it is clear that P addiction is fuelled by people desiring excitement and euphoria - which all human beings have - without having to earn feeling good about themselves and the world.

"They don't want to earn it, they can't earn it," he says. "That's what's rather sad about it, they don't have the religious belief, they don't have the self-respect of earning a living in difficult circumstances and they don't have any cultural interests.

"I think it's very sad, it's terrible, devastating."

Personally Dalrymple is at a crossroads. The son of a former communist activist and German mother who fled to Britain to escape Nazi persecution, he is nearly 57.

Last year he gave up his psychiatric jobs and Spectator column. Now he and his French wife spend half their year in a small village deep in the countryside 640km south of Paris. They have no children.

So how will he occupy that fertile brain? "I still do a bit of medico-legal work - courts, reports, that sort of thing. I'm writing a book and quite a lot of literary criticism as well."

The life change came out of a feeling that "if I didn't do it now, I probably wouldn't get round to it".

He certainly wasn't unhappy working as a doctor "though not happy about the managerial level in the British medical system".

After 14 years' marriage, Dalrymple favours marriage for its stabilising effect on society. "Marriage protects and reduces violence - not increases it," he says.

His complaint is with the institutional and fiscal lack of support for marriage that has spawned the usual gush of fatherless families. "It's a social disaster and it's a disaster for individuals," he says, implying that the money poured into one-parent families should be at least be echoed for married.

But it is the British medical system, which has been taken over by managers and highly paid consultants, that attracts Dalrymple's real anger.

He believes politicians and managers dislike and fear doctors.

"Politicians can't increase their own standing in the eyes of the public, that's impossible. But they can at least reduce the standing of the doctors or any other professional who has a high standing.

"For a corporatist government the professional is a danger because it's an alternative source of authority. I think they want to undermine independent professionals. They've done it with the teachers, they've done it with the universities. To get power over people [via unattainable targets and insulting performance reviews] is to corrupt them.

"The only way the whole thing will work is if people actually have a sense of public service. And that can only happen if they're small and if they're doing things that are self-evidently of value. But most of what public servants do is not of value, and they know it - on the contrary it's actually harmful."

And as he says, "It all applies to New Zealand."

The world according to Theodore

There are several moments of truth when talking to Theodore Dalrymple. He thinks:

* "The fanatics and bombers do not represent a resurgence of unreformed, fundamentalist Islam, but its death rattle."

* That had Virginia Woolf survived to our time, "she would have had the satisfaction of observing that her cast of mind - shallow, dishonest, resentful, envious, snobbish, self-absorbed, trivial, philistine and ultimately brutal - had triumphed amongst the elites of the Western world".

* "What we've done is create a lot of unnecessary misery - and, of course, any preventable misery is entirely regrettable."

* Theodore Dalrymple will speak in Wellington, Napier, Tauranga and Auckland between Oct 11 and Oct 18. See link below for more details.