It’s important to use the right word

I’ve been delving deeply into Dalrymple these days—not binging, but reading one or two of his essays at the end of every day. The man can write! But more importantly, he has the gimlet eye, an ability to make his case simply by recording his observations. When he does offer an opinion, he has already supported it so thoroughly that it can hardly be denied.

One of his better essays is called What is Poverty?, but right away he points out that moderns use the word wrongly, and there is a much better one available:

What do we mean by poverty? Not what Dickens or Blake or Mayhew meant. Today, no one seriously expects to go hungry in England or to live without running water or medical care or even TV. Poverty has been redefined in industrial countries, so that anyone at the lower end of the income distribution is poor ex officio, as it were—poor by virtue of having less than the rich. And of course by this logic, the only way of eliminating poverty is by an egalitarian redistribution of wealth—even if the society as a whole were to become poorer as a result.

Such redistribution was the goal of the welfare state. But it has not eliminated poverty, despite the vast sums expended, and despite the fact that the poor are now substantially richer—indeed are not, by traditional standards, poor at all. As long as the rich exist, so must the poor, as we now define them.

Certainly they are in squalor—a far more accurate description of their condition than poverty—despite a threefold increase in per-capita income, including that of the poor, since the end of the last war. Why they should be in this condition requires an explanation—and to call that condition poverty, using a word more appropriate to Mayhew’s London than to today’s reality, prevents us from grasping how fundamentally the lot of "the poor" has changed since then. The poor we shall always have with us, no doubt: but today they are not poor in the traditional way.

Dalrymple works at a hospital in a very rough part of town, one at which doctors from third-world countries often come to do a year’s work. He proceeds to build his case through their eyes.

Every few months, doctors from countries like the Philippines and India arrive fresh from the airport to work for a year’s stint at my hospital. It is fascinating to observe their evolving response to British squalor. At the start, they are uniformly enthusiastic about the care that we unsparingly and unhesitatingly give to everyone, regardless of economic status. They themselves come from cities—Manila, Bombay, Madras—where many of the cases we see in our hospital would simply be left to die, often without succor of any kind. […] Before very long, though, they start to feel a vague unease. […]  At first they assume that the cases they see are a statistical quirk, a kind of sampling error, and that given time they will encounter a better, more representative cross section of the population. Gradually, however, it dawns upon them that what they have seen is representative. When every benefit received is a right, there is no place for good manners, let alone for gratitude. […]

Dalrymple makes his case with the reader by recounting the experience of these foreign doctors in their ongoing encounters with the British underclass, occasionally stopping to take their temperature.

I asked the doctor from Madras if poverty was the word he would use to describe this woman’s situation. He said it was not: that her problem was that she accepted no limits to her own behavior, that she did not fear the possibility of hunger, the condemnation of her own parents or neighbors, or God. In other words, the squalor of England was not economic but spiritual, moral, and cultural. […]

Many examples are given in detail, He takes them for short walks from the hospital to the nearby prison, pointing out small things—fresh puddles of broken glass from stolen cars, trash-filled yards, fast food litter everywhere.

"Why don’t they tidy up their gardens?" asks a doctor from Bombay.  A good question: after all, most of the houses contain at least one person with time on his or her hands. Whenever I have been able to ask the question, however, the answer has always been the same: I’ve told the council [the local government] about it, but they haven’t come. As tenants, they feel it is the landlord’s responsibility to keep their yards clean, and they are not prepared to do the council’s work for it, even if it means wading through garbage—as it quite literally does. On the one hand, authority cannot tell them what to do; on the other, it has an infinitude of responsibilities towards them.

Dalyrmple is also a master of the understated punch line.

By the end of three months my doctors have, without exception, reversed their original opinion that the welfare state, as exemplified by England, represents the acme of civilization. On the contrary, they see it now as creating a miasma of subsidized apathy that blights the lives of its supposed beneficiaries. They come to realize that a system of welfare that makes no moral judgments in allocating economic rewards promotes antisocial egotism. The spiritual impoverishment of the population seems to them worse than anything they have ever known in their own countries. And what they see is all the worse, of course, because it should be so much better. The wealth that enables everyone effortlessly to have enough food should be liberating, not imprisoning. Instead, it has created a large caste of people for whom life is, in effect, a limbo in which they have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It is a life emptied of meaning.

"On the whole," said one Filipino doctor to me, "life is preferable in the slums of Manila." He said it without any illusions as to the quality of life in Manila.

You may think I’ve quoted the whole article at this point, but not so—Dalrymple writes at length, and what I’ve left out is the concrete detail he uses to make his case overwhelming. I encourage you to read the whole thing.


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