Of Termites & Mad Dictators


To hate a tyrant is not to love liberty: rather more is required than that.

And with liberty as with all other objects of affection, the course of true love never did run smooth. It is unlikely to do so in the Middle East.

Of all the tyrants, Muammar Ghaddafi is undoubtedly the worst. If he were not so sanguinary, if he had not brought permanent civil war to so many parts of Africa, if he had not ruled so consistently by terror, he would have been a figure of fun, more to be derided than hated: a preposterous semi-lunatic with bad taste let loose in the store of a theatrical costumier, who thinks himself valiant by pinning a made-up medal to the chest of his own made-up uniform, and who frequently dresses as if he had asked Armani to design a costume incorporating the Bedouin and Ruritanian traditions, with just a hint of African tribal leader thrown in. Of course, it is not so very long ago that he had his admirers among the left-leaning intelligentsia of Europe and elsewhere, who bent over backwards to understand (which is to say, excuse or deny) his dictatorial propensities as the natural result of Libyan history. But, apart from those whom he has bribed and Anthony Blair, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, he has few admirers now.

Ghaddafi is so loathsome a figure, in fact, that (much to my self-disgust) I find myself in my imagination suspending my objection to lynching in his case. It would seem no more than poetic justice that he should meet the same fate as Mussolini, whom he in so many respects resembles. It is only with difficulty that I manage to suppress this primitive reaction, and remind myself that to meet brutality with brutality, to match savagery with savagery, is seldom the way to a more civilised future.

Some of the auguries in the Middle East are not entirely favourable. There were cries directed at Ghaddafi in Libya of 'Go back to Israel:' a reference to the rumour that his mother was Jewish, and not exactly indicative of that broadness of mind that is necessary for the establishment of a free political system. As to Egypt, polls have indicated in the recent past a large majority in favour of the death penalty for apostates, again not a good principle on which to found a free country. 'Life, liberty and the pursuit of heretics' doesn't have quite the right ring to it.

Not should it be forgotten that hatred of being oppressed is not quite the same as hatred of oppression itself. There have been enough instances in history of the oppressed turned oppressor for this hardly to need emphasis. And this is so especially where the oppressed believe themselves to be the bearers of true doctrine as against the bearers of the false doctrine that has hitherto oppressed them. What is the point of being free unless you can impose yourself on others, and make the true doctrine rule the world?

There is a very simple problem in the Middle East: simple, that is, conceptually, not simple from the point of view of finding a practical solution to it. Islam has not found a doctrinal way of rendering unto Caesar those things which are Caesar's; and since one of its founding principles is the inequality of man so long as not all men are Muslim, equality before the law is very difficult to establish in a country with a preponderance of Islamic sentiment. Either it must be imposed by a secularising elite, in which case it is felt as oppressive and anti-democratic, in the sense of being against the wishes and feelings of the majority; or it simply fails to exist. And where it does not exist, modernisation can be but a veneer.

It is difficult now to imagine a modern university intellectual saying something as simple and unequivocal as 'I disagree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it.' He would be more likely to think, if not actually to say out loud or in public, 'I disagree with what you say, and therefore rationalise to the death my right to suppress it.'

At best, then, equality before the law – an essential condition of the rule of law – is precarious and likely to be more honoured in the breach than in the accomplishment. Not even in countries that invented the rule of law is it ever flawlessly adhered to; but in countries where it is imposed, it is likely to be but an ideological fig-leaf for a tiny kleptocratic; an elite that comes to be so justifiably hated that it in itself provides an ad hominem argument for those who argue for a return to the supposed (but historically false) prelapsarian purity of Islam. The choice, then, is between Scylla and Charybdis; it will not be easy, short of a loss of Islamic faith by a multitude of people, to escape this unappealing dilemma.

It might be argued, of course, that as yet the revolts in the Middle East have had little by way of specifically Islamic content. This is true; to judge by the way they dress, the youthful demonstrators could have emerged from any working class area in any European or North American city. Their demands have been democracy, liberty of expression and so forth. But liberty of expression is a two-edged sword where a large part of the population is viscerally opposed to it.

It would surely be a mistake to assume that the crowds in Tahrir Square, impressive as they undoubtedly were, represented faithfully the entire population of Egypt, which is so many times larger. Whatever government emerges from the current uncertainty, it will have to face the potentially enormous and destructive gulf between the pays réel and the pays légal, if the pays légal adopts the rule of law as its founding principle. And even if the leader of such a government should turn out to be personally incorruptible, it is vanishingly unlikely that the immense apparatus beneath him should be likewise incorruptible. Thus the whole sorry vicious circle will be set up again, and the problem unresolved.

Even if Islam were to lose its grip on the population, the outlook might not be rosy: for when the people lose their faith in Islam, they will not believe in nothing, they will believe in anything. And among the things they might come to believe in is some kind of secular salvationist doctrine which – if the history of the Twentieth Century is anything to go by, and it is the only guide that we have – might be even more sanguinary than what they previously believed in.

As for the future of liberty in our own countries, in our own civilisation, we have no grounds for complacency or boundless optimism. In Europe, for example, a gulf that grows ever-wider has opened up between the pays réel and the pays légal, between the sensibility of the self-replicating politico-cultural complex (to adapt slightly Eisenhower's famous phrase) and the sensibility of vast numbers of the population. The pays légal has imposed, among other things, a unified currency on the continent against the wishes of the population in so far as they were ascertained, which is no small thing to have done when one considers the political and economic tensions to which that unification was always bound before long to give rise. The more detached from the pays réel the pays légal becomes, the greater the chance that genuinely authoritarian movements will try to bridge that gulf.

But there is a much more insidious threat to our freedom even than that posed by a self-replicating and self-satisfied political class that lives in a kind of mentally-gated (and often physically separate) community. It is that posed by an important section of the intellectual class that values power much more highly than it values liberty: the liberty of others, I mean, for even Genghis Khan valued his own liberty.

It is difficult now to imagine a modern university intellectual saying something as simple and unequivocal as 'I disagree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it.' He would be more likely to think, if not actually to say out loud or in public, 'I disagree with what you say, and therefore rationalise to the death my right to suppress it.' In public, he would be more circumspect, presenting a suppression of freedom as being actually an increase in freedom, that is to say of real freedom, not the kind that leaves everyone free to sleep under a bridge. But he would know perfectly well in his heart that what he was after was power: the greatest power of all, that to shape, mould and colour indelibly the thought of others, a power to which he believes that he has a right by virtue of his superior intellect, training and zeal for the public good.

The attempt to rid the world of stereotyping is as totalitarian as it is in theory incoherent: for of course it relies upon the stereotyping of stereotypers, namely all of us. Show me a man without stereotypes, and I will show you a man in a coma.

Of course, it might be argued that, in these days of Twitter and Facebook, what university intellectuals say and think is not so important that very much depends upon it any more, but I am not convinced that the days of cultural elites are over just because everyone is telling everyone else what he had for breakfast and his reaction to the latest news. The mediums employed by cultural elites may change, but not the fact of their existence; and it is difficult to imagine where else most of them will derive their ideas, if not from their university education.

Recently, I was reading for review a book by a woman, a 'resident scholar in the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University,' about the problem of 'ageism' in America. It is certainly not difficult to find, in America and elsewhere, examples of reprehensibly bad treatment of old people, nor is it difficult to believe that such bad treatment (or neglect) is sometimes systematic. But what is so striking to me about the author's proposals for dealing with the problem is that she does not recognise that they conflict with freedom, and pose problems for the rule of law. To outlaw discrimination, for example, is to outlaw freedom, even if it can be decided without arbitrary assumption what discrimination actually consists of in any given situation. If I wish to employ someone but cannot hire whomever I choose, for whatever reason that I choose, whether good or bad, I am not free: I must hire according to criteria that are not my own. The author might certainly argue that her goals are ethically more important than that of freedom, that in fact fairness in one sense or another, in one field or another, is now more precious than freedom; but it is at the very least necessary to recognise that one is subordinating freedom to some other desideratum, or one will end with tyranny by default, as each enthusiast or monomaniac seeks to curtail freedom in pursuit of his favoured goal.

Very rarely do we find someone who is a university intellectual saying that 'x is indeed a desirable goal, even a highly desirable goal, but the cost to freedom of achieving it is simply too great.' It would be an excellent thing in the abstract if no one ever drank to excess (much less violence, cirrhosis etc.), but a system of surveillance in homes to ensure that no one did so would be odiously tyrannous. The author of the book to which I have referred would like to have all 'ageist' language expunged from films, radio, books, daily speech and even minds, on the grounds that many people have felt humiliated by it, that it reinforces stereotypes, and that stereotypes lead to bad treatment of the old. Even if this were empirically true (which might be doubted), what is being demanded as a principle here is language so anodyne that it could offend no one, lead to no stereotyping etc., for there is no reason to limit the cleansing of language to ageism. The attempt to rid the world of stereotyping is as totalitarian as it is in theory incoherent: for of course it relies upon the stereotyping of stereotypers, namely all of us. Show me a man without stereotypes, and I will show you a man in a coma. But mere impossibility has never stopped intellectuals from proposing their schemes.

I take the example of this book not because it is particularly bad, but because it is typical, one might say stereotypical, of a certain mode of thought that has become widespread in our societies. It is a threat to freedom, not that of mad dictators in fancy dress, but of termites.




Theodore Dalrymple. "Of Termites & Mad Dictators." The New English Review (March, 2011).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Theodore Dalrymple.

photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt/Released.
Muammar al-Gaddafi at the 12th AU summit, February 2, 2009, in Addis Abeba.


Theodore Dalrymple is a former psychiatrist and prison doctor. He writes a column for the London Spectator, contributes frequently to the Daily Telegraph, is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. He lives in France and is the author of The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism, Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline, In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, and So Little Done.

Copyright © 2011 The New English Review

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