Life at the Bottom is a book that would have driven my college sociology professor insane, which is one reason why I loved it so much. Colleges and universities proudly tout their incomparable ability to be open-minded and diverse in their thinking; however, in my experience, I was often the one who had to bring a diverse opinion to the classroom rather than being exposed to it by the professors. Life at the Bottom in many ways represents and showcases a truly contrarian view on the underclass, the poor, and why they are so. It's a provocative book with exceptional and staggering claims, and it's a book deserving to be read by all, regardless of their ideological viewpoint.
The main thrust of Life at the Bottom is that the central problem with poverty and the underclass is not circumstances, family history, or the environment in which the poor find themselves; rather, the main problem are poisonous and ruinous ideas which originated in intelligentsia and academia and oozed (a word Theodore Dalrymple, the author, would be comfortable with) their way into the population's psyche. Bad ideas are at the heart of poverty. These ideas, such as the devaluing of personal responsibility and accountability, have turned otherwise reasonable human beings into inconsiderate, to put it nicely, and barbarous, to put it harshly, dependents of the state and their circumstances. His experience working as a medical doctor in a hospital which serves a very poor population, as well as his work within the British penal system, provide him a unique insight into the state of the mind of the underclass. Dalrymple's commentaries are pointed and poignant, at times even scathing.
No doubt some academics would take issue with Dalrymple's conclusions since they're, from an academic's point of view, based mostly on anecdotal evidence. I think Dalrymple would agree with that to a point. He looks at trends, such as a rising crime rate, and connects his experiences with those trends. I don't think anyone could rightly say Dalrymple lacks legitimacy in his opinion, even if you vehemently disagree with him. Life at the Bottom highlights what might be one of the biggest problems with social engineers' and sociologists' attempts to correct the ills of society. Instead of looking at actual, real people and the good and bad ideas they have that drive their thinking and subsequently their actions, they only see data-sets, numbers which are collected, collated, conflated, and ultimately confused. This inevitably leads to an idea that people aren't agents unto themselves, free to think and choose for themselves, but rather cogs in a great cycle of poverty from which there is no escape, regardless of the ideas the underclass have embraced. Life at the Bottom is an acute denunciation and refutation of this mind-set and worldview, and it's an exceptionally good one.
It is obvious Dalrymple holds very little esteem for liberal ideas and ideals. Although he has his reasoning, I think he somewhat overstates his case in regards to who is to blame. Liberals, as well as Conservatives, have done their fair-share in spreading lousy ideas, whether they're in the British Parliament or in the American Congress. I think this singling out of Liberals would put off some readers, but that probably would have been the case anyway. Genuinely interested parties, regardless of their political or ideological affiliation and affinity, should read Life at the Bottom. I have no respect for Karl Marx and his lousy ideas, but I enjoyed reading The Communist Manifesto. I find Saul Alinsky's outlook on humanity and activism to be reprehensible and destructive, but I consider his book Rules for Radicals to be a must read for anyone wanting to understand the world from someone else's point of view. Life at the Bottom is one of the most important books I have read in a long, long time and readers should study it for its perspective and honesty, even if they disagree with its premise or conclusions.
Life at the Bottom is a must-read. Theodore Dalrymple is an exceptionally talented thinker and writer, and he has provided within this book's pages a unique and compelling perspective on poverty and the underclass which ought not to be ignored. I consider it to be one of the most influential books I have ever read when it comes to my own thinking and perspective. This is definitely one I will be mentioning and referencing for a long time to come.
Other Topics of Interest:
Bosom Buddy Books: The Prince and the Radical
What Every High School Student Should Read but Probably Doesn't
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture