I am now out of the two-week quarantine imposed on me when I returned to England and am free to walk in the street. Honesty compels me to admit, however, that my quarantine wasn’t too terrible an ordeal: there has been, and continues to be, worse suffering in the world.
During it, a supermarket sent me food with great efficiency and with never a mistake. I ordered, among many other things, blueberries, and very good they were. I was amazed to see that they came from Peru.
Then I tried to imagine what it would be like if the government tried to distribute blueberries to all who wanted and could pay for them. I think that if I were lucky, I might receive some gooseberry jam several months, or even years, later.
I do not, of course, suggest that receiving blueberries from Peru when I want them is the secret of the good life, the only desideratum of existence; I think I could face a blueberry-less future with tolerable equanimity. My point is simply that the very notion of relying on government to do anything as efficiently as possible is somewhat naïve.
Another thing that I noticed was the great good humor of the people who delivered the food to my door. According to most of what is written by intellectuals about such work, those who perform it are downtrodden, exploited, miserably paid, and in general depressed by the dead-endedness of their work. Accordingly, the delivery people should have been surly, brusque, and downcast.
On the contrary, they were cheerful, smiling, and polite. They had perhaps not always been top of their class at school (though they might have been only filling in until a better job prospect beckoned), but I felt it only right to reward them with a decent tip. I felt a vague sense of shame or guilt, the causes of which I must one day analyze, in the face of their good humor. Perhaps it had something to do with my own comparative good fortune—insofar as it was not deserved.
The weather was beautiful during my quarantine, a real Indian summer, just as the spring had been beautiful in spring when I was in Paris for the lockdown. (These two spells of beautiful weather just when I was unable to take full advantage of them were almost enough to make me believe that the universe is ruled by a malevolent ironist.)
The Proper Study of Mankind
Fortunately, I was able to sit out in my little garden, where I thought of the words of Richard II during his imprisonment at Pomfret Castle:
“I have been studying how I may compare
“This prison where I live unto the world:
“And for because the world is populous
“And here is not a creature but myself,
“I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.”
The way to compare my garden unto the world came to me in a flash of inspiration, however. Having been away for several months, the bindweed in it had overgrown wildly, as if in some horror novel like “The Day of the Triffids” by John Wyndham.
It had done its best to strangle the legitimate occupants of the flowerbeds—roses, hollyhocks lavender. It covered the path and was climbing up the wall in a non-metaphorical fashion.
Bindweed grows with astonishing vigor, and while it is easy to pull from the ground, it always grows back with renewed strength and determination. You cannot eliminate it once and for all, except (according to a horticultural friend of mine) by removing and replacing the soil completely.
This sounds to me like destroying a village in order to save it, so that some degree of control over bindweed is the best that can realistically be hoped for. The price of roses in my garden is eternal weeding.
Then it came to me that bindweed is like crime: you cannot hope to eliminate it, only to control it. There is no more foolish metaphor than the war on crime, for such a war is lost in advance, as is any attempt to eliminate bindweed.
This is no excuse for defeatism, any more than for inaction against bindweed in my garden, but it does suggest that one’s aims should be limited and one’s hopes kept within reason.
Of course, people often say that we must deal with the roots of crime rather than with the part of it that grows above the soil, so to speak, and is visible; but if crime is like bindweed, you can pull up roots to your heart’s content but it still will grow. This is because the roots are so deep and tentacular in the human breast that they defeat any attempt to extract them entirely.
Looking for root causes of human behavior is a thankless task, at least if it’s results you seek rather than intellectual amusement and the belief that you have found the one and only answer to a problem. That’s because there is no final explanation for anything.
In a sense, however, the root cause of crime is simple, if something that is both necessary and sufficient counts as a root cause. In this sense, the root cause of crime is the decision of the criminal to commit it. Without such a decision, no crime has been committed.
Decisions aren’t made in a vacuum, however, and the decision whether or not to commit a crime is no exception. Among the influences that impinge on that decision is the likely outcome. But that influence cannot explain everything.
Many people won’t commit crimes however slender the chances of discovery. Some people will commit crime however slender the chances of concealment. There is, of course, every shade of people’s propensity to commit crime between the two extremes, which is why it would be wrong simply to throw up one’s hands on the grounds that crime will never be eradicated and its roots too deeply embedded in the repertoire of human possibility.
Crime is like bindweed which, if not constantly controlled, will take over the garden. That is why:
“I have been studying how I may compare
“This garden where I live unto the world…”
and have concluded that, to change the poet from whom I draw inspiration to Alexander Pope, the proper study of Mankind is bindweed.
Theodore Dalrymple is a retired doctor. He is contributing editor of the City Journal of New York and the author of 30 books, including “Life at the Bottom.” His latest book is “Embargo and Other Stories.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.