Self-indulgence isn’t a disease

First the dry facts untouched by emotion and unsullied with commentary. The Brentford footballer Ivan Toney pleaded guilty to 232 betting violations and was banned for eight months.

The ‘patient’

That mea culpa wasn’t issued immediately. At first he admitted he liked the odd flutter, but claimed he never bet on football matches. However, crushed by the weight of evidence, Toney finally conceded he had indeed placed such bets through third parties.

Moreover, 13 times he bet on his own team to lose, an outcome he could have facilitated personally, although there is no evidence he actually did so.

In view of that, the FA originally wanted to ban Toney for 15 months. However, they accepted his guilty plea, albeit belated, as a mitigating circumstance and took three months off. They then reduced it further to eight months because – and here it gets interesting – Toney’s lawyers managed to get him diagnosed with gambling addiction.

Thus yet another gross lapse of moral character has been medicalised and partly exculpated. Yet medicalised doesn’t mean legitimately medical – clinically speaking, there is no such thing as gambling addiction. There are only compulsive self-indulgent gamblers incapable of any self-restraint.

Many such people are considerably brighter than Toney, proving this is a failure of character, not of intelligence. Thus, Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, arguably Russia’s best writers, were all compulsive gamblers.

When he died in 1837, Pushkin left his widow with debts of 100,000 roubles, $50,000 at the time – a staggering sum, equivalent to $1.7 million today. Much of it was gambling debts.

As a young officer, Tolstoy gambled away his manor house. Later, he tried to bet his whole estate on a single hand of cards and was only stopped from doing so by an older officer. Had Tolstoy lost, his family would have been impoverished.

He retained that compulsion in his older age. Maxim Gorky observed: “He plays seriously, passionately. And when he picks up his cards his hands become so very nervous, as if he is holding live birds, not inanimate pieces of cardboard.”

Dostoyevsky was plagued by gambling debts all his life but, unlike Tolstoy, he didn’t have a vast estate to fall back on. Thus, when he travelled from one European casino to another, he’d often be left penniless.

Dostoyevsky would then write to his brother and friends begging for money, such as in this letter: “I walked up to the roulette table and won 600 francs within a quarter of an hour. That whetted my appetite. Suddenly I started losing; I could no longer restrain myself and lost everything I had with me.”

But in those unsophisticated days people hadn’t yet learned the art of using medical quackery to justify irresponsible behaviour. Those who gambled beyond their means with no regard for the consequences weren’t treated as patients. They were rebuked for their lack of self-control.

The operative phrase was uttered by Dostoyevsky: “I could no longer restrain myself”. Why not? What would have happened to him had he gone cold turkey and merely walked past a casino without going in?

Would he have experienced flu-like withdrawal symptoms, like an addict coming off heroin? A horrendous pain like an alcoholic who abruptly stops drinking? Dizziness, seizures and insomnia suffered by an addict denied barbiturates?

None of the above? Then the right way to describe Dostoyevasky’s inability to stop would have been “I didn’t want to restrain myself”. Saying “I could no longer…” was a trick typical of such people. They wish to convey the notion that their free will is being overpowered by a mighty outside force beyond their control.

For the same reason, genuine addicts tend to exaggerate the severity of their withdrawal symptoms. I found that out first hand some 20 years ago, when I was iatrogenically addicted to heroin having received it for a month through an intravenous drip.

When I no longer needed it post-discharge, I threw away the OxyContin tablets I had been given at the hospital and found out that all I had to contend with was a runny nose and a slightly sore throat. A far cry from the agony of withdrawal described by addicts who simply don’t want to quit.

The modern tendency to medicalise failures of character is quite sinister. It’s a reflection of the general urge to stop treating man as a free agent endowed with free will.

Instead man is depicted – and treated – as a creature at the mercy of some forces, pre-determined and variously mysterious. in fact, modernity has been shaped by three deterministic fallacies, Darwinist, Marxist and Freudian.

It’s the third one of the three that’s responsible for the medicalising trend, my subject today. Freud, who incidentally never had a single therapeutic success, sold mankind a blanket indulgence for the sin of personal irresponsibility. A bog standard lousy mood got to be treated as a medical disorder, only to be remedied by hundreds of hours (and thousands of pounds) spent on an analyst’s couch.

And what a unique medical condition it is, one that can be treated even by people without a medical degree. All a poor chap has to do is pay so much per hour and use that time to talk about his feeling lonely, friendless and dejected (or is it rejected?).

Usually that lamentable situation arises because the ‘patient’ has the kind of personality that repels potential friends. Any sensible doctor would say to him: “Stop wasting our time and your money. Go home and think how you can make yourself more attractive to people. And if you want to screw your Mum, kill your Dad and stick a needle in your eye, just decide not to and leave it at that.”

Yet here we have a millionaire footballer ‘diagnosed with gambling addiction’ he can do nothing about. Hypothetically, would Toney be as powerless if the likely punishment were death, not a few months’ suspension? Or would his ‘disease’ miraculously cure itself?

Far be it from me to advocate such extreme measures, but they do work. That’s how Mao solved the problem of opium addiction in China, by having a few users shot. And hey presto, a miracle: no one smoked opium any longer.

While decrying such draconian punishments, let’s note that this proves the problem isn’t medical: a cancer patient wouldn’t be instantly cured of his disease by a similar therapy. Nor would a man suffering from kidney stones or a woman plagued by cystitis.

All these are genuine diagnoses. “Addiction to gambling” isn’t. It’s hedonism and self-indulgence run riot. A footballer who bets on his own team to lose should be drummed out of the game for ever. Not for a few months.

10 thoughts on “Self-indulgence isn’t a disease”

    1. Actually, I never do read Theodore Darlymple, and he never reads me. There’s no need: we have been close friends for over 30 years and spend hours on the phone practically every day. So I know what he thinks, and he knows what I think. Sometimes we agree, sometime we don’t. We agree on this point, though Tony wouldn’t frame the argument in the Christian terms of free will.

      1. Boot, Dalrymple and (let us not forget) Mullen! You’re the nearest thing we have to-day to Burke, Reynolds and Johnson (n0t necessarily in that order), but do you have a Boswell? (The Putin-supporting tennis player you mentioned recently is presumably your Wilkes.)

  1. Is Mr Toney living in poverty, having gambled away his enormous income? Or has he merely spent a small part of his enormous income to obtain a useful diagnosis?

    Was Gogol a gambler?

    Would Rachmaninoff’s music have been better or worse if his father hadn’t gambled away the family estates?

    The answer to the first question is obvious to everybody. You can probably provide a quick answer to the second, to save me many minutes of research. There’s no right or wrong answer to the third, but debating such questions is the closest thing we have on earth to the conversation of heaven.

    1. As far as I know, Gogol wasn’t a gambler — actually he was unpleasantly surprised to find out Pushkin was. And Rachmaninoff got his own estate through his wife, only to lose it to the Bolsheviks.

  2. Sports betting by competitors highly frowned upon USA ever since the Black Sox scandal of 1919. No matter what sport the betting can get you into debt with gamblers and loan sharks big time. You are compromised.

    They all say that too. “Yes I bet but not against my own team!”

  3. It seems the diagnosis of a medical condition was considered, but not actually taken seriously by the FA. If they truly believed that the gambling was a disease there would be no grounds for a suspension. If a goalie intentionally lets in a goal in order to lose a game, he would be suspended or banned from the sport. If the same goalie lets in a goal because his appendix suddenly bursts and he falls to the ground in agony, nobody would blame him.

    It is funny that so many people want to rely on some unseen force (“the universe”) that can take the blame for their sins (sorry! their bad luck), but they would never considered that higher power as God.

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