Seeking an Answer Isn’t the Same as Justifying

I’ve seen lots of reactions to the UK rioting, from sympathy for the looters on the far left all the way to ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ rhetoric from the Daily Mail. Most of it, it seems to me, is misguided because most of it looks for easy answers.

Would a violent overreaction from the police have helped anything? Maybe it would have been emotionally satisfying for those made angry by what happened, but prison recidivism is very high. Take a petty criminal, put him in a British jail and when he comes out, you’ll more likely than not have a hardened criminal. Not a recipe for success.

But just as revenge doesn’t help anyone, nor does an overly sympathetic reading of events. No one has more sympathy for poverty than me, but most of Britain’s poor were not looting electronics stores, nor would they ever dream of doing so. To make sweeping generalizations about poverty and immigration seems to me to insult and demean the 99% of good, honest citizens who would never stoop so low as to set fire to a store or a home or a car. Who work hard, take pride in their communities, and help others.

Instead, the people looting were often petty criminals and gang members known already to police. As I said in my last post, I’ve seen these people before. I used to know some of them. Only then they hung out at football matches and now they do this instead. There is something about British society that creates this lost underclass and something about British culture that makes violence and rioting a fairly regular occurrence.

So is this what David Cameron calls ‘broken Britain?’ I hate that phrase. Not least because when he speaks of ‘broken Britain’ he seems to be referring only to the bottom of society and not to his buddies at the top. Not to the bankers who skimmed off billions in the greatest ponzi scheme of our lifetimes. Not to the politicians who stole from taxpayers by fiddling their expenses. Not to the police who took bribes from the media. Not to the media chiefs who break the law routinely to generate more profits. And not to himself, who hired a known criminal because he thought it would make Rupert Murdoch like him more. No, none of these people are “broken” or “sick” and they couldn’t possibly be part of the problem.

I’ve read so many articles over the last few days written by people trying to understand what’s happened. And of course, there are those for whom trying to understand equals making excuses. But it’s perfectly possible to hate the crimes that were committed while also wanting to know why they happened.

Phil and I have talked about it a lot these last few days. Trying to understand why what happened in Britain doesn’t happen here. As we talked, I realized that we both could think of riots in the US so maybe the UK isn’t so different after all? Maybe it’s just the smallness of the country that makes a difference. When people rioted in LA in the 90s, that behavior didn’t spread to other cities across the country. And it would be quite possible for there to be a riot in Brooklyn for example, that is never even heard about outside the New York area. But in the UK, everyone watches the same few news channels and those news channels cover the whole country. Everyone reads the same few newspapers and those newspapers, again, cover the whole country. So perhaps that’s the only difference?

Or maybe it’s the sense of aspiration that pervades American culture but isn’t nearly as strong in the UK. The (usually mistaken) idea that if you work hard you can have whatever you want. The good old American Dream. Perhaps the class divisions still exist enough in the UK to rule out that possibility for millions of people, despite all those years of free university education.

Or perhaps it’s because America does so much better in integrating its immigrants, giving all of us who come from somewhere else an equal opportunity to succeed (and that I have found to be absolutely true).

In the end it’s probably a mixture of all the above plus countless other factors. There’s no easy explanation, much as so many people would like to find one. For the Tories, these riots are evidence that New Labour broke Britain by trying to help too much. For Labour, these riots are evidence that Mrs. Thatcher broke Britain by breaking up working class communities and creating a culture of greed. But perhaps both these things are true and perhaps they’re still only a fraction of the story. It can’t have been Mrs Thatcher’s fault that Leeds United fans in the early 1970s used to serenade the opposing fans with a rousing chorus of “you’re going to get your f****** heads kicked in.” And it would be stretching things even further to blame Tony Blair for that.

If the riots actually start a national conversation aimed at true understanding, then perhaps some good can come out of them. In America, I would have no hope of that happening. Our political culture is too broken to allow it. In the UK, I really don’t know. Is that possible?

4 thoughts on “Seeking an Answer Isn’t the Same as Justifying

  1. I’ve been a bit annoyed at times listening and watching “professors” and “riot experts” say this is all about protesting about the cuts. The young are seperated from society, don’t feel part of it anymore, maybe some truth in that but the first few court cases and convictions that came through the courts told a very different story. The first three were an 11 year old from a middle class background, a 15 yr old girl from Grammar school, the daughter of a very successful and well off business man and a 31 yr old Primary School assistant who was highly thought of and was described by his employer as a mentor for the young.

    The people who were involved in these riots weren’t against the cuts, weren’t protesting about their role in society. They were just taking advantage of the situation and were comitting crimes. They came from all sorts of backgrounds, some are unemployed of course but there are also a lot of unemployed young people who don’t riot and burn down their local shops.

    There were also a lot of young people who went on to Facebook and Twitter and organised a clean up the next day going to the local shopkeepers and offering help. The vast majority of young people the world over are good honest decent people,a danger of all this is that people of my generation will read the papers and just write off the young as worthless criminals.

    So far I have been very impressed by the leaders of both parties who as yet have resisted the temptation to score cheap political points over this. However I was ashamed to listen to Ken Livingstone on TV on the Monday night during the worst of the London riots who was only interested in campaigning for Mayor. I have always admired him but was saddened to listen to his rhetoric on Monday night. Thankfully the rest of the Labour party , so far , have not used it to score points. So maybe in answer to your last question Louise, maybe some good debate and results can come from it. Maybe!

  2. I think it is not just one thing. This started as an isolated racial incident, and proceeded to morph into something larger. I believe there were some elements of anarchist “fighting back”, but also simple criminality, and finally those taking advantage of the situation for profit or “excitement” in the case of the wealthy girl. Interesting that we even mention her in the scheme of how many were on the streets. I doubt her motives are really indicative of the many others.

    I do agree with the poster above that perhaps good debate can come from it, as UK is smaller. Here in the US I can potentially see the same thing happening and sparking a civil war (depending upon where it happened). People are so partisan and on edge here. And that is without the austerity cuts UK has been dealing with. So far unemployment is our main thing – but more cuts are coming (particularly if folks are foolish enough to turn the entire Gov’t over to the tea party in 2012).

    Your comments on culture of violence are interesting Louise, something that may also apply to this country in some ways.

    • Hi Iota, How interesting. Perhaps it’s my unique perception because of where I live now. New York is about as ‘melting pot’ as it gets. And maybe my views on England are twisted from being away so long. It would be interesting to hear your views.

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