Following the riots and some of the aftermath from Berlin cast a perspective that was both troubling and uplifting.
Troubling because the orgiastic delight in wanton destruction on display in London and elsewhere is echoed in the sadistic grins of Nazis tormenting Jews in the photographs in Berlin’s extensive network of Holocaust sites; both, notwithstanding the irony that Hitler’s stormtroopers would have seen themselves as biologically superior to many of 2011’s rioters, remind us of the fragility of our civilisation.
We should perhaps take more notice of the warnings abundant in much of our high culture about the consequences of taking the survival of civilised norms and the rationality of human beings too much for granted. The remains of Berlin’s wonderful legacy of art and architecture, so much of which was destroyed or lost because of Hitler’s war, brought to mind Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’ and ‘these fragments I have shor’d against my ruins’. Perhaps some wealthy realist about human nature should fund the distribution free with every copy of the ‘Guardian’ of Conrad’s ‘The Heart of Darkness’. The ensuing row about why it is not a racist novel because it seeks to show to show that every group of human beings has been, at some point, both victim of other people’s savagery (in this case, Belgian imperialism) and as capable of it as everyone else, would be very educative for the delusional liberal classes.
The Berlin perspective is also uplifting because of the care with which much of its culture and civilisation is being restored to it, including the magnificent legacy of German Jewry, and the honesty and openness with which Germans are facing up to the past. That said, it is still possible that Germany will continue to apply the wrong lessons from the Nazi era and go on treating cultural diversity as a good in itself but the widespread public support for Thilo Sarrazin’s book attacking multiculturalism is cause for hope.
So, what lessons might we usefully learn from the eruption of evil over the last ten days or so in many of our cities?
Lesson number one is the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the left, with some honourable exceptions. Much of the ‘progressive’ analysis, fully endorsed by the BBC now that it has recovered from its stunned shock at the nastiness on the streets, would have been risibly fatuous if the events had not been so serious. My own two favourite examples of leftist thoughts from La La Land were former Home Secretary David Blunkett’s assertion that the rioters were too old to have benefited from Sure Start and that’s why their behaviour was so bad, and economist David Blanchflower’s comment that the riots were a response to the Coalition’s abolition of the Future Jobs Fund and the Educational Maintenance Allowance. Blanchflower was on the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee. Good to know our country’s affairs are in the hands of people of such insight and understanding.
I should point out that most sixth form students in two areas where I teach and have taught received EMA. Neither area has gone up in flames; they’re mostly nice kids and anyway EMA is not that important to them. Most have part-time jobs from which they do quite nicely. Applications to our sixth form have risen for September; they could afford the bus fare to college – they do for other things – but they have other priorities.
Anyone inclined to give any credence to these and other blame-it-on-the-Tories explanations should look carefully at the footage (it’s available on You Tube) of the attack on the poor Malaysian student, Ashraf Haziq, being mugged by a gang after he has already had his jaw broken and his bike stolen by another lot of thugs. The events are now well-known. What should chill every civilised person to the bone is the utterly calm, methodical and calculating way in which he is ‘helped’ to his feet by one thief so that another one can, with brisk efficiency, rifle through Ashraf’s backpack and take what he wants. He then swaggers off, displaying his booty as if he’s won it in some epic contest. The mob then stroll away, presumably in search of other victims.
There was no passion shown, other than the recognition of an opportunity for gain at someone else’s expense. These were not the actions of people who are politically and morally aware, who are conscious of issues and concepts of justice and injustice or even of simple right and wrong. Nor were they the actions of people driven to desperation by ‘poverty’. Look at them: the two young men at the centre of the thieving are strong and well-built. They and their hangers-on are wearing trainers – no doubt, expensive ones; they have mobile phones – again, no doubt, expensive and frequently used; and they have neither the fear of the authorities nor the furious focus on confronting the enemy of people in politically conscious revolt against an oppressor. Compare and contrast with the actions of people with real grievances facing real oppression in, for example, Syria.
In their very different ways, both Ashraf and his assailants remind me of students I’ve encountered in inner city classrooms on many occasions. On the one hand, those, and they tend disproportionately to be young black boys and boys from the white underclass (and not a few girls), for whom school and what it has to offer are of no interest whatsoever, an attitude often shared by parents; on the other hand, the children of the aspiring and conscientious working class (of all cultures) and of many immigrant families. Anyone who has taught, for example, Polish, Chinese or Indian children in any numbers will know what a joy it generally is. Regardless of socio-economic background, the Chinese, to take just one group, are among the highest achievers in our education system. Unsurprisingly, this difference in attitude and ethos is expressed in patterns of employment: while the left whinge about rising unemployment among British workers, well-educated, highly motivated foreigners find little difficulty in getting work here.
Let’s be clear: unless we are to empty the language of all meaning and simultaneously abandon moral concepts of key importance to most of the working class, however hard-pressed, we cannot claim that ‘poverty’ or ‘deprivation’ or ‘exclusion’ is the prime cause of the riots.
Some leftist writers, notably David Goodhart at ‘Prospect’ online and the novelist Philip Hensher, writing in the ‘Independent on Sunday’, recognise this and have addressed, among other factors, my own lesson number two: the need for greater judgementalism in matters of culture.
Philip Larkin once wrote that
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
In fact, as Larkin well knew, the 60s revolt of the authentic, sensuous individual against bourgeois convention was the culmination of a process which owed much to the Bloomsbury set and can be traced further back to aspects of the Romantic movement in the 19th Century. The hippy dream, which was given a harder revolutionary and anarchist edge by the student movements of 1968, of a world of peace, plenty and unlimited freedom collapsed under the strain of the brute facts of human nature and the economic crises and threat of war in the 1970s. What was left was a residue which emphasised our right to sexual fulfillment and self-expression and indeed to the satisfaction of any desire we might happen to have, short of murder and sex with children, and a vague but powerful sense of entitlement.
Notions of childhood and young adulthood as stages in life requiring adult guidance in order to make a disciplined transition to maturity came under attack as oppressive and deforming. The drive to treat children as a separate class with rights and interests over and against those of adults and to whom adults had to justify any exercise of authority had begun. It has culminated in such sinister absurdities as taxpayer-funded Children’s Commissioners enforcing young people’s rights against adult authority which is, thereby, defined de facto as oppressive and schoolchildren interviewing candidates for teaching posts, including headships.
Then came Thatcherism. If Margaret Thatcher’s governments had not reformed the economy in the way they did we would be in an even worse mess than we are. It remains true, however, that the two greatest failings of the Conservative Party at that time were the failure to understand the urgent need for radical educational reform and the blindness to the depth of the cultural changes sweeping the country. To a far greater extent than was justified, it was assumed that the restraining influences of the ‘moral sentiments’ which Adam Smith regarded as essential in a well-functioning market economy were still widely understood and applied. The result, as the generation of ’68, now shorn of the idealism of the hippies and the Situationists, seized hold of the opportunities offered by Tory economic policy was the rise of what is now widespread in our society and which was given full criminal expression in the riots – a philosophy of purposeless, libertine, consumerist hedonism allied to crude theories of ‘rights’ and ‘entitlements’.
In a further bitter irony for Conservatives, the immense profits generated following the liberation of the financial services sector allied to the reckless greed of some bankers and the irresponsibility and fecklessness of New Labour enabled Gordon Brown to lavish vast amounts of money from taxes and borrowing on Labour’s client voters in the underclass and the state sector. Brown and Blair preferred to stoke the widespread something-for-nothing culture rather than engage in desperately-needed (and promised) reform of education and welfare. Tinkering yes but no real change: education standards continued to plummet and the numbers on out-of-work benefits grew – during a boom. The resulting shortage of skilled workers willing to work was filled by a policy of unlimited immigration (as stated quite shamelessly by David Blunkett).
One consequence of the stupid and insidious notion of the generation gap, coupled with the rise of cultural relativism, is that the idea that people progress and mature in their understanding of what constitutes good art, music or literature as they grow older has been enormously eroded. Much of the culture of the young has become separated from the main currents of western civilisation and, thereby, subjected to influences which often lack much in the way of moral reference or are simply commercial. And, of course, one may not criticise someone else’s culture, however degraded or primitive, for fear of being condemned as elitist or racist or moralising. The only exceptions to this are those manifestations of prejudice which offend the liberal elites on other grounds such as the violently anti-gay lyrics in some rap songs.
Many black commentators have pointed to the destructive impact of the sub-culture of many young black men on their educational achievement and the same point should be made about the debased subculture of much of the white underclass which, as David Starkey rightly pointed out, borrows heavily from its black counterpart. Lesson number three: the urgent need for a cultural counterrevolution in the education system.
Among the many bizarre intellectual fads of the education establishment are the notions of ‘relevance’, ‘authenticity’ and the need to celebrate one’s own culture and those of others. In practice, there is very little celebration of western civilisation in our schools; indeed, its existence is generally barely acknowledged and then only in relation to slaves, Nazis and global warming. When I started teaching in a largely white working class area of Leeds the National Front were on the rise and very popular among our students. Hardly surprising, I felt, given that the traditional institutions of the working class had been squashed flat by the state and its children were being denied access to the main culture of these islands by the multiculturalist revolution. Their white skin and their maleness were all they had left.
If anything, the situation now is worse. Encouraged not to criticise their own cultures and subcultures – unless they’re part of the West – and at the same sure of the worthlessness of Europe’s dominant traditions, insofar as they’re aware of them; certainly unaware of any object of worth beyond their own prejudices and desires; confirmed in their view that they need not move beyond whatever set of values, emotions or desires pop up on the Blackberry Messenger screen; convinced that whatever they want is their right; and oblivious to the notion that living in society must involve limits and restraints on everyone’s bahaviour many of those who rioted simply do not, and in many cases probably never will, understand that they did anything wrong. It is of limited comfort that the NF’s successors on the crude, racist wing of politics are unlikely to make much headway among people who think like this except, of course, as an excuse for another riot and bout of looting.
Many commentators have pointed out that most convicts have limited literacy and numeracy and that very large numbers of white and black boys, in particular, from poorer homes have not mastered the three Rs. While it would be a good idea to sweep away the curricular clutter, such as sex education for seven year olds, and daft ideas about teaching and learning so that the primary schools can, once again, focus on their core function and actually teach children to read, write and do Maths to a high standard, it would be so much wasted effort if, when they leave school, it makes more sense for young people to claim benefits than work.
Lesson number four: support IDS in reforming welfare in order to go further.
Of course Iain Duncan Smith is right to seek to re-establish the idea that work must be the default option in the lives of all those capable of it and that we have a duty to provide safety nets for those genuinely unable to help themselves. It is equally obviously true that we must stop rewarding men and women who insist on having children with no stable structures or regular material income to support them.
There is no need for politicians to preach on this and no point. It usually ends in embarrassing newspaper headlines and, anyway, most of the underclass are unimpressed by appeals based on the higher Kantianism; their lives are ruled by the crudest utilitarianism. Bill Clinton, that paradoxical combination of idealism and calculating cynicism, understood this, which is why he brought in America’s Welfare Reform Act which ensured that:
- Most recipients are required to find jobs within two years of first receiving welfare payments;
- Most recipients are allowed to receive welfare payments for a total of no more than five years;
- The states are allowed to establish “family caps” that prevent mothers of babies born while the mother is already on welfare from receiving additional benefits.
(Taken from US Government information supplied to About.com and accessed on 21st August 2011)
Well done, Bill. The Act had its flaws – it was a Democrat measure after all – but it did succeed in getting millions of Americans off welfare and into work and in reducing significantly the impact of a range of social problems which arose primarily through the choices people made and not structural oppression or injustice.
The problem with the state welfare monolith can be summed up in the Marxist concept of alienation: civil servants hand out vast sums of what is almost all other people’s money – with whom they have little direct contact – to claimants who have been told they are ‘entitled’ to it but who have not had to explain why to the workers from whose wages and salaries the ‘entitlement’ has been taken. No wonder the system is out of control: the concept of personal responsibility is absent and it’s easier, so much easier – for Labour politicians especially – to take the line of least resistance and just dole out the dosh. The taxpaying working and middle classes, after all, don’t riot. We are, in effect, being held to ransom by a semi-criminal underclass subculture.
So, why not cut back the state’s welfare role massively in order to create the space for a return of civil society welfare organisations on the model of the mutual societies established by working class communities in the 18th and 19th Centuries? They were based on the principle that people whose own resources were tied up in such institutions would be very concerned that that money was looked after with great care and would not themselves make unjustified claims given that they had to account for such claims to their fellow-members. 21st Century models already exist in the shape of, for example, Simply Health (formerly the Leeds District Health Fund), essentially a mutual insurance society for claiming back dental and healthcare costs; and credit unions, established, in many cases, by local churches.
No reform to education and welfare or any of the other areas of policy that need attention – criminal justice, policing, social mobility, employment – will work well, or at all, without the restoration of a widely shared, overarching vision of what moral philosophers call the good life and agreement on the means by which social and ethical crises can be defined and resolved. This will prove increasingly difficult to recover in a society which allows itself to go on being relentlessly fragmented and balkanised by cultural relativism and mass immigration.
The very cohesion and wholly admirable sense of common purpose displayed by many ethnic minority communities in defending parts of our cities increases the likelihood of such fragmentation in the continuing absence of a strong common culture of understanding. Moreover, policies of mass immigration have served since the War as a means of enabling politicians to avoid the need for radical industrial and economic change (the 1950s and 60s) and urgent reform to education and welfare (New Labour).
The courage shown by Kurds, Turks, Somalis, Sikhs and many others and the nobility and dignity of Tariq Jahan, father of murdered teenager Haroon Jahan, perhaps show the potential moral and social power in a fusion of those sterling qualities with the best of the traditions based upon the European and American inheritance.
As with similar outbreaks of barbarism in the past, the recent riots are both a warning and an opportunity. If we learn the lessons rightly, out of the flames could come the phoenix of a renewed and transformed civilisation and moral order.