Unlike many of my comrades in the punditry game, I don’t do a lot of TV. But I’m currently promoting my latest doom-mongering bestseller, so I’m spending more time than usual on the telly circuit. This week I was on the BBC’s current-affairs flagship Newsnight. My moment in the spotlight followed a report on the recent riots in English cities, in the course of which an undercover reporter interviewed various rioters from Manchester who’d had a grand old time setting their city ablaze and then expressed no remorse over it. There then followed a studio discussion, along the usual lines. The host introduced a security guard who’d fought for Queen and country in Afghanistan and Bosnia and asked whether he sympathized with his neighbors. He did. When you live in an “impoverished society,” he said, “people do what they have to do to survive.”
When we right-wing madmen make our twice-a-decade appearance on mainstream TV, we’re invariably struck by how narrow are the bounds of acceptable discourse in polite society. But in this instance I was even more impressed by how liberal pieties triumph even over the supposed advantages of the medium. Television, we’re told, favors strong images — Nixon sweaty and unshaven, Kennedy groomed and glamorous, etc. But, in this instance, the security guard’s analysis, shared by three-quarters of the panel, was entirely at odds with the visual evidence: There was no “impoverished society.” The preceding film had shown a neat subdivision of pleasant red-brick maisonettes set in relatively landscaped grounds. There was grass, and it looked maintained. Granted, it was not as bucolic as my beloved New Hampshire, but, compared to the brutalized concrete bunkers in which the French and the Swedes entomb their seething Muslim populations, it was nothing to riot over. Nonetheless, someone explained that these riotous Mancunian youth were growing up in “deprivation,” and the rioters themselves seemed disposed to agree. Like they say in West Side Story, “I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived.” We’ve so accepted the correlation that we don’t even notice that they’re no longer deprived, but they are significantly more depraved.
In fact, these feral youth live better than 90 percent of the population of the planet. They certainly live better than their fellow youths halfway around the world who go to work each day in factories across China and India to make the cool electronic toys young Westerners expect to enjoy as their birthright. In Britain, as in America and Europe, the young take it for granted that this agreeable division of responsibilities is as permanent a feature of life as the earth and sky: Rajiv and Suresh in Bangalore make the state-of-the-art gizmo, Kevin and Ron in Birmingham get to play with it. That’s just the way it is. And, because that’s the way it is, Kevin and Ron and the welfare state that attends their every need assume ’twill always be so.
To justify their looting, the looters appealed to the conventional desperation-of-deprivation narrative: They’d “do anything to get more money.” Anything, that is, except get up in the morning, put on a clean shirt, and go off to do a day’s work. That concept is all but unknown to the homes in which these guys were raised. Indeed, Newsnight immediately followed the riot discussion with a report on immigration to Britain from Eastern Europe. Any tourist in London quickly accepts that, unless he hails a cab or gets mugged, he will never be served by a native Londoner: Polish baristas, Balkan waitresses, but, until the mob shows up to torch his hotel, not a lot of Cockneys. A genial Member of Parliament argued that the real issue underlying the riots is “education and jobs,” but large numbers of employers seem to have concluded that, if you’ve got a job to offer, the best person to give it to is someone with the least exposure to a British education.