Learning Something from the Streets?

by Victor Davis Hanson

Thousands of pages have already been written in explication of the British rioting and (quite lesser incidence of) American flash mobbing. If one combines these analyses with direct news accounts, op-eds, Youtube confessionals, and official government pronouncements describing constantly changing strategies, I think one can draw three disinterested conclusions.

1. Material well-being is now defined in relative rather than absolute terms. That is, poverty means lacking the opportunities afforded the 21st-century upper middle classes, not in being deprived, in a Dickensian sense, of food (obesity, not hunger, is a Western epidemic), shelter, hot water, or access to transportation.

2. There is a natural assumption that inequality is attributable to oppression of some sort, rather than luck, fate, circumstances of birth, hard work, education, and all the multitude of complex factors that determine that a few work for $200 an hour and far more earn $20 or less. That someone appears more fortunate ipso facto seems somewhat unfair, without much reflection about the unique circumstances that bestow such advantages (or the unfairness of nature herself in blessing only some with talent or good health), as if the emergency-room surgeon or nuclear-plant engineer was allotted such privileged employment rather than sacrificed to earn it. 

3. There is a general expectation that the better-off, or even the middle class, as well as government and society at large, are either unable or unwilling to defend their values and accomplishments — or even to demonstrate much belief in their own innate good. This seems to be well known to the miscreant offenders who have little fear and less respect for “authority.” Perhaps it is because we in the West have ruined our education system and most of our youth are thus amnesiac, with no knowledge of past conditions or of the work and bequests of prior, far more deprived generations. Perhaps it is because our ethos frowns on rewarding good behavior and punishing bad — not that we can define either very easily these days. So when rioters hit the British streets, the ruling classes and technocratic elite debate over whether non-lethal force such as plastic bullets and water cannon could be seen as excessive, and an aristocracy wonders out loud whether society itself is to blame for the torching of a food market. (One’s physical proximity to the mayhem often calibrates such abstract speculations).

Very few Westerners proudly say that their social, political, and economic system has given untold numbers untold material wealth unimagined not just a century but even two decades ago, as well as a level of freedom of expression, security of the person, and consumer indulgence that would seem staggering to most non-Westerners today. Instead, the more fortunate classes adopt a therapeutic sense of publicly expressed guilt that seems rightly phony to the dispossessed, and is seen by themselves as a sort of medieval penance, an abstract caring that justifies their own concrete and rather segregated enjoyment of the good life. As for the law, it is too often a construct predicated on fluid social, race, and class considerations, and thus — whether in enforcing immigration statutes or arresting and trying hordes of attackers — not so easily applied. In general the misdemeanor of the law-abiding citizen is more of a target than the felony of the miscreant — the latter always being a money-losing and sometimes far more dangerous enterprise.

To start to address these pathologies would in the short term make things worse, since the transformation from state dependence to self-reliance and a change from a [blank]-studies curriculum to a classically defined menu of basic math, science, language, literature, history, etc. would provoke a level of social disruption and anger that few politicians would be willing to endure. (The problem is not really going from a separatist salad bowl to a unifying melting pot, but rather that so few people these days know much about a common culture and have the expertise and confidence to teach anyone its history and protocols.)

A final note: Furor often arises not over draconian cuts to entitlements per se, but over suggested cuts to the expansion of subsidies, and the most aggrieved at such cutbacks are not always just the recipients but also the worried state stewards who administer and are invested in the system of state support.

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