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Another Cause of the British Riots? Ignorance.


It is tempting, even for those of us who categorically reject the notion that the rioters in Britain have a noble cause, to try and look for reasons why so many people would behave as terribly as they have over the past week, especially in the absence of a real spark. The more I have read, and the more that those who have been involved have spoken about their motivation, the more that I have come to an unhappy conclusion: a key factor here is sheer, unbridled ignorance. Listen, for example, to this BBC interview with two teenage girls from Croydon who are “explaining” their participation.

They can barely string a sentence together. One gets the sad impression that they are clutching feebly at straws, trying desperately to bring concepts they have heard somewhere within their grasp, but in actuality knowing not a damn thing about anything. They may as well be speaking Latin, and stand in need of a literary Martin Luther to point out that drone-like reiteration of buzzwords does not a platform make. There is no revolution in the hearts of these two, except perhaps against intellect.

It is almost heartening that the employment of the words “conservatives,” “the government,” “the rich people,” and “the people who have got businesses” carries such little weight. Almost. Unfortunately it sharply highlights that the failure of our schools goes beyond their inability to impose discipline and engender civil behavior, and indicts them for failing to impart even the most basic education. Tony Blair came into office promising that his focus would be on “education, education, education” and, until he left office, almost every speech, commercial, and leaflet put out by the Labour government boasted of extra spending on schools (which we know, of course, is not the same thing as improving quality). Yet despite the extra taxes, and despite the thorny paradox that exam results in the UK have improved every year for the last twenty but everyone is still somehow less educated, Britain’s world education ranking dropped from 4th to 25th between 2000 and 2010.

Our two friends from Croydon instintively blame the government without being sure who is in power, and clearly have no idea what a “business” actually is. I would wager a healthy sum that they routinely wear clothes that are not only made by multi-national corporations like Nike and Adidas, but have their logos emblazoned across the front. (This is not to mention that the first things that were stolen when the looting began were flat screen televisions and mobile phones, made by companies like Apple, Sony, and Panasonic.) Naomi Kleins they are not — the types that flooded the streets are, without question, the most materialistic in the country. And yet they have no idea where their belongings come from, and by whom they were made. They have no idea about anything. They are terminally ignorant.

James A. Baldwin wrote that “the most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.” He was talking about poverty, but it also applies to those whose grasp on the world around them is so weak that they do not know what is in their interest and what is not. If we do not appreciate civilization, and if we do not appreciate the alternatives, then we have nothing. So why preserve it? At National Review, we are fond of talking about societies that are too sick or craven to survive. In the case of the Croydon duo, we could substitute “sick” for “stupid” without much changing the effect.