The Corner

Paralytic Western Society

It is fascinating to see how postmodern Western societies react to wide-scale rioting, looting, and thuggery aimed at innocents. In Britain, politicians contemplate the use of water cannons as if they were nuclear weapons; and here the mayor of Philadelphia calls on rappers to appeal to youth to help ease the flash-mobbing that has a clear racial component to it (is the attorney general’s Civil Rights Division investigating?). His appeal is perhaps understandable, but many of the themes of rap music — violence against the police, racial chauvinism, and nihilism—may well be some of the cultural catalysts behind the flash violence, though to suggest as much would be seen as more racist than the racist profiling used by the flash beaters. All these incidents are symptomatic of a general breakdown and loss of confidence in Western society. Such urban violence was of course a constant in 19th- and 20th-century Europe and America, but now it is deeply embedded within modern sociology and no longer seen quite as criminality. 

We seem able to admit that massive federal and state entitlements have created a sense of dependency, a loss of self-respect and initiative, and a breakdown of the family, yet we still seem to fear that trimming the subsidies would lead to some sort of cold-turkey hyper-reaction. We assume that society is to blame for disaffected youth and therefore are hesitant to use commensurate force to quell the violence or even to make it clear that perpetrators are responsible for their own conduct. Yet at some point — when the violence reaches middle-class communities or, in serial fashion, downtown or suburban stores — we likewise assume that sufficient force will be used. Sociological exegesis will go out the window. Reality has a way of dispelling such cognitive luxuries.

On the national level, this sad paralysis, this Hamlet disease, is reflected in calls for more spending and stimulus even as we concede that we have no plan or ability to pay back the massive and unsustainable debt we’ve already run up. The president’s Keynesian technocrats, to whom he outsourced economic policy, have all quit or been fired, or are contemplating leaving soon. He is left fearing that the usual progressive stimulants — near-zero interest, massive federal borrowing, increases in unemployment insurance and food stamps, public works projects, middle-class tax holidays — have not worked, and yet he cannot imagine assuming responsibility, taking the heat, and trying something different. We can’t decide whether the Libyan rebels are noble reformers or — as we learn more and more that Gaddafi’s mercenary forces are as tough as many warned — incompetent and worse, so we sorta bomb, sorta not, sorta follow the French, sorta not. In other words, lancing these boils is seen as worse that letting the boils grow, so on matters of debt and foreign policy, for now we do nothing, though we know that at some point nature will take its course in the form of financial insolvency and humiliating defeat. Then our post facto recriminations will be even more acrimonious than our present loud inaction. We are left with the Roman maxim of the remedies seen as worse than the disease.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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