I suppose by now just about everything that can be said about the British riots has been said. Every culpable feature of modern Western society – from consumerism to the welfare state – has been implicated in the devastation, with much truth on all sides. The violence is barely behind us, and yet I am already late to this topic. Still, I think there are a number of points about these events which bear mentioning, and which I have not yet encountered in the press.
The general reaction to the riots strikes me as a very curious admixture of over-reaction and under-reaction. In and of itself, a riot is no symptom of general societal decay; it indicates next to nothing about the historical trajectory of a people. There is no period and no nation which has not witnessed the occasional outbreak of mob-perpetrated violence. London itself, where the recent rioting originated, has seen such things throughout its history, even during eras we might regard as the most illustrious in English history. For instance, I hold an unabashedly romantic notion of London life in the second half of the eighteenth century, the “Age of Johnson,” a time when one could sit sipping claret in the Turk’s Head with luminaries like Burke, and Joshua Reynolds, and Edward Gibbon. Yet that generation saw the eruption of the Gordon Riots in 1780, a convulsion of rioting which, in its ferocity and the extent of its destruction, vastly overshadowed what we have just seen. So there is no reason to rush to fatalistic prognoses about the future of English society just because of a riot.
And yet, such prognoses do seem in order, not because of the riots per se, but because of the character of the rising generation which the riots evinced, a character aptly summed up by Max Hastings, writing in the Daily Mail, thus: “They have no code of values to dissuade them from behaving anti-socially or, indeed, criminally, and small chance of being punished if they do so. They have no sense of responsibility for themselves, far less towards others, and look to no future beyond the next meal, sexual encounter or TV football game.” The inarticulate purposelessness of the rioters, their evident relish of destruction for the sake of destruction, is something that has not been seen in the Western world for many centuries. If we speak candidly about what we saw, we must say that it was barbarism in one of its purest forms. But the barbarism of Western youth has been there to be seen for quite some time; that is why Theodore Dalrymple wrote that: “To have spotted it (ie, the criminality of the English population) required no great perspicacity on my part; rather, it took a peculiar cowardly blindness, one regularly displayed by the British intelligentsia and political class, not to see it and not to realize its significance.” Western peoples, and their ridiculously labeled “elites” most especially, have deliberately closed their eyes to the barbarizing effects of modern culture upon its youth for decades. The riots did not reveal anything not perfectly obvious to an intelligent person for years now, but they have shoved reality into everybody’s faces, and there is no ignoring the facts anymore.
Confronted with the brutality of our youth, the conclusion reached by many observers is that we are in store for a future of riots. This is what I call a dramatic under-reaction. To be sure, the kind of mass devastation which we observed in London is soon to become commonplace throughout the West, once we all finally tumble over the precipice of financial ruin (currently being forestalled for a year or two by the central banks’ accounting tricks). But that is the least of our worries. Indeed, the least destructive activity in which most of our young people can engage is rioting. The really horrible thing to contemplate when you listen to interviews with those nihilistic cretins who smashed into electronics boutiques to show those in power “they could do what they want” is what kind of polity they will create when the smashing is over, when time goes by and they grow up and assume control of their country. What kind of leaders will they appoint? What kind of laws will they enforce? What kind of pleasures will they consume their spare time in? The picture forming in your mind should be something like the war-camp of Attila. The raw energy of mob violence will recurrently surface and dissipate, without greatly affecting the overall tenure of society, but the steady influence of the rising generation’s incivility upon every aspect of life threatens to render Western societies, in no very great span of time, places that no decent, sensible person can inhabit comfortably.
I have taken for granted that the rioters were representative of their generation. In their aggression, their capacity for demolition, perhaps they are unique specimens, but in their brainlessness and vulgarity, they are undoubtedly fine representatives of their peers. I do not buy for one minute – and neither should you – the notion that these untoward traits are limited to the under-classes, what Hastings refers to as those “at the bottom of our society.” The barbarism of the youth transcends economic status. Having some acquaintance with young persons placed in affluent circumstances, I am quite certain that they are every bit as stupid, amoral, and crudely materialistic as the less fortunate. Their aspirations do not rise any higher than the inhabitants of the projects; they too “look to no future beyond the next meal, sexual encounter or TV football game.” They simply have, for the time being, better means to satisfy their impulses than the others. They do not smash shop windows to get their hands on plasma televisions, because their parents’ wealth makes such toys readily available to them, but they really have no greater desire in life than to have a plasma television. And when their parents’ wealth vanishes, as it shortly will, I have no doubt that many of these formerly comfortable children will find criminal enterprises quite as palatable an avenue to their wishes as slogging through a greatly constricted job market.
Along these lines, I have also obviously assumed that the character of the adolescents burning and looting in Tottenham and Birmingham more or less mirrors the character of adolescents here in America. This is really understating the matter. The fact is that the adolescents burning and looting in Tottenham and Birmingham are Americanized adolescents, the creatures of an Americanized culture. The thugs swaggering around in hoodies and mimicking gangster mannerisms have gone to school on the rancid culture excreted out of America’s urban centers for decades. What does it tell us when the British authorities are now turning to American law enforcement specialists because of their experience dealing with this vile subculture? As explained in a recent AP article:
“analysts of gang culture say it seems logical to seek American assistance, because today’s British gangs consciously ape American gang ambitions and style, from the bling to the lingo. They talk in a street patois shaped by U.S. rap lyrics, use noms de guerre lifted straight from American gangster films and crime dramas, and choose such icons as Don Corleone, Al Pacino’s Scarface or Baltimore ganglord Stringer Bell of “The Wire” TV series as their avatars on social-networking sites. ‘These teenage gangsters are creating their own criminal worlds, and in their minds it’s very much an Americanized world…” said Carl Fellstrom, an expert on England’s gangs.”
Such words should be a source of unending shame to every decent American. When, during the Quattrocento, the Italian peoples led the cultural vanguard of the West, the result was a renewed enthusiasm throughout Europe for the literature and art-work of antiquity. When, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the British Empire transmitted the fruit of England’s cultural heritage around the world, Shakespeare was taught in Mumbai, and Blackstone studied in Melbourne. When, since the latter portion of the twentieth century, America has become the dominant cultural force in the Western world, the upshot is a bunch of sub-literate hooligans in Manchester, yanking on their scrotums and howling about how many ho’s they be gettin’ wit. This is our legacy, the legacy of American cultural priority. This is the hideous truth which needs to be digested by that certain kind of conservative still among us – call him a “neo-con,” or “movement conservative,” or what have you – who belligerently asserts that America is the greatest country in the history of the world, that she has a divine mission to spread democracy all over the globe, etc., etc. Such persons should be compelled to reconcile their jingoism with the fact that, over the last fifty years, wherever American influence has gone in the world, cultural degradation has followed after.
Throughout the Cold War, various reports would emerge out of the Eastern bloc nations concerning the demoralized conditions of those populations living under the thumb of the Politburo. In the contest between American-style democracy and Russian-style communism, there can be no doubt about which was the more repressive, more bloodthirsty, more wicked system. There can be no serious doubt about which system an honest man would wish to live under. I am not proposing an equivalence of the two things, not by a long shot. By what I would suggest, by way of analogy, is that we are beginning to see, in rather unmistakable forms, the demoralizing and dehumanizing effects of our own system, on all the peoples who have fallen within the cultural ambit of America, including ourselves. The children tell the whole story; a culture which produces the sort of generation which rampaged through the streets of England is, by definition, a failed culture.
I think this is the important point to grasp, because what we are witnessing at this stage of history is a crisis of the first order, and it is imperative to understand what kind of crisis it is. It is not fundamentally the crisis of the welfare state, or the crisis of consumer capitalism, or the crisis of multiculturalism (though it is the crisis of all these things to a lesser extent). Fundamentally, it is the crisis of liberal democracy – American-style democracy – by which I mean something much more than a strictly political arrangement. I mean the sum of those prejudices concerning man and society which Americans receive as a birth-right, and which themselves give shape to their political character – the belief that liberty is just doing what you want, and that the sole end of government should be to magnify such liberty to its greatest extent possible; the conviction that the “will of the people” ought to be a controlling concept in all public deliberation; the certainty that one’s rights against society infinitely outnumber one’s duties to society; the faith in progress, defined as the improvement of technology and the accumulation of material goods; the sanguine reliance on the rectitude of the “common-man,” and the corresponding exaltation of commonality – otherwise known as mediocrity – as the standard in all things; the suspicion of intellectual cultivation; the substitution of market value for artistic criteria; the unshakeable assurance that society and all of its resources exist solely for the satisfaction of each individual, who is also the final arbiter on what such satisfaction ought to entail. There is not one of these suppositions which does not lie at the heart of the “American experiment,” and there is not one of them which is not a screaming falsehood. These are the lies which make possible things like the “nanny-state” (which rests on a series of rights-claims against the state) or consumer capitalism (which recognizes no other legitimate source of desire but market value). Most pertinently, they are the assumptions which motivate the ugly behavior of our young people. Say what you want about the slack-jawed, baggy-panted, iPod-deafened teenager, prowling around the mall for his next hook-up, but he is not being untrue to his cultural inheritance. Now the cultural assumptions of America have traveled around the world, and the ugly behavior has gone right along with it. What we need to face is the possibility that the modern West is being corroded by the most cherished, most characteristic beliefs of the American people. What we need to face is the possibility that liberal democracy is no longer a salvageable thing. That is what the riots were telling us, and what nearly every other looming crisis in the news – the sovereign debt crisis, the “war on terror,” the failure of our schools – is telling us too.
I have no expectation that we will ever be able to come to grips with such hard truths. We do not as a people possess even a minimal capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism. I think this is because we are used to being addressed almost exclusively by two sorts of people: politicians seeking our votes, and advertisers seeking our money, both of whom have the most evident motives to flatter us. So liberal society will remain undiagnosed and untreated, lapsing ever further into the terminal stages of her disease. The best that the rest of us can hope for is to get clear of her death-bed convulsions. Then, perhaps, we can start all over again.
First published in Front Porch Republic.