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Friday, August 12, 2011

Oh, Albion...

I have been avidly reading the news coverage of the orgy of rioting, looting and vandalism that has suddenly engulfed so many towns in England, including London, over the last week.

Why has it happened? The pundits, as is their wont, have come up with a mixed bag of explanations. Growing income inequalities resulting from recent government policies, exacerbated by increasingly onerous poverty among large numbers and consequent anger especially among the most ‘deprived’ and despairing youth which has now exploded: that was one favourite explanation – until today, when reports are saying that the arrested perpetrators, almost a thousand of them already, not only vary in age from 11(!) to the mid-forties, but include comfortable to well-off people (see this), prompting an ordinary Londoner to lament ‘We really have brought up a horrible generation of kids!’ Police ‘atrocities’ against members of a certain community in the recent past have been another favourite whipping boy. Things have been growing darker: it seems that in some places phalanxes of Asians are now gearing up for a long-drawn-out race war against Blacks. Paradoxically, one more explanation is overly lax policing: apparently it took the prime minister three whole days to decide to authorize the lawkeepers to use force (and that too, only guns with plastic-tipped bullets, while they still debate the appropriateness of water cannon to scatter armed mobs). One does not need to wonder what the government’s reaction would be if this had been happening either in New York/LA or New Delhi/Kolkata…

What has gone wrong with this highly cultured, rich, consciously multicultural society?

Is Britain confused, or unprepared, or just too civilized to handle big social turbulences of this sort?

And turning back to India, I believe the picture is both more confusing and more frightening. There are far more people crushed together here, far more poverty and inequality, a far more volatile multicultural mix, far less social responsibility and discipline, government that is far more inept and by turns excessively indulgent and excessively brutal. A very potent brew, and little fires keep erupting every now and then with monotonous regularity, of course: but can we handle a sudden conflagration? Or rather, from prime minister down to the man in the street, do we want even to think about it? (in this context, you might read this blogpost – along with the comments – that I think has acquired a new immediacy).

P.S., August 13: wikipedia's relevant article, updated today, says a certain poll claims a huge 71% of affected people feel that criminal behaviour, gang culture and poor policing have together been responsible for the riots. If this is not a big enough go-ahead for the government to crack down with conviction on the perpetrators, what else could be? Talk about pussyfooting... 

9 comments:

ginger candy said...

Dear Sir,

I found this article both timely and appropriate in this context. Please give it a read: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/right-and-wrong/entry/once-upon-a-time-britain-was-great

Thanks,
Joydeep

Shilpi said...

Suvro da,

When I read about the first of the riots last week I had a bad feeling, almost wrote a couple of lines, and then forgot to follow the news until I read your latest. They had initial reports with members of the police saying that they couldn't use force to quell the mob because of earlier reports against them. Sometimes I think it's all about being politically correct.

And it doesn't help when people muddle issues with nobody really articulating clearly nor listening while some will spout the very 'in' rhetoric. There was a young Black man from Tottenham who helps unemployed youth of the community who could have been brought in on an official interview (then, at least, other folks wouldn't accuse him of being 'racist'). He said that the riots had nothing to do with poverty and inter-racial violence. It was about going and raiding the shops. He pointed out while almost laughing that the idea the riots were anything more than a breakdown of order and values (and a lack of role models within society) is ridiculous when one sees people breaking into shops to run out with clothes, shoes and TVs (and many of the same community who were wearing ‘100 pound jeans’!). Even being poor and unemployed, he mentioned, hardly excused going on a shopping rampage.

And the riots had nothing to do with the 'peaceful protest' (which a couple of politically correct nitwits keep voicing) either. And the other problems: unemployment, increasing levels of poverty, multi-cultural and multi-racial problems, and police brutality (even though opposing facts have also been pointed out) don't explain the abnormal side…, does it? Why would so-called educated or normal or well-off and even rich people run off with consumer goods including clothes and shoes! What sort of a ‘protest’ is this even among the underprivileged apart from being a bizarre case of consumerism gone haywire. It almost seems like something out of a satirical story of the socio-cultural times that someone may have written. And I don't think it helps when gently gushing newscasters sympathetically interview little girls drinking stolen bottles of wine...and to the sympathetic 'tut-tutting', the girls cockily boast that they're all sending a message...and to the police: they can't be told to do 'things'; 'we can do what we want' (!), and also that they hope that 'it' (the rioting and the rest) keeps going.

The linked article that you have, pointed out to something terribly interesting and quite unique as far as I can see...no books were stolen. I don't quite know what to say about that other than 'I'm not surprised'. And what can one say about the other article…are they ‘victims’ too somehow?

....I’d somehow imagined though that England was doing a better job at making their society truly multi-ethnic and less informally segregated. Not from anything else – just by looking at all those mixed groups of people working, conversing and laughing together at their airports.

Haha, about the pussyfooting. This reminded me of one of Solzhenitsyn’s essays. Read it some years ago (after I’d read your blog-post on him) where he talks about some riots that broke out on the streets of New York simply because the power had gone out for some hours and there was looting and vandalism that people engaged in simply because there was a break in the usual system of law and order and accountability. And all this reminds me of an essay you wrote on civilization…for one thing.

Reading about things of this sort makes me worry about both the US and India…Shall comment on your older post too after thinking some things over. Read it some months ago, and at least twice in between, but I’ll ‘sit over the comment’ before sending it.

Very nice title....

Shilpi

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for the link, Joydeep. This particular line is most appositely diagnostic, only I wanted someone else to say it: "The riots exposed the alarming extent to which a relatively pampered society has bred an underclass that has no sense of values. In the absence of any moral authority - at home, in school, the church, and from a wider family and settled neighbourhood-many young Britons have lost the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. .."

For me this cultural decay of England is deeply tragic, because I happen to be one of the few remaining humans, maybe, who still identify all that is the best of human civilization with what England once stood for, a long time ago. But that is what history is about, I guess; all nations rise and fall. What is to be very carefully noticed by today's Indians, however, is that a nation doesn't have to be economically poor to be sick and decaying; by the same argument, a nation does not become civilized and admirable merely if it (or rather, some people in it) become very rich!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Here is Ian Jack writing in today's The Telegraph:http://goo.gl/zyKRf

Though I hold a much less rosy picture of what the contemporary Indian situation is like (there are at least 300 million people around who have no solid reason for expecting that their children will live better than they), I wholly agree, knowing all I know about what has been happening to Britain since the end of World War II, that both the Right and the Left have enough grounds for saying what they are saying. Now it remains to be seen whether they can build a consensus on measures to be taken, and act promptly upon it. Also, whether other nations, such as our own, take heed and learn lessons while there is time. It is a matter of very great importance to keep in mind that the vandals stole neither food nor books, but laptops and iPods and flatscreen TVs and Nike trainers...

Can't we recognize their likes in this country? I find it a matter of disquiet and dismay that so few of my readers have found it worth their while thinking about this issue and commenting upon it.

Al-Le-Gr-Fi said...

Hello, I was referred to your blog by your daughter, and I was surprised how much attention and media coverage the England riots have gained worldwide.

I'm from a small town in the North of England, and even here there was some disorder - although only the big cities got the coverage. I've had the chance to speak to several of the "rioters" myself, and I assure you you're very right in quoting Wikipedia's article. None of this was political, and none of this was due to "deprivation"... It was pure criminality and the selfish nature of, unfortunately, my own generation and country.

These riots have made me feel ashamed to be English, but I have to say good things have come out of this. For one, more than a thousand "chavs" - as they are called - have been arrested; taking them off our streets and letting me sleep better at night.

Also, the harsh punishments that have been enforced in the aftermath by the British police will, I believe, prevent this from happening further. One man got 8 months for stealing a bottle of water, which is exactly what we need.

All the best,
Alex ~ 16 year old Brit.

Nishant Kamath said...

Dear Sir,

I was myself quite shocked and saddened by the recent events in England. Protesting is one thing, but looting and vandalising are entirely different things all together. During all my trips to London, short as they were each time (a few weeks), I never observed any racial/ethnic discrimination. It might have been because each visit was too short and/or that I didn't visit any of the 'deprived' neighbourhoods.

But in any case, I have difficulty imagining people who seem so calm and self-assured and who can laugh at themselves and their follies (I'm sure British humour transcends television shows) turn so ugly and opportunistic all of a sudden. I don't mean the entire population of course (there were people with brooms trying to clean the mess on the streets and bring things back to normal), just the ones who indulged in vandalism, and they aren't really deprived, from what I read in the news (there were college students, a person who was/is in the army, amongst others). As I mentioned before, I was quite sad at the events that unfolded since I had had a very good time there. I could sense that there was some problem but couldn't put my finger on it until I read this post, and one of your older posts and Ian's article and Shilpi di's comment that books didn't get stolen, only consumer goods did.

'Mindless consumerism', as you had mentioned once in class, seems to be a worldwide epidemic now. You'd told us that people always need to believe in something: religion or a Fuhrer or brands and now this obsession with buying and owning goods (most of which are useless or can be easily done without), and believing that they are vital for life has really become frightening. I'm reminded of a quote from the movie Fight Club:

'I flipped through catalogs and wondered: What kind of dining set defines me as a person?'

I am so sick of hearing about the latest app or feature or 9G and unlimited data transfer that nowadays I am tempted to use gadgets with the most basic features possible. I am sorry if I have digressed from the main topic (I do get carried away on this topic). I think I want to watch Fight Club again now.

Sincerely
Nishant.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Alex,
Many thanks for commenting, and welcome to my blog. I hope you will read and comment on some other, older posts too.

Nishant,
You, who remember so many things I said, will surely also remember my saying that travelling all around the world as much as you have, you were incredibly lucky not to have some nasty experiences. I do hope your luck holds.

Mindless consumerism is the order of the day. It's sick for the individual and deadly for the species. I simply can't decide whether it is worse than all the other manias that have gripped mankind from time to time, from witchhunts to king-worship to the tyranny of dialectical materialism... yes, Fight Club, sickening as the theme is, says it very well indeed.

Shilpi,

When will sociologists start seriously researching the issue of values again, and how important they are to healthy social life? Non-professionals are doing it with gusto. Two articles in this month's issue of Reader's Digest are cases in point: one, a report on a global opinion poll, says the vast majority of today's parents say it is essential to teach children the virtues of respect, kindness and obedience (Obama has publicly said if parents fail on this count by the million, no state can make up for the lapse); the other laments a worldwide cheating epidemic among students of all ages, including people studying to become teachers and priests....

Abhirup said...

Dear Sir,

I fully agree with all that you have said, and would like to elaborate upon an issue that you have subtly hinted at. One major reason why the British government has been so hesitant to adopt stern measures is that many of the rioters are blacks or 'coloured' in some way, and hence, dealing with them in a tough way may result in the government being accused of racism. This wretched political correctness is a bane of our times: because certain people were ill-treated in the past, their descendants, it seems, must be treated with kid gloves even when they are behaving like lumpens and vandals. Of course a black man should not be victimized because of the colour of his skin, but what if he is guilty of destroying public property and putting the lives of others in jeopardy? What if he has been caught red-handed while stealing from departmental stores, as so many were during the riots? In such cases, I believe (and I think every sensible man on earth shall be with me on this) that the black man should be looked upon just as a criminal. Nothing more, nothing less. He is someone who has broken the law, and he must be punished for it. The policemen, and the government who runs the police force, ought to be colour-blind in these matters. Yeah, there will always be a bunch of idiots who will cry 'racist'. Many of these idiots will also be professors in colleges: ossified, jargon-obsessed bores who shall come up with elaborate "post-colonial" and "sociological" theories on why certain races are behaving violently and why we must "understand" them (they shall immediately stop saying so if they lose a loved one in the riots, though, and may end up using the "Exterminate all the brutes" rhetoric of Kurtz in 'Heart of Darkness', throwing all post-colonial theories out of the window). It is the sacred duty of any government to ignore their pontifications and do their duty, which is to ensure the safety of the citizens and manitain law and order. And those who try to prevent the government from doing so, be they whites, blacks, Asians or anything else, they should be arrested and penalized. Protests are a part of democracy, riots aren't. Dissent is sacred, anarchy isn't. The sooner we all realize this, the better.

Yours sincerely,
Abhirup Mascharak.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Right as far as it goes, Abhirup, but notice that these lumpens and vandals were neither all coloured, nor poor, nor (formally) uneducated. The rot has gone very deep. And this is not restricted to England, as I have discussed in the next post. At least the French President has not pulled his punches when he called such people in his own country 'scum', and David Cameron, too, has used unusually strong language for a contemporary prime minister - though it remains to be seen whether that's as far as he goes. I pray that our own rulers wake up to the ground reality quickly too, and take the sort of circus that is happening right now on the Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi firmly in hand.