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Wednesday, August 10, 2011 

Between the armchair generals and the stereotype sociologist.

I've been trying to think of somewhat mocking comparisons between the flood of comment on the riots we're now up to our neck in (and which I'm going to do the equivalent of pissing in, polluting while adding to it) and likewise exhibits in popular culture. At the one extreme, some of the response looks the equivalent pulling a Wooley, the SWAT team member at the beginning of the original Dawn of the Dead. While one of the very slight failings of the film is that it's never clear quite why a SWAT team is going after a gang of criminals when flesh-eating zombies are shambling everywhere, Wooley also isn't too bothered by this chain of events. For him it's the fact that "these low lifes" are living in these "big ass fancy hotels" which are "better than what he has". "You ain't gonna talk 'em out of here, you gotta blow 'em out! Blow their asses!"

At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the Eric Idle sociologist from the Hells Grannies sketch in Monty Python, so intent on giving his prescription of exactly why these "senile delinquents" have "rejected contemporary society" that he doesn't notice they've opened up a manhole in front of him. Being hoist by your own petard is though a universal danger: as always, pretty much everyone is explaining, rationalising, or rather saying they warned about this all along and it all happily fits their previous prejudices. Hell, I've done it the last couple of days. Melanie Phillips (and others) then think it's all down to absent fathers; Max Hastings in the Mail puts the onus on years of "liberal dogma"; Shaun Bailey says it's all down to responsibility (lack of) and a sense of entitlement, although only the sense of entitlement amongst a certain section; Seumas Milne sticks it all on greed and the rapaciousness of those at the top of society; and the Guardian's leader comment, which has been getting more shrill day by day, fingers both everything and nothing. No change there then.

It is though the ultimate way to play safe. And in truth, all of these explanations have something in them, (with the exception of Max "Hitler" Hastings doing the bidding of Paul Dacre), while also being fairly easy to knock down. Absent parents can have a major impact; they also, as Phillip Larkin will always remind us, fuck us up. Those preaching the virtues of the nuclear family ought to read Hayley Matthews' account of the riots in Salford, where parents with their kids in child seats in the back of cars screamed up and filled their boots (literally) with loot. It would be equally naive to dismiss the fact that in certain cases children are being brought up, either by single parents or not who aren't taught right from wrong, and have had everything given to them on a plate, whether by the state or trust fund, who feel aggrieved that they can't have everything right this instant. Again though, Matthews' account makes clear that certain authority figures do either make those who've taken part think twice, or at least temporarily ashamed of their actions: they might not fear the police, but seeing her dog collar alarmed and troubled them. If their parents had turned up, it's fair to say a good proportion of those taking part would have been shocked and despite what some have also pointed towards, been given at the least a sock round the ear.

The accounts then by those outside the usual commentariat are the ones which most often strike home or point out things those inside their own bubble haven't broached. Kevin Sampson makes the excellent point that it's incredibly easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment, as many who've been on protests that have turned violent or nasty can also testify. These might not have been marches, but they also weren't highly organised actions, even if on the surface some of them look that way: opportunism by those along for the ride most definitely happened in numerous places. Those caught so far and being processed through the system look to have been the stragglers or those stupid (or brazen) enough to go unmasked, the ones who stole a couple of bottles of alcohol, shirts or who were in the shops when the mob had moved on. The shame and regret will have hit many of these later, as it will the parents disgusted to find their spoils, not knowing whether to risk turning over their offspring considering the exceptional penalties bound to be passed.

You also know there's a real reason to be worried when the inestimable FlyingRodent is concerned. His point that at the centre of what's happened are the petty criminals among the young, the ones normally involved in minor drug-dealing and causing occasional havoc in shopping centres is a sound one; some of those among them were smart enough to see an opening in London after the riot in Tottenham for larceny on a grander scale than what they're normally up to, and the bonus was that with the summer holidays they had gangs of otherwise bored acquaintances who could both help distract the police and who also then joined in. This was then copied by non-related but similar groupings in the other big cities, and err, Gloucester and a few other minor towns. Into the mix also came a good few adults, as we're also discovering. This isn't to deny that some of the rioting had a political undercurrent, and also that many of these youths, especially the ones on the outside looking in, don't see a future, feeling completely disconnected from their wider communities. Others though almost certainly knew and were friendly with those they came to steal from. Some just hate the police and other figures in authority, for both good and completely and utterly wrong reasons.

David Cameron's reaching for the illness definition is but an echo of Tony Blair's similar statements following the murder of James Bulger. Certain sections of our society do have very deep seated problems, but broken or sick? Some people are just thuggish pricks, as has been demonstrated to the world by the mugging of Asyraf Haziq, being ostensibly helped up only to have his backpack rifled through. They have unfortunately though always been with us, as have gangs of out of control teenagers, and no amount of lectures on morality or responsibility will have an instant impact, or get through to all of them.

However bad things were in London on Monday or elsewhere yesterday, this is not going to become a regular occurrence. There also, so far, doesn't seem to be any instant recourse to further legislation, although we still have the rest of the summer recess once parliament has had its say tomorrow to get through, and then the party conferences, where crackdowns could yet become the order of the day. What we are going to have though is intensified fear of and stigmatisation of teenagers, especially those who go about in hoods, thanks to the efforts of a tiny number of their peers and the foolishness of those who do know better in general. The hope has to be that the current mood soon lifts, and that those calling for the giving of a "free hand" to the police find themselves quickly back in the minority. The middle line between Wooley and the stereotype sociologist is the best place to remain until then.

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Sitting on the fence is usually the safest place to be.

The irony of the Oxbridge elite lecturing the underclass on their sense of entitlement is hilarious.

Born into wealth and privilege, given the best education money can buy, walking straight into a well paid job thanks to the school tie or family connections, with access to high quality healthcare and the promise of a good pension - largely through an accident of birth.

Telling youths brought up on a crumbling sink estate, with no hope of higher education, owning a home, or having a pension, being treated like sh*t on minimum wage, with housing benefit cuts, a health service being cut to the bone and unemployment rising that they expect too much is beyond parody.

Can I add Paul Routledge of the Mirror to your list of pseudo sociologists, who believes the disturbances are due to “The broadcasting of poisonous rap.”

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