Wednesday, August 15, 2007 

The kids aren't alright.

Death, outraged reaction, draconian solution suggested, draconian solution rejected/forgotten, cycle repeats. It's all too familiar, too rehearsed, too tedious. Add in the factor that it's the silly season and the whole thing is taken up another couple of notches, resulting in editorials claiming that every street is full to the brim with drunken teenagers while the police are handcuffed to their desks filling in paperwork. It's beyond silly and inaccurate, it's exacerbating the already out of control stereotype that the youth of today spend all their time drinking cheap strong booze while smashing up the local playground equipment, and it does absolutely nothing to even begin to sort out the existing problem that there actually is.

Peter Fahy's suggestions on what has to be done to tackle the "yob culture" and youth binge drinking are discriminatory, downright daft and completely wrongheaded. The tragic death of Garry Newlove, the inquiry into which Fahy is meant to be heading, which occurred when he tackled a group of teenagers alleged to have vandalised a small digger he had hired, has not been linked in any way to whether the group had been drinking or not, but that doesn't seem to have gotten in the way of Fahy's arguments on what must be done.

How raising the legal age to purchasing alcohol to 21 will help such avoidable and pointless deaths from happening is not explained, most likely because it will most likely only make the existing situation worse. Nearly all supermarkets and off-licences, which are currently erroneously getting it in the neck for selling to those who are underage, have almost all instituted schemes across the board which require staff to request ID from anyone who looks under 21 before selling them any age restricted product. This already means that those above the legal age but unfortunately don't look it are required to carry around ID lest they decided they'd like to buy a beer. The same is true in pubs and clubs; there may be the odd store which doesn't care, but the fines are now so heavy and strict that it isn't worth the risk. This points towards the fact the most alcohol is being bought by adults, either at the request of teenagers who congregate outside shops and ask them to buy it for them, or by their parents, who either don't care or have it stolen from under their noses. Raising the price of alcohol will also only do so much: it completely ignores why both children and adults are increasingly turning to mass booze binges, while penalising them for wanting to escape from their own humdrum lives for a few hours.

Banning public drinking might remove the odd clusters of youths that do in some places get together, drink and start getting rowdy and harassing people, but again it will only take the problem off the streets, making it more likely that the same will just occur either in private houses or in other places not considered "public". It takes it out of public sight without changing the practice itself. That's all well and good for the police, who aren't called out to deal with it, and for the residents of places where groups have previously suffered, but it just moves it on to somewhere else.

The lessons that the Unicef report on wellbeing ought to have taught have similarly been completely forgotten. It showed that the relationships that are vital in cultivating happiness are just not there - whether it's with their own peers, or with their "elders" themselves, who are by turns either disconnected from their children and young adults, or as the case seems to be with those outside of a family circle, completely uninterested or even hostile towards other children. This is down not to a broken society, as the Tories claim, but to an erosion of empathy, the cult of the self and the mantra of false individualism. When such relationships are missing or stilted, it's little surprise that the things that do bring people together - booze, drugs and sex - are all being increasingly abused by those younger and younger.

What's needed is a complete reapprasial of what it means to both be a child and a teenager in Britain today. Rather than it all being the fault of political correctness and a failure to intervene as the tabloids preach, we've become so scared of our children because of how beastly and violent they're meant to be that we've forgotten that they are us - just even more confused, apprehensive and frightened than we are. Cameron was mocked for suggesting that teenagers needed a lot more love, dubbed by the press and Labour as "hug a hoodie", but he more or less had it right. Despite all the obstacles, we need to both talk and listen. At the moment, the Victorian cliche of being seen and not heard is half right - we see them all too often, but we ignore them.

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Friday, February 16, 2007 

Won't someone please blame the children?

WAR ZONE UK, screams the Daily Mail, with no apparent recognisation that what has happened in 3 square miles of London doesn't in any way reflect the state of the nation. The sub-editor, additionally, seems to have taken this opportunity to swallow a dictionary. Apparently south London is descending into "nihilistic anarchy", and like Iain Dale, the sub doesn't seem to realise what nihilism actually is. If those who had carried out the shootings were nihilists, they'd be shooting everyone just for the sake of it. In the three recent cases involving the shooting of teenagers, revenge seems to have played a major part, whether it's for perceived slights, mistaken identity or for exchanging petty insults via text message. The Grauniad's report seems to get it right: the only common strands to the deaths are a proliferation of weapons and fact that both killers and victims are getting younger.

The deaths in south London, coming in the same week as the damning Unicef report which places Britain at the bottom of a league table of 21 western countries in measuring child well-being, has predictably led to an avalanche of gnashing of teeth, with who's to blame and what's gone wrong being bandied about liberally. Very few have actually come up with any solutions, and while it's true that there are no easy answers, we ought to at least able to realise the basics.

It's apparent that we can no longer blame Thatcherism. The 16 year olds killing each other on the streets of south London weren't born during her tenure. What we can instead point to is the legacy of Thatcherism, which despite the attempts of the Tory party to shake it off and the Labour party to pretend that its attempts to alleviate child poverty have been successful enough, is still the spectre that's haunting Britain. The emphasis on individualism, consumerism and materialism which has permeated society since the 80s is reaching its logical conclusion: mass alienation, mental ill-health and a general lack of empathy for others. It's no coincidence that the United States and Britain, the two nations that have so embraced neo-liberalism and unfettered capitalism, are bottom of the Unicef table.

The only surprise is that we were bottom and that the United States wasn't. We at least like to think that we're a little more civilised than our friends over the pond, that we retain the vestiges of a welfare state, even though it's still attacked by both the right-wing media and the Labour party itself. We could blame the lack of ambition that our children have on the way that education has been turned into one long examination; we could blame it on reality tv that encourages everyone to think that they can become famous even if they're an idiot and have no discernable talent; we could blame it on the breakdown of the family and role models. The unfortunate thing is that all these things in some way appear to be to blame, and that we don't have any solution or way to change any of the above. How could we when the defining moment of this year so far according to the media has been the way that Jade Goody was turned from something of a role-model, as shocking as that on it own is, to being a racist lower than pond scum chav that "we" should never have taken to heart in the first place?

Even blaming the vacuousness of our culture is too easy, and certainly doesn't provide anything close to a solution. Some might despise the way we work all week and get drunk at the weekend, but the current generation simply doesn't know any other way. It's the same with the way we've started treating teenagers; they're not old enough to get drunk, but they're old enough to be a nuisance, hanging around on street corners. They don't contribute to society, so they're even easier to stigmatise. That the vast majority of them are probably more concerned with being left alone than with jumping on cars doesn't make any difference. Labour has connived with this view ever since it gained power. Few were concerned about anti-social behaviour until Labour started banging on about it, but when the politicians start talking about something enough, whether it's true or not, people start believing it.

In a contradictory way, the whole reason why children seem to be suffering so much is because we are expecting so much of them, and they either can't keep up or simply don't want to. At the same time, our expectations can also be incredibly low. Coming back to the beginning, it's a surprise that the Daily Mail has even noticed that a number of murders have taken place in south London; it's something that's too difficult to explain, that doesn't correlate with the current middle-class occupations of the moment, house prices and campaigns against inheritance tax and road pricing, which explains why they've chosen to approach it in the simplest way they can, which is to sensationalise it. That these murders aren't sensational, but almost impossible to understand is the real issue. What possesses someone, no matter whether they haven't had a great upbringing, however macho their culture is or how pathetic the message the music they listen to puts out, to shoot someone their own age dead in their bed, mistaken identity or not? There just isn't a simple answer.

One thing's certain, and that's that David Cameron, to quote one of his previous hecklers, doesn't know his arse from his elbow. His speech, thrown together seemingly in minutes, variously and vapidly blaming the failings of families, that marriage and relationships can be held together through tax-breaks, seemed to be destined only to appeal to those who will have forgotten within days of the whole palaver. It was the kind of soundbite based that Blair was once famous for, designed to respond to headlines with no policy being behind it. Amazingly, Blair himself, with his calm and measured comments, got far more to the bone of the matter, making clear that we ought to get a state of perspective. The statistic of the day ought to be those shot dead last year dropped from 77 to 49. In other words, the amount of people killed with guns in this country in a year is the equivalent of a relatively quiet day in Iraq. That the solution to the problems in Iraq are probably more obvious and easier to put in place than those facing our children isn't much of a comfort.

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