Sunday, 18 September 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Attempting to understand an act is not the same as condoning it. Whilst one can and does oppose the riots that swept through England in August, we ought to, at the same time, try to make sense of the causes behind them.

I happen to live in one of the areas affected by the lootings. I’m as dumbfounded as everyone else. Why were these vandals destroying our community?

The reasons, when you try to bring logic into the argument, are manifold and inconclusive: growing inequality, loss of parental control, a yawning gap in opportunities in the employment and education markets between the haves and have-nots and a collapse in trust in our politicians, police and media. I could include many more, but you get the gist of it. The younger generation is receiving a message which is the opposite of a L’Oreal advert: they’re not worth it. Their opinions count for nought and when projects and initiatives are kick-started on their behalf, sometimes they stop all of a sudden without a plausible explanation.

A case in point was a local scheme that used to take place near my house. During the half-term and school holidays a team of professional workers led various physical activities for children and adolescents. The sessions were well attended and welcomed by the local community. Both my kids used to go regularly. They made friends there and more importantly they, like the rest of the participants, felt respected and valued. Last autumn the project was scrapped as a result of the cuts introduced by the coalition government without as much as an explanation. This is the key to understanding why young people feel disenfranchised. It’s the lack of ownership and the dearth of opportunities in which they can voice their ideas, suggestions and solutions. When someone’s contribution to society is not being acknowledged, he or she becomes invisible. And in the current situation in the UK it would be a good idea to read the opening page of Ralph Ellison’s landmark novel, “Invisible Man” where the protagonist explains what it feels like to “not be seen” and how he reacts to those who suffer from “poor vision”: “It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

It's worth noticing, too, how the political, economic and social landscape has been radically altered in Britain since Cameron became Ventriloquist In Chief with Nick Clegg as his wooden dummy in May 2010. We're in a situation where the public and voluntary sector has had to withstand a forced scaling down of its workforce, a pay freeze and an increase in the retirement age. Along with this, public services have been put out to tender to a pack of hyena-like private investors circling around our precious assets and waiting for the right moment to strike. Moreover, the state's role is dwindling. The gradual erosion of local government's decision-making, combined with David Cameron's "Big Society" experiment has resulted in the partial or total closure of local libraries, youth clubs, community centres and sports facilities.

It is against this background that the London riots ought to be analysed. And no, I don't believe for a second that the vandals who smashed shops and burned businesses had a political agenda in mind. But that their actions were the result of a volatile social, economic and political situation, there should be no doubt about that.

If a generation ago people were told that "there is no such thing as society", why are we surprised that their offspring is behaving so destructively? The moral values that make up our social scaffolding are no longer based on love towards one's own neighbourhood and neighbours but towards the glamour spilling out of programmes on MTV. And if the Prime Minister is allowed to hire a crook who got sacked from a top-selling newspaper, as his director of communications, then, why should it be any different for the opportunist who makes off with a pair of shoes that don't belong to him and which he picked up from a looted shop? These are some of the questions being asked right now here in Britain. But they fall on dear ears.

One of the salient elements of the riots is how many of those who carried out acts of violence did so without covering their faces. In my opinion, they were declaring their visibility, albeit in the wrong way. The problem is that unless we start seeing the young as active contributors to our society, they will continue to choose unorthodox methods to shake their invisibility off. And as Ralph Ellison wrote, that is seldom successful.

© 2011
Next Post: “Tiempo Libre (Review)”, to be posted on Wednesday 21st September at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. A sobering and thought-provoking analysis - thanks - I was back in London at the time of the riots and felt horrified by my home city - each time I return home something appalling happens - last time it was tanks at Heathrow at the time of the Iraq invasion...Greetings from the Riviera...

  2. I'm taken with your idea about invisibility, and the quote from Ralph E. Must read that book again...

  3. I found this post so deeply thoughtful and engaging, Cuban -- I only wish that more could read it as it's certainly NOT what we here in the US read when the riots there occurred. I, too, liked the passage from "The Invisible Man" that you quoted and will go back as well to read it. Sadly, I think that many of the same things are happening here and I often wonder how long it will continue before true violence erupts.

  4. Thank you very much for your comments.

    Greetings from London.

  5. Yes. Then too is the excitement. The young were caught up.

    There is thoughtful analysis like yours here in the states.

    Cameron did not vituperate against members of Parliament who declared all those housing expenses and were paid!

  6. How scary it must have been to be living amongst the violence and looting, especially for your children. Interesting and apt connection here to the Invisible Man. I remember reading it in my teen years and using it to make sense of the class and race problems in NYC.



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