For what it is worth, I associate Britain’s Telegraph with the right wing columns of a former Berkeley philosophy student whom I used to know. So I usually don’t read it. But in these perplexing times anything may be worth a look, and so I was led to some columns by Timothy Stanley, who is a historian of the US. Here are two interesting passages. One is very serious, and draws an impotant lesson from US history. The second is from the only thing I have read about the riots that is very funny, IMHO.
As we have come to expect, Britain’s political leadership has been singularly lacking throughout these riots. A few have offered jingoisms, while a former mayor has unwisely suggested that the hoodlums need love. There is a space – a wide vacuum in fact – for a reasonable statesperson to ask, “Can’t we all get along?” Most voters are conservative in that they want peace in the streets yet liberal in that they don’t want to use water cannons to get it. One solution is transformative leadership. Robert Kennedy offered something of that when he spoke in Indianapolis on the night of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. He said, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” He asked the crowd to go home and pray, and they did. Indianapolis was one of the few major US cities that didn’t experience riots that night. I pray that a similar recourse to reason is still possible in this crisis.
All of the above probably reads like a flippant satire of American sentimentality. But a lot of what has happened in Britain in the past few weeks isn’t an aberration in our history and culture: it’s the reassertion of a centuries old norm of bad behaviour. As Paul Lay points out, the British people have form when it comes to turning vague political disturbances into an excuse to riot and pillage. A lot of our problems probably stem from our emotional introversion. Americans vocalise their “issues” and their ideas about resolving them. Their society is far less stratified, far less neurotic than ours. The British live their lives through patterns of passive aggression (hating everyone, but never having the bad manners to say it) that inevitably erupt in occasional bouts of mysterious violence. And when they happen, we have no way of expressing why they happened. Our political leadership is inarticulate and out of touch. These last few days, the three main parties have displayed all the emotional sensitivity of a firm of particularly boring management consultants.
In many ways, America’s social problems (especially race) are bigger than ours. But they are articulated better too. In the last week, years of anger at never-ending queues, patronising social workers, government incompetence, casual police brutality, angry silences, hire-purchase agreement gone-awry, tax hikes and bad weather culminated in a giant British brain storm. We need to bury our pride and copy the American way of death: shout and scream and book ourselves into therapy.