The Allure of Imaginary Worlds

Yes, all the graduate work was in Early Eighteenth Century British Literature – in caps because that was a distinct field. And the idea was to become, one day, an authority in the field, with a long career of boring truculent students in some small liberal arts college and churning out a monograph every few years, to keep your tenure. Well, that wasn’t to be. But the minor satires of Swift were pretty cool, as were the related political and cultural matters of the time. And the university was pretty, and the fellowship covered the basics and a bit more. And, after a bit, you often found yourself in 1727 London for hours on end. You heard the chatter. You knew the streets. And Swift and Pope made a great deal of sense, as did the premiere of John Gay’s inevitable Beggars Opera that autumn. It was quite pleasant.

And the next decade of teaching English at that prep school in upstate New York was pleasant too. High school kids, even the best and brightest, hate Shakespeare – but every insecure and perpetually aggrieved adolescent gets Hamlet. He’s them, somehow or other. And it was hard to miss with Dickens, if you used Great Expectations. They were all Pip – much put upon and full of vague longings that they knew were going to be nothing but trouble. And there you were, with the pipe and the tweed coat, with the leather elbow patches, to act as something like a tour guide. And of course after almost two decades of that you lived half your life in that other world – the Britain of Shakespeare, then Pope and Swift, then Doctor Johnson and his Boswell. And you relaxed by rereading the Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s always a foggy evening in London.

All that stays with you. Years later, as a systems manager, it was often tempting, when listening to the team discussing the metadata tables of the proposed data warehouse, to quote something pithy and appropriate from Pope – but it’s best to resist that sort of thing. It pisses people off. But the words from that other world are always there.

But even former English teachers have their limits. About sixty miles east of Los Angeles, below the barren desert mountains, in the flats, which are mostly rocks and bits of stunted scrub, you’ll find the city of Riverside – as unlike London as any place on earth. The sun-baked nothing stretches on forever, save for the giant shopping centers and warehouses, and the sprawling fairly new housing tracts, where every third house is in foreclosure. And save for the pleasant few blocks at the center of the small city, with some cool Victorian houses, there are no trees. That’s desert out there, without the romantic sand dunes. It’s just small rocks and rock-hard dirt. And there, each year, they hold the annual Riverside Dickens Festival – and that just seems wrong. We all know Dickens’ London. We all know his England. Attending this festival would just break your heart.

But do we know England? This week it’s the riots:

Still reeling with shock and anger over the worst rioting in decades, Britain turned on Wednesday to a tough reckoning with the perpetrators, even as the police and political leaders worried about a potentially explosive new pattern of interracial violence that could be set off by the past four days of mayhem.

Despite at least a temporary lull in the rioting that has ravaged London and other major cities, concern was growing about many of the ethnically segregated districts battered by the rampaging disorder, particularly Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city.

Three young men of Pakistani descent were killed there on Tuesday night when a car mounted a sidewalk and crashed into a group of residents who had gathered to protect local businesses from attack. Witnesses said that the driver appeared to be of Afro-Caribbean descent, and the police arrested a 32-year-old man and charged him with murder.

This is a mess, and a puzzling mess at that:

One surprise was the presence of young men and women with regular jobs among the riot suspects lined up in police wagons outside courthouses in London and other cities. That raised questions about why they had been caught up in the kind of mayhem that has traditionally drawn on an underclass of alienated young people, with no jobs and few prospects.

Many of those who were remanded for trial appeared to come from just those kinds of backgrounds – evidence, as some commentators saw it, that the root causes of the disorders lay in social deprivation and despair. But those who stood before the courts for bail hearings in London, many of them still in their jeans and hooded sweatshirts, included a graphic designer, a postal employee, a dental assistant, a teaching aide, a forklift driver and a youth worker.

Something odd is going on here. You won’t find it in Dickens, and they won’t be reenacting it in Riverside.

But it may be something quite British, something American anglophiles and literary scholars, or would-be scholars, simply overlook. Anne Applebaum calls it Riots for Rioting’s Sake:

Riots in the British capital hit inner-city Tottenham, suburban Ealing, gritty Hackney, and chic Notting Hill. Windows were smashed, video cameras stolen, cars set ablaze. Young men in hooded sweatshirts congregated on street corners and charged the police. “Copycat” riots followed across the country, from Bristol to Nottingham and Manchester. And nobody really knows why.

But of course when no one knows why something is happening what comes next is a flurry of precise explanations of why that very thing is happening. And she recommends the center-right Daily Telegraph, where the issue is 1) a weak and cowardly police force, or 2) absent fathers, or 3) welfare dependency, or 4) multiculturalism and the tolerance of gangs in schools – take your pick, or it’s all of the above. The Daily Telegraph does not blame Obama, but they may yet. And all of us on the vague left love the Guardian, and they say the problem is police brutality and social exclusion and cuts in welfare spending, and of course the widening gap between rich and poor – as you would expect. Applebaum also says some are convinced that high levels of immigration are the underlying problem here, unless the problem is British intolerance of immigrants and minorities.

Applebaum is not impressed. Everyone has a theory, or an array of theories, to match their political worldview, but they’re living in an imaginary world. The real world is not cooperating – it seldom does of course. The problem is the political blankness of the rioters, the Whiteness of the Whale so to speak:

The rioters themselves do not wave signs. They do not chant chants. They weren’t protesting any particular government policy, as were student demonstrators in London last winter. They have not sought publicity for their views, if they have any. They hid from cameras and dodged journalists. And thus did they become the inkblot in a kind of national Rorschach test: Everyone sees in them the political issue they care about most, whether it’s welfare dependency, budget cuts, the decline of public education, or – my personal favorite – the rise of a vulgar and amoral public culture.

And Applebaum argues that their lack of politics is the very thing that most clearly defines them:

If the Egyptians in Tahrir Square wanted democracy and if the anarchists in Athens wanted more government spending, the hooded men in British streets want 46-inch flat-screen high-definition televisions. They aren’t smashing the headquarters of the Tory Party; they are smashing clothing shops. Instead of using social media to create civil society or cyberutopia, they use social media to steal. Someone circulated a text message on Monday night, calling friends to central London for “Pure terror and havoc & Free stuff … just smash shop windows and cart out da stuff u want!”

Aside from stealing, a lot of the rioters – maybe most of the rioters – were also out to have a good time.

And she argues that that itself is very, very British:

From Wat Tyler’s medieval peasant rebels to the modern soccer hooligans, there is a time-honored tradition of smashing things for fun in Britain, and the groups that enjoy it have been around for a long time. It doesn’t take very many of them to do a lot of damage. As of Wednesday morning, police had arrested 768 people, according to the BBC, and charged 105 in connection with violence in the capital. Overnight, London was calm for the first time since the riots began last week.

I’m not counting out the other possible explanations, many of which would be worth investigating even if these riots had never occurred. The welfare state really has left a generation of young people feeling both dependent on government handouts and entitled to more. Poor state education has left up to a fifth of British teenagers functionally illiterate. The slow economy means many will never find jobs and thus will never be integrated into the mainstream. The presence of the world’s oligarchs and billionaires in London means the city has an economic gap unusually wide for the developed world. The tabloid press thrives on envy of the rich and the cult-worship of boorish celebrities. Traditional institutions – the school system, the churches, even the BBC – long ago lost their ability to transmit older values. A spate of scandals has recently discredited the banks, the Parliament, the media, and the London police even further.

Damn, that sounds a lot like America. But we pretty much stopped rioting after the sixties. We don’t have the same traditions. But Applebaum reminds us that there was looting in London following the Great Fire of 1666, and there really was looting in London during the wartime Blitz – and that wasn’t in the movies. It seems that noble mythology of an imaginary world is cool, but it is mythology.

And then she adds this:

Go back and read Dickens: Criminals, both immigrant and “native” British, have taken advantage of opportunities to loot in London during more peaceful times, too. A peculiar confluence of circumstances – a mob angry about a police murder, a sudden bout of warm weather, an unprepared police force distracted by scandal, and, yes, the astonishingly widespread availability of BlackBerry smartphones among the underprivileged – might have allowed them to do so again. Beware of sweeping political generalizations in the wake of these riots. We don’t know whether we have just witnessed a “new” phenomenon or a more mobile and technically adept version of a very old one.

Okay, time to reread Dickens. Or if not there is “A Broken Britain” – Tom Rachman saying that England’s novelists and filmmakers saw the riots coming. Why didn’t its politicians?

The political class may have been caught out, but the culture betrayed signs of problems earlier, telegraphing anxieties of the law-abiding citizenry that a brutal underclass might at any moment elbow its way into their homes. Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday tells of a London neurosurgeon who crosses paths with a demented thug, only to have the man invade his life and threaten his family. The book’s resolution is rather optimistic, with the surgeon’s daughter – forced to strip before the thug – managing to subdue him by reading poetry. Another example of these lurking worries appears in David Abbott’s 2010 novel The Upright Piano Player, in which a lonely retired London ad executive is harassed by a violent sociopath, also after an unfortunate chance encounter.

A more cathartic resolution came in the 2009 film Harry Brown, in which Michael Caine plays an aging military veteran who served in Northern Ireland but now finds himself in a miserable housing estate ruled by young criminals. Bloodshed ensues and the old man emerges triumphant. While novels and cinema expressed the fears of establishment Britons, pop culture was taking inspiration from the underclass, as in the comedy-drama series Shameless (now remade in a U.S. version), about a dysfunctional family in Manchester.

There’s more, but the connection seems tenuous. Still, this may be a “mood” thing:

Perhaps the worst damage once the wreckage is cleared will be to public morale – the awful realization that this society contains an element so hostile and disengaged as to rip apart the businesses and homes of its neighbors at the slightest opportunity.

At least hope was found in the heartening acts of volunteers who went out in the daylight and cleaned up. This prompted comments about the spirit of London, an ideal that was famously exemplified during the Blitz when the city stuck together despite adversity and attack. Sadly, an ideal of unity is harder to maintain when attack comes from within.

Two competing political narratives have already emerged to explain what happened. That Tory spending cuts led to exasperation and explosion in poor and neglected communities. Or that Labour coddling of the criminal and the lazy allowed for a culture of personal irresponsibility.

Whichever it is, each amounts to an admission of a “Broken Britain.” Cameron helped popularize that term when campaigning to oust Labour, after it had governed from 1997 to 2010. And he won. Now, it’s his to fix.

Keep saying things are broken and nothing works and people do start to believe that. And bad things happen. Our own Tea Party might consider that. Ah, but we are a docile people. And no one on this side of the pond riots just for the hell of it, at least not very often.

But something is up with the things-are-broken-and-nothing-works Tea Party crowd, and Tina Dupuy sees it this way:

If liberals were doing to their country what extremist tea party Republicans are doing to theirs – it would be called unpatriotic. A whole tsunami of sound bites would sweep the country calling for the sabotage to stop… If liberals did this to their own country they’d be called criminals. The tea party did do this to their own country and they are treated like avant-garde Civil War reenactors.

It’s a dangerous game. Angry mobs are mobs nonetheless.

But then the sort of rioting and looting occurring in Britain may be self-limiting. Maria Bustillos in this item considers the anger after Rodney King out here Los Angeles:

There’s this materialist idea that a person is to be valued by his possessions, and it doesn’t much matter how he acquires them. The “valuable” people are protected by the authorities, and those without “worth,” as in “net worth,” are not entitled to that protection. “Haves” and “have-nots,” we say. … But then maybe you go and grab all this stuff and it’s not going to fix you.

Not if you steal it out of a broken window, and maybe not if you steal it in a boardroom either, come to that. We all know this deep down, I believe, and, in 1992, I got such a strong feeling watching this poor kid with his enormous half-wrecked dining table that those who participate in looting understand the emptiness of greed better than anyone. Can the roots of the reduced crime rate in Los Angeles have been set down in those dark days?

Yeah, what’s the point?

But this is still a dangerous business, considering the Elaborated Social Identity Model of crowd behavior. Huh? Vaughan Bell explains that it’s very simple:

The problem police face is that in most large threatening crowds only a minority of people are engaging in anti-social acts. Lots of people “go along for the ride” but aren’t the hardcore that kick-off without provocation. If the police wade in with batons indiscriminately lots of these riot wannabes suddenly start to feel like they’re part of the bigger group and feel justified in ripping the place apart, mostly to throw at the coppers. Suddenly, it’s “them” against “us” and a small policing problem just got much, much bigger – like attacking a beehive because you just got stung.

These are dangerous times. The world is on edge. There may be more apparently meaningless rioting and looting popping up all over. How do we deal with it? Putting it down may make things worse.

But maybe this is the year to finally give up and drive out to the beyond-surreal annual Riverside Dickens Festival in the desert at the end of the world. The riots should be interesting.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Allure of Imaginary Worlds

  1. Steven Feig says:

    Here is the clue that is needed: “If the police wade in with batons indiscriminately…” When police can act intelligently, with required discrimination between actors and bystanders, THEN it may be possible to put down these riots without making them worse. The bystanders will understand that the guy who just firebombed a car should get grabbed away. It is when a bunch of bystanders who really weren’t doing anything get grabbed and clubbed that the riots escalate — indiscriminate police action GENERATES additional rioters. Given that most police work in a very black-and-white, Us vs Them culture — I am not optimistic about this approach happening any time soon. I am white, and I have been treated like a thug when stopped for unpaid parking tickets — lends credence to horror stories told by those of color accused of serious crimes.

    P.S. When in Riverside, who WOULDN’t want to make believe that they are elsewhere? The willing suspension of disbelief is a dandy escape — free and legal.

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