Tuesday, August 09, 2011

London Riots: An Alternative 'Larger Context'

For the past three days, I have watched gangs of criminals run wild in the city that I have chosen for my home. Distressing reports of looting, arson, random violence have filled tv screens and newspapers and social media. In these three days, I have grown angrier and sadder with every news update. And no, these are not easy - oh my poor city - emotions. As a history buff, I know London has a long tradition of erupting into violence with alarming regularity, although these are thankfully brief and infrequent. My anger is rooted in my own observations and while there will be another chance to examine and analyse these more cogently, I want to attempt to articulate some of my thoughts so far:

This spate of rioting has exposed the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of the self-professed liberals in this country. For the past year, Labour and its acolytes have loudly and publicly made the case that the Tory budget cuts (always de-linked from earlier economic policy) are to blame for anything and everything. When the student protests turned to disorder earlier in the year, Labour supporters vociferously argued that "direct action" was desirable, even admirable, even if it meant defacing our own city and despoiling our own neighbourhoods. In that same period, Lib-Dems, ever spineless, have been trying to walk both sides of the line, by alternating between condemnation of hooliganism and whining about the 'cuts.' Of course, how we are supposed to pay for an all encompassing social welfare state when most western economies are verging on bankruptcy and all parties agree that cuts are necessary is never something these hypocrite politicians, academics and experts care to point out. But these riots are not about the cuts, or indeed the government as far too many tv interviews with looters have demonstrated.

There is of course a larger context to the current violence. And no, unlike this piece - unsurprisingly in the Guardian - this is also not about the cuts or simplistic policing issues. This larger context is about a generation brought up to believe that the world owes them everything: Nike shoes, HD flat screen televisions, but also good grades, jobs, and oh yes, the recently bandied about word, "a future" without ever having to actually plan or work for it themselves.  Yes, I am not just referring to the council estate 'alienated' youth but the larger contemporary reality in many parts of this country.

This is the point David Cameron made - and has been consistently ridiculed for - many years ago: kids in India and China are not just "aspirational" but also realise they need to work hard to get anything they want. So despite being sneered at by the Guardian readers for their 'materialism' and reviled in the Daily Mail for taking away British jobs, kids beyond European Union are working for a future and it may well come at the price of 'the future' in places like the UK.  Of course, instead of facing up to the challenge, UK like many other western economies, throwing away its future precisely because children here are not being raised to think in similar competitive terms.

And before you start pointing to Oxbridge, look again. Despite the obvious advantages, many of those same graduates are unable to compete in a work environment that may require long hours and tough schedules. Earlier in the year, Ratan Tata was slammed for criticising UK's work ethic, although for the record, he wasn't talking about his workers but his managers! Yet I have heard the same complaint from most non-EU employers: employees don't care to put together a professional cv, can't be bothered to turn up on time for a job interview, who are either ill or depressed or otherwise 'engaged.'  On the other hand, I have had British friends pass me tips on how to skip work - including one who memorably suggested I burst into tears in my GP's office so I could be given time off for 'stress and depression.' Oh and she happens to be a Russell Group graduate with impeccably middle-class Labour voting lineage!

Let us try to imagine how all this entitlement and fecklessness trickles down to the underprivileged in this country: a sense of entitlement that the state should not only pay for their necessities but also their luxuries; a lack of respect of any authority, although here they may well be justified when they constantly told by their own political leaders (Diane Abbott and David Lammy are good immediate examples) that it is everyone else's fault but their own, and thus must be resolved by others and not by themselves. I wouldn't respect such political leaders either. Yet this disrespect extends to teachers, policemen, doctors, even older citizens on the street!

Unfortunately, this 'larger context' also includes self-professed experts and academics who consistently feed a volatile mix of entitlement and dis-empowerment. Regardless of good intentions that drive many commentators to blame the crime and recent riots on poverty and alienation, few seem to realise that their comments are patronising and condescending. Their implicit message is that the poor have no agency in choosing their actions, nor any responsibility for them. As a result, instead of being asked to take responsibility, the feral thugs running around London for the past three days have been aided and abetted by misplaced sympathy and patronisation.

To be highlighted in this 'larger context' is a lack of personal responsibility, not only amongst those who have been torching and looting London but amongst their apparently middle-class muddle-headed enablers, both in the mainstream and social media. Never have I faced such difficulty in compiling basic information about a news incident: Mumbai during the Taj attacks and subsequent bombings, Egypt and Tunisia during their uprising, revolutions in Syria, Libya and Bahrain today, and even Kabul during the constant low-level nonstate violence all seem to spawn a host of measured, responsible professional and citizen journalists.  In a Twitter exchange late last night, after unending series of hoaxes about London riots had been floated, a few of us from five different countries discussed precisely this.  Just as too many mainstream journalists seemed to be harbouring fantasies of covering the Libyan war or the Brixton riots (at the very least), far too many social media inhabitants have been gleefully stoking panic and hysteria.

After hours of "Regents Park zoo broken into," "tiger loose in west London" and "London Eye on fire" hysteria, I could only think: Give me Mumbai or Cairo or Benghazi any day! At least its citizens care enough for themselves and their habitat to not desperately want to wreck it.

There is a bigger civic - and indeed - policing angle to this madness. Twitter, SMS, Facebook, have been hysterically reporting incidents where there aren't any, ensuring that anyone monitoring the situation would be constantly led astray. While leading police astray may seem like a laudable goal to some 'anarchist' sitting cosy at home, it merely added to the misinformation and most likely contributed to delayed responses by emergency services: if the cops were spread thin, were they following irresponsible leads to nonexistent incidents?

Weirdly enough, there was almost no clear citizen reporting on the actual, and indeed biggest, incidents. And of course the various "incident maps" on various news sites did little to clarify the situation: a gang of kids running through the streets and blocked instantly by police was reported in the same breath as a major fire or looting attempt.

I suppose this brings me to the final point of this rant: the instant gratification culture that - according to some experts - has fuelled the looters also has another, dark albeit more privileged side. Calls for leaders to show up in TV studios demonstrates a media and population that needs to consume its sound bites with frequent, bite size regularity. Surely in a wired world where illiterate thugs can organise riots across the capital, a government can coordinate without physically occupying a central London office or standing before Number 10 Downing every half hour to provide a 'statement'?   As a friend pointed out: for all the comparisons to Churchill, today's media and Britain would have not only clamoured for more frequent statements but also been furious that the D-Day landing took more than five seconds and sit-rep statements did not come rapidly enough! London may have the Blitz spirit, its mainstream media sure as hell does not!

Perhaps this 'alternative larger context' will offend many readers. But I go back to another summer day, in July 2005, when I decided to move to London. The city then still reeled in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings but I was met with nothing but friendly smiles, professionalism and great civility. It was that calm politeness - ureported, uncommented in the mainstream media of course - that convinced me to move here. Even though the past three days have been full of anger and sadness, I will continue to focus on that same elusive, yet ever present, sense of self-reliance, community solidarity and enterprise that attracted me here. Thankfully, in London there has been much of it on display, and from every skin colour, religion and background possible.

Thank you Londoners, just for that!