Paul Holmes 21 Aug 2011 // 2:43PM GMT
Having spent 20 years living in the United States, two aspects of the coverage of last week’s violence in the UK struck me particularly forcefully. The first was the ignorance of some of the analysis that emanated from the far side of the Atlantic (and from this side too), much of which essentially involved trying to fit the riots into a predetermined political/social/intellectual narrative. Left-leaning columnists suggested that working people must be rebelling against the austerity measures of the Conservative government; analysts on the right, meanwhile, insisted that we were seeing further evidence that multiculturalism could not work. I was reminded of those people I often find myself sitting next to at baseball games: the people who believe that their seat half way down the third-base line and 50 feet from the field puts them in a better place to call balls-and-strikes than the umpire—and who always think calls are going against their team. The second and more alarming aspect was the way in which the absence of a written UK constitution makes it easier for politicians to come up with facile knee-jerk responses to a crisis, specifically the calls for government to restrict access to social media (in response to charges that social networks were used to orchestrate some of the violence). In a country with no free speech guarantee, that kind of ill-considered expediency is at least plausible, however absurd. (Some protestors may have used telephones; should we also shut down cellular networks?) Amid all the nonsense surrounding the riots, I am reminded of the familiar notion—I wish I could remember where I first came across this concept—that people commit the kind of crimes that their social and economic circumstances allow. Unemployed youth destroy property and steal sneakers. Professional journalists hack phones and bribe police officers. Politicians cheat on their expenses. Bankers bring the entire global financial system to the verge of destruction to satisfy their own greed. The first kind of crime lends itself to dramatic television footage and easy outrage, but when so much of that outrage is coming from people who committed the other three kinds it’s hard for some of us to see anything other than rank hypocrisy. When David Cameron talks about a “moral breakdown” in the UK, let’s hope he realizes that the looting started with some members of his own party and some of its biggest financial backers.