One of my favorite social critics, Theodore Dalrymple, has done a postmortem on the riots that shook England, including London, earlier this year. The apt headline:
Barbarians on the Thames
Nobody can compare in analytical prowess or literary excellence with Dalrymple, but, having done my own postmortem on the Occupy Wall Street movement yesterday, I can report that the London barbarians and their American cousins have a lot in common.
The key to both Occupy Wall Street and the London riots is resentment. Neither group thinks it is right that some people are more affluent than they are. Still, on both sides of the pond we have seen inequality before without the eruption of riots or filthy encampments.
What is different now?
One rioter told a journalist that his compatriots were fed up with being broke all the time and that he knew people who had absolutely nothing. It is worth pondering what lies behind these words. It is obvious that the rioter considered being broke not merely unpleasant, as we all would, but unjust and anomalous, for it was these qualities that justified the rioting in his mind and led him to suggest that the riots were restitution.
Leave aside the Micawberish point that one can be broke on any income whatever if one’s desires fail to align with one’s financial possibilities; it is again obvious that the rioter believed that he had a right not to be broke and that this right was being violated.
When he said that he knew people with “nothing,” he did not mean that he knew homeless, starving people left on the street without clothes to wear or shoes on their feet; none of the rioters was like this, and many looked only too fit for law-abiding citizens’ comfort.
There is a way of describing people like this: they believe the world owes them a living. But these aren’t just lazy bums who hope others will do for them. Their sense of entitlement is rooted in a sense of rights. They not only would like to have somebody else work to supply their requirements, it is their right that this should be so.
This is the same mentality we saw among the entitled Occupy Wall Street protesters, people who believe that after they receive an expensive college education, somebody else must step in and pick up the tab. (And who don’t seem to consider other options, such as trade school.)
Tangible benefits, on this view, come not as the result of work, effort, and self-discipline: they come as of right.
A society can’t thrive if too many people harbor this sense of entitlement. Somebody has got to go to work to keep the things running.
We don’t know as much as I’d like to know about the sociological makeup of our U.S. barbarians, but there are indications that many of them hailed from affluent families and that still others were ideologically motivated. The English rioters were not from such homes, and as far as I know no Oxbridge dons showed up to express solidarity with them.
The young Britons tended to be people who lived in public housing, not fancy zip codes. There was less element of play acting in the London riots. But there is one aspect of both societies that has had an impact on both sets of barbarians: leniency towards crime.
Both societies are afraid to severely punish people who break the law and both were loath to send in force to break up the occupations. But here’s the good news:
The riots might herald a positive change, at least in the official stance toward crime. In an implicit, maybe not even fully conscious, criticism of the last half-century’s criminal-justice policy, the magistrates have imposed much stiffer sentences on the rioters than anyone expected.
Now, if we could just find the Occupiers who knocked down a 78-year-old grandmother, who was visiting in Washington, D.C., and find a judge to give them stiff punishments, we could likewise say that Occupy is trending towards a salubrious ending.