Saturday, August 13, 2011

Wheeling out convenient narratives

In "Gee, Officer Krupke", (West Side Story), Stephen Sondheim had one of the characters tell the judge:

"Hey, I'm depraved on account I'm deprived."

Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen take up a version of this theme in this NY Times op-ed.  They begin with thinning police presence, but quickly move to the "Tea Party's dream come true."  It's the austerity.  More spending and more programs is the simple story that is regularly wheeled out when large numbers of people start marauding in cities of the Western World. 

In my view, Peggy Noonan offers a more compelling story in this morning's WSJ.  First, it's not just in the UK:

What does this have to do with America? What we're seeing on the streets in Britain right now is something we may be starting to see here. It hasn't come together in a conflagration, but it is out there, and I think it's growing. And as in Britain, it doesn't have anything to do with political grievances per se.
Philadelphia right now is under curfew because of "flash mobs." Young people send out the word on social media, and suddenly dozens or hundreds of them hit a targeted store, steal everything on the shelves, and run, knowing no one will stop them or catch them. It's happened in other cities, too. Sometimes the mobs beat people up on the street and take their money. There are the beat-downs in McDonald's, where the young lose all control and the old fear to intervene. There were the fights and attacks last weekend at the Wisconsin State Fair. You've seen the YouTubes of fights on the subways. You often see links to these stories on Drudge: He headlines them "Les Miserables."
This is must reading for anyone interested in the importance of public spaces and common areas.  But it's a topic that's usually avoided in polite company.  It's so much simpler to allude to something or other being "underfunded."
Noonan concludes this way:

The normal, old response to an emerging problem such as this has been: The government has to do something. We must start a program, create an agency to address juvenile delinquency. But governments are tapped out, cutting back, trying to avoid bankruptcy. Which means we can't even take refuge in the illusion that government can solve the problem. The churches of America have always helped the young, stepping in where they can. That will continue. But they too are hard-pressed these days.

Where does that leave us? In a hard place, knowing in our guts that a lot of troubled kids are coming up, and not knowing what to do about it. The problem, at bottom, is love, something we never talk about in public policy discussions because it's too soft and can't be quantified or legislated. But little children without love and guidance are afraid. They're terrified—they have nothing solid in the world, which is a pretty scary place. So they never feel safe. As they grow, their fear becomes rage. Further on, the rage can be expressed in violence. This is especially true of boys, but it's increasingly true of girls.

What's needed can't be provided by government. When the riot begins or the flash mob arrives, the best the government can do is control the streets, enforce the law, maintain the peace.
Many of us love modernity.  But that does not mean that we stop talking about its downsides.  It does not mean that we simply reach for with an "underfunded programs" narrative.  Step one (as they say) is to fully recognize the problem.