ANYONE who has battled with a spouse knows there are moments when the other party’s most innocent remarks can be turned back as weapons, seized upon as excuses to pour out anger and grievance about matters that may have no pertinence whatsoever to the specific bone of contention that inspired the screaming of the moment. So it seems is the case also with riots. While England has been racked with mayhem, both left and right have rallied to the favourite themes, one side identifying problems about which something might be done if the will was there, the other fixating with truculent resentment only on the symptoms of those social maladies. As with domestic donnybrooks, it is a handy tactic to loathe not just the other side’s rhetoric but the sprouters of it. This helps spats veer off on ideological tangents, which in turn allows overpaid twerps like Jonathan Holmes to intuit racist sentiments (or denialist or sexist or whatever) where none exist.
Britain’s High Street bonfires have been a gold mine in this regard, as anyone who heard last night’s PM interview with former Guardian editor Will Hutton will be aware. It was all there in sympathetic ABC reporterette Emily Bourke’s introductory paraphrasing of the cliché compendium that sustains so many conferences of social workers and squanderers of other people’s money. (“…a failed capitalist model and unfairness that has engulfed British society. He says Britons need to return to core moral values, where fairness in rewards and punishments is the overarching principle.”) Nothing if not predictable, the interview was another of the ABC’s many early signals that its upcoming post-mortems on the riots – expect lots and lots of those -- will touch all the familiar bases, from class warfare to economic injustice and the shameful unfairness of kids from Knightsbridge getting around in flash sneakers.
Countering that, the sane side is once again banging on about causes – generations of welfare dependency, the mollycoddling of miscreants, schools making stupidity a core subject, abrasive and endemic vulgarity etc etc. It goes without saying, and certainly to most readers of this blog, that the so-called conservative perspective offers a better diagnosis, but it too omits mention of what is, when you get right down to it, the most basic and fundamental factor behind these riots and so many other eruptions. The human heart, regardless of the colour of the breast in which it beats, is and always will be a font of boundless evil.
Give people the opportunity to loot and bash and, regardless of race or background, a significant percentage will take up the opportunity and run with it, as hard to resist as making off with a plasma screen. The proof, while obvious at the moment in Britain, also can be found in many places, including the unlikely locale of Melbourne’s Bourke Street mall.
The next time you happen to visit, turn your back to Myer and observe the twin front windows of Dunklings The Jeweller directly across the street.* There is something special about those panes, which are the only glazier’s handiwork on the strip to have survived from the 19th century. The rest were smashed, and the stores behind them looted, during a series of wild nights and days in 1923, when the majority of this city’s police officers went on strike. Contemporary accounts tell of well-dressed, apparently respectable people joining the initial mob of larrikins to make off with everything and anything. Almost every window in Melbourne’s CBD was smashed, Dunklings being the notable exception.
According granduncle Cyril Bunyip, who shared with a youngster before his death in 1969 his memories of service as a volunteer Special Constable, Dunklings survived because the owner and his son sat for three days in their front windows, each with a shotgun resting in his lap. The Melbourne of back then certainly had its seedy element, but the city, like Australia as a whole, boasted one of the world’s highest standards of living. Comfortable, well fed and keen to kick up its heels at the Spring Racing Carnival, you could not have picked a less likely time or spot for well dressed women to be observed helping themselves to thousands of pounds worth of gems from jewelers less vigilant than the Dunklings.
It is in all of us to one extent or other, the rottenness at the core – even in Special Constable Cyril Bunyip, whose subsequent history of bad debts and financial scams left many relatively innocent souls a good poorer. He had to pay his Melbourne Club membership, after all, just as the kids in Tottenham must today have their Converse joggers.
Fix education by all means. Ginger up the wallopers and staunch the bleeding hearts on the benches in our courts. Even launch a government-funded subsidy to redress injustice by putting the youth of Tottenham and Birmingham – or Moe and Frankston for that matter -- in the runners of their preference. Do all those things, but never expect anything more than palliatives.
We’re a vicious, self-centred species. Get used to it.
*Do watch out for the Mall’s trams, which seem to kill at least one preoccupied tourist per year.
FOOTNOTE: Readers interested in the 1923 police strike will enjoy Days of Violence: The 1923 Police Strike in Melbourne by Gavin Brown and Robert Haldane. A sample can be found here.