Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life, unseen world | Tags: america, fate, fortune, merit, riots, tea party, UK
In America you have the tea party, in England you’ve got this.
– UK rioter.
They see the hierarchy and riot; we are told there is no hierarchy and believe it.
A friend on facebook asked: why do the Brits riot while in America we have the tea party? They have rioters and we have partiers.
He is of course assuming that economic events – budget cuts and economic stagnation – are the common cause which give rise to both the rioters and partiers. I waited and watched the thread for two days during which time he received, as could be expected, representative opinions from the cultural extremes: the rioters are thugs and n’er-do-wells, or they are disenfranchised and have lost hope. Partiers are crackpots working against their own best interests; they are the true fiscal stewards.
But these pat answers don’t address the question – a good one – to name the constituent difference, between England and America, that would lead to profoundly different reactions to arguably the same social impetus: drawbacks based on a failing economy. There has to be profound differences between societies that react so differently.
Life in America has more than a bit of the velvet glove about it. It’s remarkably deferential and passive for being the capital of enterprise. It’s a place that has mastered the pulled punch. We’re credulous. We’re sheep. Furthermore, there is a very real and aggressive commitment to whispy goals: happiness and the dream. To me, these are evidences of a cultural predilection for amnesia or mendacity, and the fact that we are a society that doesn’t riot adds fuel to that fire. So my first reaction to my friend’s query was that we are passive and the rioting Brits clearly are not.
But this still doesn’t get to the root of the question: why are we passive? I put it out of my mind on that second day, and later, quite suddenly an answer came to me, and I wrote: They see the hierarchy and riot; we are told there is no hierarchy and believe it.
Humans have always rioted, it’s in the natural order of our history. The pendulum of inequality or power lifts too high and becomes too heavy and by some catalytic unrest starts its inexorable swing in the opposite direction. It’s very natural, if you are a British youth from Tottenham to look around you, and to discern that everyone is having a better time and go at things than you are, and to get frustrated, and then to go out with your mates and do some really stupid things. I’m going to get mine, they seem to be saying. Rioting is a fully natural phenomenon borne out by real reactions to real events and by our understanding of history.
On the other hand, to not riot when conditions are really bad can be seen as an historical aberration of sorts. A society that bucks history and refuses to riot in the face of real social inequity – like America today – is an anomaly, historically speaking. “We are told there is no hierarchy and believe it,” was the second part of the answer that popped into my head. We don’t riot because we don’t see the inequity, my muse told me. We are credulous in the face of heaps of contravening evidence. How can this be?
A long time ago, we used to believe that life was often arbitrary; that fate and fortune played roles in the outcomes of our lives. Today we’re brave and new and we believe that people rise and fall according to their own actions; and we spurn fate as a concoction of old wives and witches.
You could argue that any country that supports it’s people – rich and poor – with welfare and social services holds to that long ago belief that the unfortunate among us are deserving of support because of the arbitrariness of life. And the corollary would be true: that a state which strips access to safety nets believes that life is predictable and if you need assistance, surely you have been lazy or foolish or both.
Ironically, it is in this brave new modern system of belief in which everything is clear eyed and merited and in which the belief in the arbitrariness of life has been expunged – it is in this world that we live in blindness. Here, we can’t see that the basic systems of governance, communion and commerce established to serve all are not only rendered ineffectual but have actually turned crazily against us. Our appetite is insatiable for the false creed that promises that by merit we shall have limitless progress and expansion and fulfillment. Challengers are met and opposed with zeal; there is no turning the great ship of state.
That is the difference: the group that lives in the milieu that accepts fatedness, riots; and the group that believes, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that our world doesn’t operate by fate, sits numbly and stares blankly as things fall apart. We need to find our way back to meaning. To reopen the book, long ago shut and shelved, which explains how life is a mystery: ascension is descension, topsy is turvy, eight times eight times eight is four, the first shall be last, that sometimes the tortoise wins. Life for many of us – rich and poor – is largely arbitrary. Stop believing otherwise: live, love, vote, work, and when things turn bad, riot.
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