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Where are the sociologists ?

John Linsie reflects on the media's simplistic response to the 2011 "riots".

The present state of affairs on English streets is bad enough but the situation is exacerbated by the platitudinous responses made by most politicians who seem both to have no idea of what is going on or how to respond to the situation without making it worse. The platitudes come out thick and fast: “pure criminality”; “only a minority of the population” (has Cameron any conception of what it would be like to face even a small mob of youths?); “nothing justifies such lawless behaviour”; “sections of our society are sick”; and so on.

Water cannon and plastic bullets are seemingly now on the agenda – which, arguably, if used would only escalate the violence – do you imagine that this would not trigger a tit for tat response from sections of the “youth”? Furthermore, what is the point of threatening imprisonment when the prisons are already overflowing? The present political response is on the level of Toytown’s Mr Grouser: “It ought not to be allowed”.

So what is to be done? First, to recognise that an established generation has the responsibility effectively to hand on a culture to its emergent generation. But that the present established generation has conspicuously failed to do – and I am part of that generation. That responsibility is, moreover, essentially an institutional responsibility – as Benjamin Disraeli neatly observed: “Individuals may form communities, but it is institutions that can create a nation.” And English institutions have failed English children – so much so that politicians, and their hangers on, are now scurrying off to put the blame wholly on parents.

But parents are the agents of a society’s institutions and if institutions fail parents so parents will fail their children. For parents are responsible not only for disciplining their children but also, more importantly, for handing on a society’s culture. But where does the notion of “culture” figure in the coverage of the situation by either media or Parliament?

But if a culture has lost its savour then wherewith shall it be salted – certainly not from the present incumbents of Downing Street or the Labour Party’s HQ in Victoria Street? For a society requires an integrated corpus of institutions: church, school, theatre, bank, council chamber, newspaper, and so on. But at the moment we are making the mistake that Germany made in the 30s: putting all our eggs in a political basket and the exercise of power. Perhaps the present situation is in some sense worse than it was in the past: Hitler burnt books; but Cameron is destroying libraries.

George Santayana, advised “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” With the Marxist addendum that: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” That is so because the second time round those involved have available to them the knowledge to enable them to know what is going on – so where Mr Cameron are the sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and the like? Sadly that kind of knowledge is not wanted by Cameron and his gang of millionaires in their endeavours to maintain the status quo. Have we to go through a Third World War before another Clement Attlee takes the stage?

John Linsie is a psychologist. He used to contribute to Peace News in the '60s on a range of subjects including CND, programmed learning and schizophrenia.