Barbarians on the Thames

The good doctor conducts a postmortem on the British riots in the latest City Journal, focusing on some of the weaker explanations of its causes:
Complex human events have no single or final explanation. The last word on the outbreak of looting and rioting that convulsed large parts of England, including London, in August will therefore never be heard. But some of the first words were foolish, or at least shallow, reflecting the typical materialistic assumptions of the intelligentsia.
Tangible benefits, on this view, come not as the result of work, effort, and self-discipline: they come as of right. This inflated doctrine of rights has turned into a cargo cult as primitive as that in New Guinea, where the natives thought, after a laden airplane crashed in the jungle, that consumer goods dropped from the sky. Apparently, all that is necessary for people like the rioters to live at a higher standard of living, equal to that of others, is for the government to decree it as their right—a right already inscribed in their hearts and minds.
This doctrine originated not with the rioters but with politicians, social philosophers, and journalists. You need only read Henry Mayhew’s nineteenth-century account of the laboring poor in London to realize that the notion of having rights to tangible benefits was once unknown to the population, even during severe hardship. But the politicians, social philosophers, and journalists transformed things evidently desirable in themselves—decent housing, for example—into rights that nothing, including the behavior of the rights holders, could abrogate. It clearly never occurred to the well-meaning discoverers of these “rights” that their propagation might influence the human personality, at least of that part of the population destined to become increasingly dependent on exercising them; and it required only an admixture of egalitarianism to complete the dialectic of ingratitude and resentment.

2 thoughts on “Barbarians on the Thames

  1. Seymour Clufley

    I’m sorry to say that I didn’t enjoy this essay very much. The style was so flowery I actually found it quite difficult to read. TD seems to be doing linguistic aerobics rather than getting points across.

    I’m also surprised that he hasn’t made more of the riots. It would be the perfect subject for a new book. He could interview the rioters personally, like he used to interview inmates at the prison. That could be fascinating.

  2. Damo

    I agree that the article was a bit flowery. Nevertheless, I did enjoy it.

    I liked how he mentioned cargo cult mentality and how crime is being normalised.


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