Oh Dear

August 11, 2011 § 5 Comments

A rare foray into UK politics for me and a rare foray into opinion. I promise not to make a habit of it but it’s not every day your city catches fire:

One of the best pieces of television I have ever seen was Adam Curtis’s segment for Newswipe on the rise of Oh Dearism. He returns to similar ground in his blog post Goodies and baddies – which has to count as one of the greatest blog postings of all time. Adam Curtis is such a fantastic summator it seems wrong to summarise him and further, but here I go:

Oh Dearism is the phenomenon whereby, faced on the one hand with an increasingly complex world with political movements and consequences increasingly escaping categorisation and definition, and on the other hand a news media narrative and reductive reporting style which insists upon boiling down explanations, stripping out nuance, and turning news into easily understandable bite-sized news stories, we increasingly give up looking for explanation and merely observe the world as a succession of bad things happening for no real reason, to which we say “oh dear”.

I thought about Oh Dearism as I listened to both the government and most of my acquaintances respond to the recent spate of riots. Typical comments included, ” Most people care deeply about their neighbours and community. The acts last night were perpetrated by a tiny minority with no respect for others.” “What makes me most angry is how much this is going to hurt decent people who work very hard for a modest income” “I’m clear that they are in no way representative of the vast majority of young people in our country who despise them, frankly, as much as the rest of us do.”

Now I know this bit is going to be missed by people who want to be annoyed by this post but I’m going to say it anyway: I don’t disagree. In fact I agree completely.

That’s the thing about Oh Dearism: Oh Dearism isn’t wrong. Oh Dearism is far too trite, too irrelevant, too boring, to be wrong. And indulged in by friends and colleagues Oh Dearism is merely mildly irritating.

But what worries me is that this government doesn’t seem to be interested in engaging with the problem beyond indulging in Oh Dearism. And that is dangerous.

Here is George HW Bush engaging in some classic Oh Dearism after the second night of the LA race riots:

‎”[this is] purely criminal, What we saw last night and the night before in LA is not about civil rights. It’s not a message of protest. It’s been the brutality of a mob, pure and simple.”

Dan Quale went on to say that the riots had nothing to do with the Rodney King verdict – and so they went on for another week and established areas of the USA as no-go zones for the police to this day. Now here is Clegg after the first night of our riots:

“The damage from riots seen last night has nothing to do with the death of Mr Duggan; that is being investigated. The violence we saw was needless and opportunistic, where shopkeepers lost shops and families lost homes. The violence,looting and theft is utterly condemned and has only caused a sense of insecurity felt in the community”

Swap LA for Tottenham; swap Duggan for King …… but that too is a trite analysis, and that is not my point – my point is in both cases the Oh Dearism response didn’t work, not because it was incorrect but because it was irrelevant and because it didn’t even begin to touch upon the problem.

Clearly many of those involved in the riots were opportunists and thieves. Clearly the remainder used utterly illegitimate and unacceptable means to address what may or may not be legitimate grievances. But all that is noise, all that is irrelevance. What has happened is that a large number of people who mostly operated within the law have decided to mostly operate outside the law. In other words the social contract between the state and a large numbers of poor young individuals has been broken.

I am not making the argument (although some will) that the state broke the social contract when they shot Mark Duggan. It seems to me more likely that the social contract has been broken for some time*, and the police briefly losing control during the Duggan protest merely provided the opportunity for this lack of a social contract to become evident. But all these matters are entirely irrelevant. This is just yet more noise, yet more Oh Dear. All that matters is how that contract can be rebuilt. The state cannot, must not, just shrug its shoulders and say, “the social contract has been broken, Oh Dear”

To borrow and develop something a friend of mine said, if you kick a dog for long enough the dog will bite someone and it probably won’t be the person who kicked it. Saying that the dog is a bad dog, or that you feel sorry for the person who got bitten, doesn’t help the victim or make the dog feel bad. It is just a bit trite.

In the absence of an attempt to rebuild the social contract it seems the state is intent to just crush the riots through sheer brute force. Here’s Cameron again,

Whatever resources the police need they will get, whatever tactics police feel they need to employ, they will have legal backing to do so. We will do whatever is necessary to restore law and order on to our streets. Every contingency is being looked at, nothing is off the table.”

Apart from the fact that these words should send a shiver down the spine of any liberal, indeed any right thinking person, this is a recipe for disaster. In Paris when they tried to crush the riots through brute force, they lasted for a month. But even if one were to succeed, as the police did last night, all we have done is buy ourselves some time  – not a solution.

A considerable number of people are angry, are poor, are disillusioned, disaffected, and disenfranchised, have completely lost all trust in and respect for the police. As long as this remains the case these riots will happen again, and again – and even if it is many years until the next riot we will all be quivering under Damocles’ blade until a new social contract has been developed, and accepted, by the disaffected young people of Britain’s inner cities. And everything else is just another way of saying Oh Dear.




*For what it is worth I don’t actually think the state is entirely to blame for the collapse of the social contract but it is the state’s job to fix it. To quote my favourite line in The Fall of the Roman Empire, “When a teacher teaches a pupil the same lesson, the same way, a hundred times and still they do not learn then there is either something wrong with the teacher or there is something wrong with the lesson.”



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