The Politics of the London Riots and Philly Flash Mobs

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Some conservatives say we're witnessing an unprecedented social breakdown in Europe and America. History proves otherwise.

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After writing that Victor Davis Hanson is among a group of conservatives who are unduly and at times irrationally pessimistic about the United States and Western civilization generally, I owe him the courtesy of noting his response. Defending his commentary on the London riots and flash mobs in Philadelphia, he complains that I don't argue against his claims so much as just assert that he is wrong.

He has a point.

Let's return to the original argument that he offered in a post titled "Paralytic Western Society." It is here. The London riots, the Philadelphia flash mobs, and the response to them "are symptomatic of a general breakdown and loss of confidence in Western society," Hanson wrote. "Such urban violence was of course a constant in 19th and 20th century Europe and America, but now it is deeply embedded within modern sociology and no longer seen quite as criminality." As I understand it, he is making these assertions: 1) Rioters in London, street thugs in Philadelphia and other perpetrators of street violence aren't quite seen as criminals. 2) Unlike today, the people of 19th and 20th century Europe and America didn't offer sociological explanations for violent criminal acts. 3) Relative to the past, there is a general breakdown in western society.

On all three points, I think Hanson and many others who agree with him are wrong. Let me explain why.

Are They Seen As Criminals?

Who is it, exactly, that doesn't regard looters, violent teens, and other thugs as full bore criminals? Perhaps somewhere, there is a sociologist or a stray pundit who asserts as much. As I look to the United Kingdom and Philadelphia, however, I see leaders who are outspoken in labeling them criminals. I've read countless hand-wringing columns calling them criminals. In the United States, where crime rates are at unprecedented lows in many cities, and a higher percentage of people are incarcerated than in any other free society on earth, I see no evidence that we're suffering from a refusal to treat people who commit street violence as criminals. And authorities in London and Philadelphia have, in fact, made arrests. Has anyone protested?

Hanson doesn't link to or cite to anyone who rejects the criminality of the violent youth. The only person he specifically criticizes is Philadelphia's Mayor Nutter. How did Nutter react to the violence? "He proceeded to unloose a 25-minute speech that must rank among the most brutally forthright calls for personal responsibility and adult authority that an elected official has ever delivered in these United States," says National Review Editor Rich Lowry. The notion that anyone save an inconsequentially tiny minority fails to see criminals for what they are is a straw man.

Are Sociological Explanations for Violence New?

In September 1899, The Atlantic published an essay by Jacob Riis titled "The Genesis of the Gang." It concerns a fifteen-year-old New York City boy who confessed to murder. "Of his crime the less said the better. It was the climax of a career of depravity that differed from other such chiefly in the opportunities afforded by an environment which led up to and helped have shape it," Riis wrote. "My business is with that environment. The man is dead, the boy in jail. But unless I am to be my brother's jail keeper, merely, the iron bars do not square the account of Jacob with society."

He goes on to describe the murderer's upbringing. Here is a representative passage:

...He was born in a tenement in that section where the Tenement House Committee found 324,000 persons living out of sight and reach of a green spot of any kind, and where sometimes the buildings, front, middle, and rear, took up ninety three per cent of all the space on the block. Such a home as he had was there, and of the things that belonged to it he was the heir. The sunlight was not among them. It "never entered" there. Darkness and discouragement did, and dirt. Later on, when he took to the dirt as his natural weapon in his battles with society, it was said of him that it was the only friend that stuck to him, and it was true. Very early the tenement gave him up to the street. The thing he took with him as the one legacy of home was the instinct for the crowd, which meant that the tenement had wrought its worst mischief upon him: it had smothered that in him around which character is built.

Another excerpt:


I doubt if Jacob, in the whole course of his wizened little life, had ever a hand in an honest game that was not haunted by the dread of the avenging policeman. That he was not "doing anything" was no defense. The mere claim was proof that he was up to mischief of some sort. Besides, the policeman was usually right. Play in such a setting becomes a direct incentive to mischief in a healthy boy. Jacob was a healthy enough little animal. Such fun as he had he got out of lawbreaking in a small way. In this he was merely following the ruling fashion.

And a third:


When, later on, lie came to be tried, his counsel said to me, "He is an amazing liar." No, hardly amazing. It would have been amazing if lie had been anything else. Lying and mockery were all around him, and he adjusted himself to the things that were. He lied in self defense.

Where does Hanson get the idea that sociological explanations for violence are a new phenomenon? They are not. And while some border on apologia, that is not necessarily so. Inquiring into and articulating the factors that contribute to crime isn't tantamount to excusing it. But that is beside the point. Whatever one thinks of sociological explanations, they've been around for a very long time.

The General State of Western Society

Hanson and I can agree that recent episodes of lawlessness, economic woes, the rise of Islamist fundamentalism, and many other things besides are cause for concern. But I can't understand it when people like him explicitly invoke 19th and 20th Century Europe, compare it to that continent today, and find the present situation inferior. Twice in the 20th Century the whole of Europe descended into wars that killed millions. Anti-semitism resulted in a mechanized genocide. The Spanish lived under a fascist dictator into the 1970s. All Eastern Europe spent several post World War II decades under the thumb of the communists, and even the 1990s saw war in the Balkans. Against all that, I am supposed to watch the London riots and conclude that we're now experiencing "a general breakdown and loss of confidence in Western society"? All that's left is labeling us a "lost generation" whose impotence leads us to decadent behavior.

This is nothing new under the sun.

Hanson goes on to say in his rebuttal that "I have mostly written not to lose heart: America is not in decline (a choice, not a fate) and, compared to our competitors, we are uniquely positioned, with the proper guidance, to re-assume global leadership and regain national prosperity." On that I can agree, though I insist on caveats: we remain the most powerful country in the world by a wide margin, so if we aren't still the "global leader" I don't know who is; and despite the tough economic times, our national prosperity remains many times greater than it was for the vast majority of the 19th and 20th Centuries. But these are quibbles. I agree: We should not lose heart. Decline is not inevitable. And proper guidance by our polity, rather than the actions of outside actors, is likely the most important factor that will determine our success going forward.

Image credit: Reuters


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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