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Sunday, 14 August 2011

History and Rioting (The Inevitable 'Riots' Blog Post): Part 1

Well, we've had nearly a week of post-rioting analysis and on balance I don't think it's been a good week for history.  There are some hat-tips in order.  One to Emeritus Professor David Parker (Leeds) for this splendid letter to the Guardian:
For many years I taught a final-year undergraduate course on the uprisings of the peasants and artisans that swept across large parts of 17th-century France. Buildings were attacked, their contents pillaged, crops destroyed and occasionally a perceived oppressor was killed. Had my students explained it all by simply invoking feral criminality they would have failed.

Blud, dem restronters got no rite complainin wen we come
an trash der stuff, innit?*
Of course the web was awash with the predictable racism and reactionary nonsense, e-petitions were launched to strip rioters of their benefits (presumably as a means of increasing the stake they feel they hold in society) but there have been a lot of rather thoughtful analyses.  They've come from across the board too, with some in the Telegraph, surprisingly, where Peter Oborne has been writing a lot of sensible things of late, and even (you might want to be sitting down for this bit) The Daily Mail.  That's right: a sensible and even-handed piece of analysis in the Mail: maybe the riots achieved something after all.  Some nicely-turned words of wisdom came from the most unlikely sources.  

As I see it, the skills of an historian, when confronted by a complex phenomenon like this, ought (and  this is neither original nor controversial) to include at least the following:
  • The evasion of a simple catch-all explanation, of whichever 'political' narrative, particularly a doctrinaire explanation

  • The avoidance of reliance on untestable notions like 'innate human nature'

  • The avoidance of sweeping generalisation

  • The ability to disentangle different elements within the phenomenon; to tease out geographical and other variables

  • An aversion to reducing a complex phenomenon to simple cause and effect

And thus it was that, in amongst all the web traffic, historians did have interesting perspectives to offer.  Someone dug out the 1816 report into a wave of lawlessness by gangs of what might today be called feral youths in Napoleonic-era London, which concludes that the reasons for the disturbances were:
  • The improper conduct of parents

  • ......The want of education

  • The want of suitable employment

  • The violation of the Sabbath and the habits of gambling in the public-streets

  • The severity of the criminal code

  • The defective state of the police

  • The existing system of prison discipline.

On p.23 of the report there is even a discussion of the police corruption and consorting with criminals, which seemed familiar too.  I admit that I am wary of the 'ooh isn't it just like...?' school of historical commentary, but this did seem to have interesting implications.  Best of all was the publicising of a report presenting data showing a link between fiscal retrenchment or 'austerity' and social instability.  A 5% cut in spending doubles the rate of episodes of civil unrest, or so it seems from data from the last century.  Some historical bloggers have had thoughtful things to say.

At this point things looked to be going well for the profession.  Well, I say that; some of my former students popped up on Facebook spouting bile about the rioters and advocating the shooting of looters on sight, showing just how miserably I had failed in my attempts to instill in them any sense of humanity or ability to stop and think critically about things.  Ho hum. 

But it was all to go horribly wrong when, for reasons best known to themselves, Newsnight decided to invite 'historian' David Starkey to discuss the causes of the riots.  I put the inverted commas around Starkey's description because, although he was once quite widely respected as an historian of early modern England (and I believe the work he produced back then still is quite highly thought of), he hasn't held a university post in over a decade (apart - funnily enough - from a grace and favour fellowship at Saint Frithfroth's College Oxbridge or somewhere).  He has lived off being a right-wing controversialist rather than off anything that one might call serious history.  (For general theoretical caveats as to whether someone of his ways of thinking might ever actually have been a good historian, see my provisional comments on the ethics of history, previously on this blog passim.)  Why they asked Starkey - ostentatiously not a social historian - to comment on all this eludes me.  Anyway, as you probably all know by now, Starkey divested himself of various comments about how Enoch Powell had been right about the perils of immigration, but that inter-racial violence was not the problem.  No indeed, the problem was the import of 'Black' culture and the fact that the whites had 'become black'.  Well, dear reader, as we have seen before, there are certainly historians with well-paid and privileged academic posts who don't always, or can't always be bothered to, think as hard as I think they might about what they write on topics of direct relevance to the immigration debate, or perceive that words have power and consequences and require care, especially in addressing a wide audience outside the groves of academe.  Maybe, like them, David Starkey just wasn't thinking.  Far be it from me to be so 'distasteful' as to suggest - even to raise the possibility - that he might actually hold the political position that seems to emerge from a straightforward reading of his words.  You can almost certainly guess what I think.  Any good work done by historians earlier in the week was pretty severely tarnished (to put it mildly) by Starkey's performance.  There's been level-headed response by other participants, and the inevitable fun-poking - see here, here and here for some of my favourites.  Even the Mail had a go - underlining the fact that we really must be living in the End Times and that the Angel of the Lord, trumpet in hand, can't be far off.  Significantly, it initially decided to switch the 'comments' facility off.  Sadly it's back on now - hence no link (I thought I'd spare you).

Here are one or two points our Diddy David might want to think about (some of these are things to which I will return in Part 2) - none of them is very original; none exactly requires deep or complex conceptual thinking, and that is damning enough in itself.

For a start, rap (at least in the form in which it has arrived in the UK) and Jamaican patois come from two different cultures, Dave.  The fact that the members of both are people considered, since the concept of colour-based 'race' was invented, to be 'black' does not make them interchangeable.  Not a sophisticated point, really.  Maybe more controversially, the very notions of black and white are heavily bound up with particular cultures (p.44 of Barbarian Migrations, and esp. n.19) - I don't think that this is what Starkey was saying.  If it was his analysis would have been way more complex and subtle and wouldn't have included references to Enoch Powell and immigration.  But that point, quite apart from 'black' culture not being a monolithic, interchangeable phenomenon (and thus directly linked to skin colour), leads on to the question of what sorts of economic structures produce this culture?  What socio-economic structures produce situations wherein in some communities, social organisation takes the form of gangs?  Put a group of comfortably-off black people, with a stake in a society where they feel valued, together in a room and whatever genetic features govern the pigmentation of their skin do not make them naturally say, 'hey, what say you we form a gang, pimp our Volvo and carry out some drive-by shootings?'  Having skin considered in modern taxonomy to be 'black' does not lead automatically to the formation of gangs and the trashing of private property any more than, say, having been to Eton and Oxford does.  Oh.

Anyway, what structures lead to a position where respect in these communities is maintained at gun- or knife-point?  What structures lead to a situation wherein young men find that the best way out of the ghetto, and the best outlet for artistic creativity is in a form of rebellious music that (often) celebrates the milieu from which they have emerged?  What structures lead to the situation where these young men can see the best sign that they have escaped the depredation of their youths as the public ostentatious consumption, in (to the traditional elite) shocking fashion, of the goods that are widely held to be commensurate with the established elite?  (I'm thinking of pictures of rappers swigging Krug from the bottle.)  And then, why, David Starkey, do you think that this music might possibly be attractive to people in a similar socio-economic situation?  It's not that the whites have become black, it's that the poor in one irresponsible, obscenely wealthy** capitalist country have realised thanks to mass media and communications, that they have quite a lot in common with the poor in another irresponsible, obscenely wealthy capitalist country.  But while we're on the subject of mass media and modern communications, who is it that really profits from this music?  Let me tell you, I don't think that the bulk of the proceeds from sales of NWA records went straight back into Compton.  Famously, more than a few rap artists never get out of the trap they were born into; they get rich and die trying.  I hazard a guess that the overwhelming bulk of the profits from the demonised gangsta rap end up in the pockets of the white fat-cat males of the capitalist super-wealthy.

The above are not deep or sophisticated points, by any means.  Nevertheless, you'd really like to think that someone could do a wee bit better than that when they did at least once cut the mustard as a historian, unlike most of the 'writers and historians' who festoon our screens or the people the media regard as 'historians' (like writer and gentleman antiquary, Andrew Roberts).  Disappointing.  But as if Starkey's cack-handed attempt to blame it on the boogie were not bad enough for the British historical profession, we have subsequently had this (here, incidentally, are more fabulously trenchant insights perpetrated by the same deep thinker).  This is by someone with a paid post (if only a fixed-term one) in the history department of a British university.  No, really, it is.  Here are some examples of the level of 'analysis' that we can, apparently expect, from the Cambridge-educated rising stars of the British historical profession:
  1. Starkey wasn't being a racist because he said black and white people were involved

  2. The riots were predictable because violence is innate within British people

Taking this apart historically is rather akin to shooting fish in a barrel.  And, because I am a 'powerful' professor (no, stop laughing at the back, I am, really - someone told me last week) and this, erm, scholar is a junior post-doc, some might see it as bullying (and they would have a point), I'll leave that to you.  What distresses me are the implications of these pieces for the state of the British historical profession. 

I'll say no more, specifically, because - besides the potential bullying charge (though I expect any such criticism would just bounce off this target; I'm sadly familiar with his type) - criticising the British socio-educational elite - even floating the idea that sometimes they don't (or can't) think as hard or as deeply as you might expect people paid to think to ... well ... think - gets me into trouble.  So, as well as leaving you, dear reader, to consider and comment on the levels of historical thought and sophisticated analysis implied in this piece, I'll leave you to be 'distasteful' enough to pose the question of what side of the political fence this brilliant young Turk might sit on.  You might, I suppose, ponder the issue of whether someone with the level of historical ability clearly implicit in this piece would have got any sort of post-doctoral post were he not from the socio-educational background he clearly is from - that's entirely up to you.  You can analyse, to your heart's content, whether or not the ability to spout what some people (other than me obviously) might - might: I'm only saying that it's an interpretive possibility - consider to be "mindless bullshit" with absolute confidence in the fact that they are right might just, possibly, be - in some way or other - linked to any particular social and educational formation.  Who knows?  You might for all I know - and who am I to say? - wonder whether there are any historians of - let's say, just for the sake of argument - the end of the Roman Empire, or the Early Middle Ages, or the Anglo-Saxons, or any other historical sphere of interest to you, who evince similar tendencies.  Maybe there are; maybe there aren't.  Who knows?  That's all up to you.  Maybe you might wonder whether, in the implications of this piece, its context, its attitudes, there isn't just a little of what it has been that has made the people at the very opposite end of the socio-educational league table feel so very alienated, and angry, and feel that no one cares about what they might say or think. 

Think - just a little - about the implications of how this individual, from his privileged background, has a blog in the Daily Telegraph through which to pour his not over-sophisticated musings into the willing eyes of readers across the land, in spite of (and I hope I'm not being un-generous here - I'm just going on the evidence before me) not exactly being the world's next Marc Bloch.  Hell, even I, the 'powerful professor' don't get that access to the media, in spite of my 'power' (or the merits of my works); then again I merely attended a small town comprehensive and a provincial university.  But I confess it bugs me.  Now think about how someone who really comes from a disadvantaged background feels.  This (and, believe me, I am trying REALLY hard to avoid expletives here...  breathe, Guy ... gather) ... this privileged 'scholar' can get anyone to listen to whatever shit he spouts thoughts he wants to express.  What chance does someone from Tottenham have to get access to this audience for their own opinions which (whatever Starkey might say about grammar etc) I'd be hard pushed to see as less articulate?  No; this Telegraph 'historical' blog and its implications are (in my view, based on the showing of the posts above), especially if it continues in this vein, something that the British historical profession should feel more than a bit nervous about.  Now, I have said some unguarded things on this blog, which I regret, and some deliberate things that have been censored, which I don't regret, so we ought probably, difficult though it might be, to cut this young man a bit of slack.  But advocating the formation of a National Rifle Association and the shooting of rioters and looters?  I have to say that that really is something that I find more than a tad 'distasteful'.  I wonder if anyone will be penning any letters of complaint to his head of department.  Doubt it.

Diddy David Starkey clearly has more than enough successors lined up.

I'll just say that, for me, reading the Telegraph blog post linked to above has been the icing on the cake of a fortnight of absolute despair, at - quite apart from the wider and more important issues of the state of the country - the British academic history profession and its elitist, conservative structures (you might wonder why this was ever a shock to me) and has seen my respect for it badly (probably irreparably) damaged.  All that is implicit in that blog-post makes me angry.  It makes me very angry indeed.  And I know you don't like me when I'm angry.

P.s.: It's not even as though it is only 'feral criminals' in deprived area who like rap and related forms of music that have come out of the deprived areas of US cities.  Maybe, just maybe, it actually has some merits of its own?  I know a very genteel professor of medieval history who likes Eminem, as an exponent of a particular type of spoken poetry, seen within a long tradition.  I know someone else, who normally is quite an opera buff, who has taken to an occitan rap CD, and another medievalist who cheers herself up in the car by playing loud French hip-hop.  The fact that these genres have spread beyond the 'Anglo-Saxon' linguistic community is significant in itself.  Why, even I own a Kanye West CD.  Not because I like his anger or what he has to say - I am very bad at paying much attention to lyrics - but because, well, I find him musically quite interesting.

* For non-Brits, this is a picture from some years ago of Oxford University's notorious Bullingdon Club, whose privileged young male, er, members take to trashing restaurants and throwing money at the proprietors as they leave. Pictured, standing, second left, is our beloved Prime Minister, and seated at right, our beloved Mayor of London.  Cameron hates this photograph, which is why we should all feel duty bound to circulate and publicise it at every possible turn.

** Yes. Obscenely wealthy.  The next time some dumb-assed, Mail-reading accountant tells you that there's no money, or that 'the country can't afford' to pay for education, health, whatever - have a look around you in most towns or estates (even the not especially wealthy ones) in the UK.  Count the number of cars per house.  Count the number of cars on the roads with only one person (the driver) in them.  Count the TVs, the DVD-players, the fridges - yes, even the fridges - even the running water for god's sake.  And ponder.  Does this look like a poor country to you?  And while you're pondering, spare a thought, beyond wanting to form a National Rifle Association or citizens' militia and gun them down on sight, for the people in those - still mercifully few - communities where this standard level of wealth - which is just 'background noise', so that we don't even notice it, such is the wealth (yes, wealth) of the country - and prosperity don't apply.  Just a little thought for the day.