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Rotting from the Head Down

In his article on London in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, titled “Oh, London, You Drama Queen,” novelist China Miéville writes: “The aftermath [of the recent riots] was one of panicked reaction. Courts became runnels for judicial cruelty, dispensing sentences vastly more severe than anything usual for similar crimes.”

This is the statement of a typical intellectual whose indifference to the actual lives of the urban poor masquerades as compassion for them. Miéville fails to mention that most of the sentences handed down were for people with criminal records, no doubt in many cases long ones. The real judicial cruelty—not to the criminals but to their victims—was the leniency before the riots that gave the rioters a hitherto justified sense of impunity.

Some figures: in 2011, there were 12,699 knife attacks in London known to the police (up 13.6 percent from the previous year); 58,160 burglaries (up 8.8 percent); and 68,754 street robberies (up 13 percent). The average national detection rate for burglaries is about one in 12, though even this is an overstatement, due to police manipulation of the figures. Approximately 800,000 domestic burglaries took place in Great Britain in 2009; this means that some 67,000 were detected by the police. In that same year, 6,136 people went to prison in Great Britain for burglary (for an average of 17 months each). Considering the 800,000 burglaries annually, a domestic burglary attracts on average four days’ imprisonment: hardly indicative of judicial ferocity, and not much of a deterrent to burglary.

One cannot say often enough that the victims of crime are, like the perpetrators, more likely to be poor than rich. For example, single-parent households in Britain have a more than one-in-20 chance of being burgled in any given year; and since most burglars are recidivists, indeed multiply so, it follows that the class of victim is much larger than the class of perpetrator. Leniency toward criminals is not therefore a form of sympathy for the poor, but a failure to take either their lives or their property seriously. For Miéville to talk of “panicked reaction” in these circumstances is a form of moral exhibitionism. He is showing off in front of his peers.

The notion that the disorder in London (and elsewhere in the country) is a protest against injustice—a thread that runs through Miéville’s article—is both crude and laughable. It is true that the British police have, after years of liberal-inspired reform, become simultaneously bullying and ineffectual, a disastrous combination. But you have only to read an account or two of the knife-murders among London adolescents to know how little injustice has to do with police behavior and how much with the disorderly and fundamentally vicious culture that Miéville extols.

I take at random an account of a murder in 2009 of a 15-year-old youth, Steven Lewis. Here is how the BBC described the trial at the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales:

The Old Bailey heard that police faced a wall of silence as youths at the scene denied seeing anything.

Hundreds had attended a “back-to-school”-themed youth event at the church in January, which ended early when gatecrashers arrived, the court heard.

During a subsequent row Stephen was surrounded by a group of youths, some of them shouting, “shank him,” meaning “stab him.”

Chris Mazekelua boasted of the murder with “apparent glee” after stabbing Stephen, the Old Bailey heard.

An anti-knife crime patrol that happened to be in the area was at the scene within seconds.

They found knives scattered over the floor but youths who were there told officers they had not seen anything.

There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of protest against social injustice in such cases; nor was there any in the accounts that I’ve read of the 120 similar murders in Britain between 2009 and 2010.

Miéville goes on to describe a scene with which every urban Briton is only too familiar:

Two boys get on a bus from northwest London heading to the center. They swagger upstairs, lounge on the front seats, turn their phones into inadequate speakers and drawl along with the Notorious B.I.G.: “Every Saturday ‘Rap Attack,’ Mr. Magic, Marley Marl/I let my tape rock till my tape popped.” Like they know what tape is.

Inadequate speakers? Inadequate for what? Such imprecision of mind is astonishing in someone with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and who has held a fellowship at Harvard. Miéville’s commentary on the above scene demonstrates an ability to avoid social reality common in a certain kind of educated fool: “Everyday silliness, adolescent thoughtlessness are treated like social collapse. Of which there’s a fair bit going around, true, but does it really inhere in this?”

I won’t comment on the prose—does social collapse “go around” in “fair bits”?— but surely only someone with a degree in anthropology (as Miéville has) could miss the most obvious purpose of the behavior described: to mark out a territory and to intimidate others. This would be clear enough to the most uneducated old lady of the working class.

According to an old Russian saying, fish rot from the head down. I suspect this isn’t really true of fish, but it is certainly true of societies. After all, China Miéville, a successful and critically acclaimed novelist, is among the British intellectual elite.

First published in City Journal.



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