Friday, 19 August 2011

Poor people getting high

The four-year jail sentences handed-down to two teenagers convicted of trying to 'incite' a riot via their Facebook pages has been denounced by worried lawyers and human rights groups as a deeply disturbing turn to effective summary justice.

With that kind of growing concern, one might expect a strong liberal defence of commensurate sentencing from the Guardian's chief political editor Michael White.  Instead, he blogs:
"[F]our years in prison for trying to organise a riot in Northwich or Warrington (no one turned up) is a bit excessive. You normally have to kidnap someone or run them over while drunk to attract that sort of attention. Yet I'm not sorry at the thought that Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan (we must blame the parents for that name, but a non-custodial sentence is appropriate) and Jordan Blackshaw woke up in the slammer on Thursday remembering that, no, it's not all a bad dream. It could be like this for the next 18 months, lads. And what if that big bloke on the next floor takes a shine to you?
Mean? No. People write all sorts of really ugly and stupid things on Facebook, Twitter, email and other anti-social media platforms (including this one), and it's time they realised that they matter."
The "Facebook generation", as the condemning judge lumps them, may, indeed, have an inclination towards posting irresponsible content - and do beware, social networkers, what loose talk and hazardous sites one can stumble into on those pages.

Yet, here's White, supposedly more aware of those hazards, and the need for 'temperate Guardian language', apparently revelling in these draconian sentences while noting the prospect of illicit jail-place advances.

We should, perhaps, offer the same compassionate concern for White over such utterings.  It appears, from his response to the substantial criticism over these remarks, that he wasn't actually advocating prison "rape", just sounding-off a little on a serious point - a bit like those on Facebook might resort to.  So, a little understanding towards White, even if his dark musings reveal a more punitive 'departure' from the 'liberal balance' we might 'expect' from such quarters.

Much more importantly, it would never occur to Michael White that the countless rationalising columns he and his fellow Guardanista have produced in defence of warmongering politicians like Blair and Cameron has, in contrast to the 'Facebook 2', had an actual, complicit effect in promoting murder and mayhem.

To his credit, Channel 4's Jon Snow, writing in his blog - witness, again, the less-guarded keyboard at work - sees the more obvious crass-class discrepancies in the sentencing agenda:
"There is a sense in Britain too of a widening gap in both wealth and law – that there is one law for the elite and one for the poor. Take the MPs’ and Peers’ expenses scandal. A tiny handful of the expenses abusers have gone to jail. The vast majority have been allowed to pay stuff back or retreat to the political undergrowth. How many of the looters will be allowed to bring their plasma screens and running shoes back in return for their freedom? And yet it is the very unpunished abuse of the state by its elected and unelected elite which many argue is part of the landscape that the recent riots played out across...No British banker is in jail for what happened in 2008. And as financial upheaval cascades before us all over again, almost no serious measures have been taken to stop the same people from doing it to the people all over again." 
Well said.  If only Jon was able or willing to speak the fuller truth of these vast imbalances and their causes, including media responsibility for such, much more specifically on Channel 4 News.  

Reflecting on the daily grind for many in Britain's bleak inner-city pockets, John Pilger puts it, as ever, in perfectly clearer context:
"For the young at the bottom of the pyramid of wealth and patronage and poverty that is modern Britain - mostly the black, the marginalised and resentful, the envious and hopeless - there is never surprise. Their relationship with authority is integral to their obsolescence as young adults. Half of all black British youth between the ages of 18 and 24 are unemployed, the result of deliberate policies since Margaret Thatcher oversaw the greatest transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top in British history. Forget plasma TVs; this was pano­ramic looting.
Such is the truth of David Cameron's "sick society", notably its sickest, most criminal, most feral "pocket": the square mile of the City of London where, with political approval, the banks and the super-rich have trashed the British economy and the lives of millions....
This is not in any way to excuse the violence of the rioters, many of whom were opportunistic, mean, cruel, nihilistic and often vicious in their glee: an authentic reflection of a system of greed and self-interest to which scores of parasitic money-movers, "entrepreneurs", Murdochites, corrupt MPs and bent coppers have devoted themselves."
From a visceral media to draconian courts, from sanctimonious politicians to a vengeful public, we're now witnessing levels of outright hatred against the poorest sections of our society.

And it's not just a reaction to the riots. It comes as part of a deeper, encouraged animosity against the 'feckless' poor, the parodying of their 'Shameless-style' existence, their 'greedy-grasping' desire for things in shops that they 'won't do anything to earn', their 'workshyness', their 'plasma-screen culture', their 'refusal to better themselves', their 'frivolous' inability to manage the 'generous welfare' the state gives them.

Inflamed by Daily Mail diatribe and liberal 'firmness' alike - as in Michael White's outpourings - this shrill, small-minded denunciation is lacking in the most basic compassion or understanding of the real criminality happening in the high worlds of finance and warmongering politics.

It should be an automatically-known fact for such 'informed' commentators, that areas with the highest levels of unemployment and deprivation are also those with the highest risk of violence.

That's just one of the core conclusions in multiple studies of poverty highlighted by Epidemiology Professor Richard Wilkinson, co-author of The Spirit Level - a text which David Cameron once cited in his election 'appeals' for a 'fairer society', but which now, like any other 'concern' for the actual causes of societal breakdown, has been conveniently buried.

But there's something more basic, perhaps more prosaic, to say here about the motivations behind the riots and wider issues of poverty.

Besides all the well-documented links between unemployment, deprivation, alienation and violence, people in general, and poor people in particular, struggling under this insatiably-competitive, irrational system, will always try, just for that brief moment, to seize an illicit opportunity, to grab something, something they feel might bring a sense of attainment, even a modicum of happiness.  It's a desire for momentary gratification, unbound elation, social escape, anarchic hedonism, the 'live to be high' flight from mundane reality.

It's also, more generally, why people in poverty, like poor mothers, go and splash-out on their kids, running up unrepayable credit, busting the family 'budget', behaving 'irresponsibly', living 'beyond their means'.  And when they turn up at 'the social' asking for help, or plead hardship to those more comfortably-off, they're usually chastised for their 'indolence' and 'stupidity'.

How easily we turn on the poorest.  How readily the 'upwardly-mobile', usually from once-poorer homes themselves, cast righteous judgement on those who 'won't pull themselves up'.  How selectively we dispense our compassion.    

Meanwhile, when elite bankers turn up at their version of 'the social', namely, The Treasury - having lined their pockets with vast bonuses, engaged in 'irresponsible' spending, speculated with greedy abandonment and taken entire economies down in the process - we shrug, maybe mount a little protest and go on with our insecure lives while dutiful politicians bail them out again.

Unlike the warped sentences now being handed-down to the opportunistic poor, few from that select estate will ever do community service, never mind go to jail.  And, again, in a cruel reminder of how efficiently the propaganda of blame works, the greatest call for public retribution is directed at the poorest end of the spectrum rather than those guilty of the highest crimes.

With all the current evidence of more financial looting by the wealthy, is it any wonder the poor and scapegoated are now turning, as Pilger puts it, to social "insurrection"?

Perhaps I better end it there, in case this lowly blogger gets hauled-off for instigating feelings of compassion, empathy, solidarity or other kinds of thought crime.


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