Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Babylonicall confusion

And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.

And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.
2 Kings 2:23-24

Not an ursine zero tolerance proposal for the Home Office policy Christmas tree (though don’t be entirely surprised to see a Daily Mail campaign for Elisha to head up the Antisocial Behaviour Unit), but a small reminder that respect, or the lack of it, is not such a new issue as we sometimes think.

Even the current excitement about hooded tops has roots in antiquity, with a Roman ban on the wearing of ‘barbarian’ trousers in the city. The edict of 397 stipulated that an ‘offender shall be stripped of all his resources and delivered into perpetual exile’. That didn’t save the Empire, of course, but at least trousers are legal again.

The point is not that current concerns about poor behaviour are somehow insignificant or unimportant, but that a lot of our thinking on these issues is driven by a sort of nostalgic catastrophism, articulated by the Daily Mail when it identified ‘a trend throughout society, where the values and constraints that once encouraged responsibility and decent behaviour
are breaking down.’

It is very hard, however, to locate that lost world of responsibility and decency. The first official investigation into juvenile delinquency in London took place in 1816; in 1913, there were 70,000 arrests for drunkenness in London alone; and the Blitz saw crime surge across the capital with indictable offences up 36 per cent on 1938 figures by the end of the war – a crime wave, aided by large numbers of readily available guns, that persisted into the 1950s.

‘Where there is no right order,’ the Homily on Obedience made clear (in the 16th century), ‘there reigneth all abuse, carnall liberty, enormitie, sinne, and Babylonicall confusion.’ And Babylonicall confusion is the order of the day in our current cultural response to young people’s behaviour. Because things aren’t really getting worse – they’re getting better.

If it isn’t easy to locate the perfect, lost world of the Daily Mail, we don’t need to look very far or very hard to see the world we left behind to get here – societies where war and violence were part of life; where inequality, poverty, bigotry and injustice were endemic; societies characterised by poor education, low life expectancy, high infant mortality, minimal healthcare, disease – and crime.

Consider the Daily Mail prescription for the problem of poor behaviour among young people: giving married people more money. ‘For the fact is that in Britain (unlike the rest of Europe) single parenthood is fiscally rewarded, while settled relationships are penalised. And while single parents often do an excellent job, the fact is – as this paper has consistently argued – that our appalling rate of family breakdown leads to whole armies of children growing up without a male role model and without the discipline and security that two parents can best provide.’

Even if it was possible to design that sort of cultural Common Agricultural Policy, it wouldn’t be enough to buy our way out of modernity – and neither should we want to. Divorces are now granted to women rather than men at a ratio of over 2:1 (a ratio of 4:1 where the spouse’s behaviour is the cause). So what does going back really mean? If the Mail is serious about bringing down the divorce rate, it must be equally serious about recreating the old conditions where women couldn’t afford to leave relationships they didn’t want to be in. There is no reason to believe that doing so would improve the behaviour of young men.

It is precisely the progress we have made that the anti-modern cod nostalgia of the right seeks to obscure. And that is why progressives must resist it so strongly. Of course, we must respond to the real problems that exist – but we must keep the challenge in perspective, and address it in ways and language that flow from our own values and our understanding of the capacities and potential of active citizens and strong communities. We cannot afford to give any ground to those who believe that progress is the problem and fear the answer.

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Oliver Pauley

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