"This is the uprising of the working class," said a London anarchist taking a momentary break from smashing things last Monday. "We're redistributing the wealth." Said another, "[We're showing] the rich we can do what we want."
If you have been keeping up with the news from Britain, then you know who bears the blame for this: conservatives!
The "deep cutbacks in social programs" made by the government of Prime Minister David Cameron "have hit the country's poor especially hard," reported a major U.S. newspaper, "including large numbers of the minority youths who have been at the forefront of the unrest."
The "unrest." Nice touch.
This line has been trotted out by others—most notoriously "Red Ken" Livingstone, the former mayor of London. As well as a London MP who cited "disillusionment." And an analysis on Salon that blamed "youth unemployment." And NPR ("The unrest has spread, apparently spurred by anger over the high cost of living" as well as economic "disparity"). And The Washington Post's Courtland Milloy (the rioters are "striking out in anger over the theft of their futures").
A scholar at Johns Hopkins blames "austerity cuts." So does The New York Times: "Economic malaise and cuts in spending and services instituted by the Conservative-led government have been recurring flashpoints for months." Reuters says a "sense of disenchantment" is shared by a "generation of young people with opportunities that fall well short of their aspirations." And—
Well, you get the point: Yes, the hooligans have destroyed family businesses, trashed London institutions, sent millions of real and sweat equity up in flames, inflicted misery on thousands of innocent people. But one mustn't judge too harshly. One must try to understand. And to mollify.
You hear that sort of flummery a lot.
Or at least you hear it when the perpetrators of mayhem are objects of liberal approval. Labor unions, demonstrators against global free-trade agreements, environmentalist activists—they have legitimate grievances that must be addressed. The blind rage of young people in working-class neighborhoods is the product of socioeconomic conditions. They should not be held responsible for their actions—the people who created the conditions should be held responsible. (David Cameron, this means you.)
Funny thing, though: You didn't hear that sort of guff in 2009, when middle-class conservatives turned up at town halls across the country to vent about health-care reform. Back then, the town-hall events were filled with "angry, sign-carrying mobs," wrote Politico, which lamented the way constituents were "shouting criticism" at members of Congress. Signs and criticism: Oh my!
"Angry mobs" were trying to "destroy president Obama," fumed Democratic Party leaders back then. "This is something new and ugly," seethed Paul Krugman of The New York Times, which described the town hall events as "brutal." No one seemed interested in the root causes of the sign-wavers' agitation then. You didn't hear much about the "disillusionment" and "disenchantment" of Tea Party protesters who marched on Washington in September 2009, and again the following March.
To be fair, after the Taxpayer March on Washington on 9/12, Reuters did pause to wonder what the source of public anger was: "Protests Against Obama: Race or Policy?" it asked, noting how "former President Jimmy Carter said out loud what Democrats had been whispering for a while, that the protests against the country's first black president are tinged with racism."
When conservatives wave signs, it's not "unrest" caused by a "sense of disenchantment." It's because they're bigots. Society as a whole is not to blame; they are, individually. They need an attitude adjustment. When violent mobs of young people burn down a city, though, they are not individually responsible—society as a whole is (or at least that part of society that ostensibly ticked them off). They don't need an attitude adjustment: conservatives do.
Memo to Britain's ruling party: Look what you made those poor kids do!
This neat bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu ensures that, no matter what happens, one side is always to blame.
Here in the U.S. we've just been through a budget showdown in which the side that wanted government spending to grow at a slightly less rapid pace than the other side wanted was denounced as terrorists in the literal sense. So far, none of those who called peaceful Tea Party activists terrorists have flung the same accusation at the British rioters who have inflicted genuine terror. Interesting.
To be sure, those progressives seeking to understand what motivates the rioters in London do not actually endorse their behavior. They do not think individuals—no matter how aggrieved—should take it upon themselves to storm into other people's shops and homes and "redistribute the wealth" as they see fit. After all: That, such progressives say, is government's job.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.