I found it baffling a few months back when, in a discussion about apologetics with some Evangelical friends, one of them insisted -- with specific reference to the Gospel according to Matthew -- that the Evangelists were the best historians of the ancient world, and on my blinking, challenged me to name some better ones. I'm afraid I fumbled my response, trying to explain that it's daft to treat all four Evangelists as though they're historians, and that in any case you can't simply put ancient historians into boxes labelled 'accurate' and 'inaccurate' with a special section for 'most accurate'. All else aside, some historians are more accurate on some things than they are on others; Appian, for instance, is probably pretty reliable on the Third Punic War but is an embarrassment on the Second Punic War.
I should, of course, have said that of the Evangelists only Luke really seems to have been a historian by any definition, in that he talks of having collated and weighed up his sources; that's not to say that the others are of no historical value, which I certainly don't believe, just that they're not historians. And then I should have talked about what ancient historians actually did.
Writing Pragmatic History
Unlike Appian, the second-century BC Greek historian Polybius is widely regarded as an excellent historical source for the Second Punic War and most of the matters he covers, and though he certainly has failings, he's generally recognised as a first-rate historical thinker. He scorns romantic and anecdotal historical writing, and tries to grapple with the big questions of how and why did things happen. With particular reference to wars, Polybius explains their origins in terms of three things:
- An arkhē is a beginning, the first action of a war.
- A prophasis is a pretext, an alleged -- but largely or wholly spurious -- reason for going to war.
- An aitia is a cause, an underlying factor or reason that genuinely influences the decision to go to war.
I've been thinking about this a lot in the aftermath of last week's riots, thinking too about how the riots seem to have been a cascade of distinct -- if related -- events. Legions of causes have, of course, been advanced to explain the riots; Nelson Jones at Heresy Corner has compiled an amusingly comprehensive list.
Things can be Paradoxical without being Oxymoronic
I don't think we should jump to the conclusion that apparently contradictory arguments can't both be right here. There were a lot of riots and a lot of rioters; it's entirely plausible that what was a pretext for one riot was the cause of another.
As an example of apparently contradictory explanations, it's wholly possible, for instance, that both police brutality and police timidity were factors in causing the riots: the death of Mark Duggan, and the police's failure to deal properly with Duggan's family following his death could well have at the very least provided pretexts for the initial Tottenham riot, while frequent stopping and searching of black youths surely bred a deep-seated resentment that would have been causal in nature, both in the case of the first Tottenham riot and subsequent ones; on the other hand, the impotence of the initial police response to the first Tottenham riot could well have itself had a causal effect, leading to more riots, which in turn were so feebly handled as to encourage other rioting.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
I also think we really should keep in mind that individual rioters may have had individual reasons for why they ran amok. Lots of us have by now heard the clip of giggling Croydon girls revelling in the previous evening's rampage, saying such things as:
'Like, it's the Government's fault... Conservatives!... It's not even a riot - it's showing the people we can do what we want... Yeah, that's what it's all about -- showing the police we can do what we want, and now we have... It's the rich people, the people that have got businesses and that's why all of this has happened, because of the rich people. So we're just showing the rich people we can do what we want.'
Let's be frank. These girls were speaking for themselves; we don't know if what they said reflected the views of the other rioters and looters in Croydon, let alone the rest of London or elsewhere in England. Nobody's conducted a survey of the rioters, asking them they're motives -- no more than anybody seems to have been compiling demographic data on those rioters who've been thus far convicted or at least charged in court. We're relying on anecdotes in the hope that they're representative. Still, it sounds very plausible that this was a common attitude. Civilization is, in no small part, a confidence trick, and once the frailty of our bulwarks against savagery is revealed -- as they were on the first night of rioting -- it's hardly surprising that the fences would be smashed down everywhere.
David Starkey, of course, has agreed that what happened wasn't rioting, embracing instead the description of it as 'shopping with violence', and there does seem a strong case that what went on was, in large part, a looting rampage led by gangs that recognised the impotence of the police and rallied their troops using modern communications, but with large numbers of auxiliary looters -- people who weren't gang members but who just joining in. This BBC report certainly ventures that tentative explanation, though features an interview with one Londoner who -- afraid to show his face -- poses a very blunt question:
Clusters of Causes
'If the media are saying these are mindless thugs that are creating this situation, why are these mindless thugs? What is creating a young man, born and bred in this society, to grow up and become a mindless thug?'This is a good question, and indeed is the most important question we need to answer if we want to prevent this from happening again. We need to diagnose the problem before we can cure it.
Clusters of Causes
It's striking that most explanations I've seen ventured to explain the riots tend to fall into, roughly, nine categories.
- The most banal and meaningless explanation, of course, is to say that the riots were caused by 'criminality'. This is ludicrous, and explains nothing. What is criminality? Criminality is the quality of being criminal; as such, the riots and looting weren't caused by criminality; they were examples of criminality. This 'explanation' tells us nothing. It's like saying that the Battle of the Somme was caused by war, or that the Omagh Bombing was caused by terrorism.
- More ridiculous, if less self-evidently so, are those attempts to blame the riots on social networking and mobile phones. Modern technology was used to summon the troops, like those beacons in the Lord of the Rings, but that's a far cry from saying it caused the riots. Twitter and Facebook and Blackberry Messenger no more caused the riots than horses did the American Revolution; as Malcolm Gladwell says in The Tipping Point, word of mouth is still the most important form of human communication. Likewise, it's absurd to blame riots on face-coverings or hoodies or knives; that's like saying that Battle of Britain was caused by aircraft.
- Racism -- or at least perceived racism -- and in particular the actions of the police prior to the first riot, has been cited as causes of the first riot, and some subsequent ones. There's merit to this, certainly, though it doesn't work as an explanation of, say, what happened in Manchester. More broadly, though, stop-and-search is an approach directed not against black people so much as against youths in general; the police may well have good grounds for this, of course, but I think it'd be naive to expect people not to be annoyed by such hassle. We shouldn't be surprised by backlashes.
- More fundamentally, in terms of immediate causes of the riots, I don't think we can shirk all those simple human explanations, especially with reference to people who seem to have got caught up in them: herd behaviour, crowd psychology, peer-group pressure, brain chemistry and mirror neurons, the exhiliaration of crowds, and the sheer madness of the moment. I've had it wittily and rightly put to me recently that 'the IQ of a mob is the IQ of the stupidest person present divided by the total number of people.'
- Sheer opportunism clearly lay behind much of what happened. The walls of civilization aren't very strong and aren't always as well-garrisoned as we'd like. Once it became apparent that it was possible to riot, it's hardly surprising that people rioted. They did it because they could. That sounds too obvious an explanation, but I've no doubt that there's a hell of a lot of truth in this.
- There are, I think, deeper causes that we can all accept as well, related to a culture of acquisition and conspicuous consumption, the influence of such aggression-glorifying media as gangsta rap music, the growth of gang culture, and hereditary joblessness. The question, of course, is why these phenomena have developed, and in trying to answer that, Left and Right tend to draw from very different wells.
- Those on the Left tend to see the deepest root causes of the riots as being rooted in class divisions, the devasting effects on Britain's social structure of free-market economic policies, the failure to replace sold social housing, the corralling of the poorest and most vulnerable into ghetto estates devoid of positive role models, the stigmatising of the poor, and the poor's sense of hopelessness and abandonment. I've already talked about this, and basically think this analysis is correct, if incomplete. I have, however, little time for other aspects of analyses I've seen coming from the left: I don't think people have rioted because of cuts or any other current government policies. On the contrary, I think they're only vaguely aware of what current policies really involve.
- On the right, however, there have been a whole battalion of radically different explanations, many of which come down to a crude attempt to claim that a criminal underclass of morally illiterate children grew up under fourteen years of Labour government. Some of these relate to the education system, blaming comprehensive schools and the lack of corporal punishment, while others blame teenage pregnancy, absent fathers, single mothers, and a supposed lack of ability or will on the part of parents to discipline their children. It's common for these explanations to scorn political correctness, feminism, multiculturalism, liberalism, socialism, and a belief in rights without a complementary belief in duties; a general theme is a collective breakdown in respect, and typical of these arguments is the line that Britain's poor are lazy, having been drugged senseless by an all-providing welfare state.
- There are those on both left and right who say this is, ultimately, a question of morality, or perhaps beyond morality, of Sin. I've heard it argued that the rioters haven't been brought up to know the difference between right from wrong, or that they know it but don't care, or that they know it but see it as meaningless in a world they regard as being stacked against them and in favour of corrupt bankers and politicians. It's as though most recognise that the riots were -- let's be frank -- sinful, but some identify the main sin driving them as having been greed whereas others see it as envy.