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Left & Right: Wrong on Riots

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How the Left and the Right got it wrong on the riots.

In a lot of riots, I usually have sympathy with the rioters. I understand how this can be irritating, but, if the cause is just, the targets legitimate and the violence aimed at inanimate objects rather than people, while I may not do it myself, I can see where the anarchists/ environmentalists/ students/ ethnic underclass are coming from. Chalk it up to growing up in a country that would still be under Apartheid were it no for 'rioters'. But the riots last week failed to rouse in me any sympathy. Perhaps that was because I had to walk and drive through them on Monday. I personally think it's because the riots last week were so utterly pointless.

If that was a protest against police brutality, why was so little of it aimed at the police? If it was a protest against cuts, why was it not focused on government buildings? If it was making a statement about the treatment of the youth or an ethnic underclass, why were so many of those involved neither youths nor from any ethnic minority? If that was a protest at all, making any kind of statement, what the hell were those involved saying about independent traders, people's homes and car windscreens? Have people been terribly oppressed by Vauxhall plexiglass and I've failed to notice? Have I been deaf to the cries of those under the heel of cornershops and furniture stores?

What makes me angry about what happened last week is that it ruins it for the legitimate protests. Already, the government has mooted the moronic step of cutting off mobile communications or social networking sites during protests, possibly in an attempt to out-Syrian the Syrians. It's only a matter of time before they clamp down on printing presses and ban unpatriotic music.

But what was most annoying last week was the Left. The Right made their usual error of mistaking any attempt to understand context for support for the aims and methods of those involved and resorted to metaphorically sticking their fingers in their ears and singing 'Rule Britannia' whenever anyone asked why the riots were happening. We've come to expect that. What I didn't expect was ordinarily sensible Lefties criticizing (and I kid you not, this really was posted on a popular blog) the clean-up effort. I know. Maddening, isn't it? The blog said that the clean-up effort, organised on Twitter (pay attention, Cameronite media-censors), was 'bourgeois', a 'gentrifying' attempt to sweep the streets clean of the underclass. What rot.

Their main objection, however, was that cleaning up the streets failed to address the fundamental inequalities in society. And all I felt like saying was: 'No! But then neither does walking your dog, or taking a bath or writing nonsense on your poxy blog!" Please understand: I've no sympathy with the conservatives whose response would be: "What inequalities?" But objecting to good things that communities do to help each other, just because they don't smash the entire capitalist system does for the cause of anti-capitalism what these riots have done for the cause of political demonstrations. It's like suggesting that rape counselling services are objectionable because they fail to stop men committing rape.

The fact is that, despite what the Right say, inequality, the meaninglessness of the capitalist system to those at the bottom and, yes, cuts in social spending make events like last week's more likely. But despite what the Left say, personal moral choices, the meaninglessness of a God-free vision of the universe and a values-vacuum also played a part. Asking questions about any of these issues should be not only acceptable but encouraged, not shouted down from ideological towers.

Yes, deprivation, poverty and a sense of social exclusion were contributing factors in last week's riots. But they are also factors in domestic violence and burglary. Surely we can all be grown-up enough to admit both that there are contextual factors at play and that those factors in no way excuse the actions.