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The Joy of Rioting By: Theodore Dalrymple
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 15, 2009


I’ve only ever been in one political riot, and it soon became apparent to me in the course of it that there are few pleasures known to man greater than that of smashing shop and car windows for the good of humanity. (Here, incidentally, I really do mean man rather than woman, for women are but poor and unenthusiastic rioters.)

I didn’t join in, for I was already well past the age of riot; but there is no doubt that the sound of tinkling glass was, like the song of the Lorelei, very attractive. I was indeed tempted to join in: for what harm could one more smashed window have done with so much glass already underfoot? Moreover, the camaraderie of destruction is not to be underestimated; it is seldom that a sense of common purpose among strangers is so strong or invigorating.

My main problem was that all the easy windows on the ground floor had already been smashed, and I had no suitable missiles with me to aim at those on higher levels. (For the benefit of the curious, the riot was in Panama.) I desisted, therefore; the effort would simply have been too great.

In those days, you had to go to a riot in a distant or exotic location if you wanted to witness it, unless it happened to be featured on the evening television news, which was seldom. Nowadays, however, thanks to advances in technology, you can watch riots thousands of miles apart without ever moving away from your computer screen. Talk about a giant step for mankind - or (as everyone calls it these days)humankind.

This permits an easy comparative study, and allows one to draw a conclusion that I had in any case long suspected to be true: that today in the western world at least all political riots are the same, whatever their ostensible causes. Whether they be of Palestinians rioting in London or Paris over events in Gaza, Greeks in Athens rioting over the shooting by the police of a 15 year-old boy, or Latvians in Riga rioting over the economic effects of the credit crunch (as happened most recently), all the participants are the same. They bear themselves in the same way, they sound the same, and they are all dressed the same.

The rioters are, of course, young men, between 18 and 30, which raises the question of the role of testosterone in the causation of riots. If male children were castrated at birth, I very much doubt that there would ever be any riots though, of course, the cure would be worse than the disease. Also, they never riot in the rain or snow, which suggests that good, or at least clement, weather is a cause of riots, or perhaps I should say a precondition of them. Somehow, young men are able to contain their rage and love of humanity in bad weather, whereas it becomes uncontrollable when the skies are clear, which suggests either that weather is very important to them, or that their rage and love of humanity etc., does not run very deep.

What does the modern rioter wear, as he smashes a window, overturns a car or throws a brick at a line of policemen holding riot shields? The chances are that he is in jeans and sneakers; that he wears a woolly hat and some kind of T-shirt (weather permitting) or perhaps a dark jacket or sweatshirt. He prefers dark attire to light; he has energy to burn. There are very few overweight rioters; most are commendably slim and athletic-looking. Type II diabetics do not riot.

Modern rioters do not really expect that the riot police will open fire on them, except with gas canisters at worst; they expect, even if they do not demand, virtual impunity, notwithstanding the fact that one or two of them will be bundled into police vans parked nearby. They know that they can rely on journalists the next morning to warble like caged birds about their terrible frustration, lack of opportunity, outrage at injustices committed, etc. etc. No one seems to notice that, if injustice were a cause of riots, there would never be any peace. Nor is it quite clear how justice is served by damage to the property of people about whom rioters know absolutely nothing.

There is no doubt that, since my youth, the dress sense of rioters has deteriorated. If you look at pictures of May, 1968 in Paris, the first thing that will strike you (if you are like me) is how well-dressed all those rioters were. This is, perhaps, not surprising, as they were mostly children of the elite, education in those days (or should I say attendance at university?) being more of a social privilege than it is now. They looked as if they were about to go to a dinner party where the dress code was smart casual – which, of course, many of them were about to do. They also look as if they were posing for Paris Match as they hurled their cobblestones – which, of course, many of them were.

They were better at slogans, too, than modern rioters; modern riots always sound like the growl of overcrowded caged animals punctuated by the noise of destruction, whereas the soixante-huitards coined some memorable phrases as they trotted self-regardingly down the boulevards: memorable, that is, for their pithy moral and intellectual dishonesty, for example the one that went ‘We are all German Jews.’ What they really meant was ‘We are all spoilt bourgeois brats, tired of the boring constraints of bourgeois existence, and longing for symbolic proletarianisation, while by no means renouncing our hereditary right to prominent economic and political positions within this society.’ I think that fits what actually happened to them better than what happened to, say, the German Jews, and moreover that the difference was entirely 0predictable even at the time.

No, modern political riots are not a patch – from the point of view of style – on those of 1968. On the other hand, they seem to be gaining in frequency and equality of opportunity what they have lost in brio. Whether this represents an advance or a retrogression I cannot quite make up my mind.

Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


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