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Post Partisan
Posted at 12:36 PM ET, 08/18/2011

Don’t blame poverty for the London riots


You remember the Jewish riots of 1903 when drifting mobs of Jews ransacked stores on the Lower East Side of New York? Or how about the Greek Riots of 1897 when parts of Baltimore were terrorized by swarms of young Greek immigrants seeking nothing more than loot? Or how about the Italian riots of 1916, when all of Chicago was terrorized by bands of young hoodlums? Remember none of those? Good. They didn’t happen.

And they didn’t happen not because Jews, Italians, Greeks and so many more—Chinese and Poles and Swedes, etc.—were not poor and did not suffer appalling discrimination. They did not happen because these were all distinct immigrant cultures that did not permit that sort of criminality. (Other sorts of criminality were a different matter.) My own mothers—Hi, mom!—was once so poor that she had to decide whether to use her last nickel to take the New York City subway to look for a job or get something to eat. She took the subway - and, for some reason, never mentioned rioting.

The idea that somehow poverty is the root cause of crime has a tenacity that seems impossible to dispel. Poverty and lack of social services have been cited over and over again as the cause of the riots that recently hit Britain. These theorists seem not to notice that it was not food that was being stolen—not even diapers or dog food—but flat screen TVs and other goodies. I am not up on the difference between flat screen and plasma TVs, but both I think are very hard to eat.

I grant you that many of the rioters suffered from alienation—a sense that they had no stake in the society and therefore could rip it off. This is a pity, and a correctable one that a government—any government—had better recognize. But even here, the fact remained that trashing a store—one run by some immigrant who played by the rules—is simply impermissible. Young people are often alienated; it is, like acne, an affliction of youth. It can be an explanation for anti-social behavior, but never an excuse.

For one explanation of the riots, I harken back to my own youth. Not only was I appropriately alienated—and on a given day, nothing much has changed—but I considered a little theft to be lots of fun. Nearly every day on way to high school, my friends and I used to pass through the local Woolworth’s, in the front and out the back. Every day we would exercise our talent for shoplifting. We stole small items, candy and such - not because we needed the stuff and were hungry, but because it was fun and exciting. As a group we went on to become psychologists, college professors, headhunters, physicians and in one doleful case, an inveterate writer for The Washington Post. We stole for fun of it.

Rioting is a bit like that. (I have covered enough riots in my career to know something on the subject.) They are fun and great outlets of the aggression most young men have and which societies, since time immemorial, have channeled into armies. (Older men make lousy soldiers.)

Not everyone riots for the same reason. But to attribute this behavior on poverty is, to be quite frank about it, doubly insulting - to our intelligence and, of course, to the poor.

By  |  12:36 PM ET, 08/18/2011

 
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