Sunday, February 18, 2007

What's wrong with (some) British kids?

The noise around the UN report on the state of children in the UK produced the usual predictable responses. Some on the left saw it as a damning indictment on free market liberalism, thinking that somehow the rather highly taxed, certainly highly regulated UK is some sort of libertarian free for all, also ignoring that France and Austria, two countries with generous welfare systems were barely ahead of the UK. The correlation between the report results and state welfare was poor indeed, but then all too often those of us on all sides of a political argument jump at any chance to let facts line up with our own prejudices.
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The right took to criticising the veracity of the report, or focusing on families. The conservative right tend to call for tougher law and order, discipline and blame divorce and family breakdown. While there is some truth in this, I submit that it is far wider than that. Beating up on misbehaving poor people wont fix things - it is far more insidious than this.
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It’s not poverty. The link between poverty and crime is typically taken to be because those with nothing will steal out of desperation, but as Jenny McCartney of the Sunday Telegraph points out those in poverty today are not skinny and malnourished, but more often overweight – they are seen with MP3 players and brand name sneakers. The so called relative poverty for most in modern day Britain is so remote from the poverty of even forty years ago, that another explanation is needed. Those children living in bleakness today are not doing so because there isn’t housing or they are starving, it is because of chronic parental failure. Parents who either through abuse or neglect are wholly incompetent – incompetent with their own lives, and unfortunately barely competent enough to copulate and then ruin other lives.
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In the past two weeks three teenagers have been murdered in south London, and another in south Manchester. The environment in places like Peckham and Moss side is dire. They make south Auckland, Taita, Kaikohe and Flaxmere look soft. McCartney’s brilliant article cuts to the heart of what is wrong.
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The real, terrifying poverty among Britain's children now is a poverty of vision, of aspiration, of education and of human empathy. Small children, including those who come from the sort of homes that would make hardened social workers weep, are usually poignantly clear about what they want from life. Above all else, they crave order and affection. The stories and films that they enjoy are usually those that offer some kind of fantasy of cosiness and containment, whether it be from the sight of a dormouse climbing beneath a patchwork quilt or the idealised public school setting of Harry Potter's Hogwarts. With unerring instinct, they gravitate towards adults who are kind, without questioning what that adult looks like or possesses.”
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Children raised in homes where violence and abuse are rife, where there is chronic neglect of not just their education (how many homes are bookless?), but of attention and love. Laws against corporal punishment will do little to combat this – it is a nihilistic culture without affection or kindness for others.
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At best, some of these children live with loving parents working hard to get their children out of these suburban hellholes- the hellholes that the police largely ignore because they are violent, gangridden and nearly lawless. They go to schools where hard work and intelligence are sneered at, and bullying rife.
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At worst, kids grow up without attention and affection, so they seek attention elsewhere. They see adults cynical and envious, using alcohol, drugs and sex to inoculate themselves from emotions and confronting reality. The kids learn this early on too.
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Television, the gutter press, the music industry and youth culture is more and more obsessed with how you look and what you own, with the greatest attention and respect given to those who are the flashiest with it, with the least effort. Boys see footballers and rap stars as role models, girls see modellers, footballers’ parasites (wives) or being a “ho” as role models. Meanwhile, a majority would deny the hardest working, wealth creating City Traders their million pound bonuses, because after all it’s acceptable to make an absolute fortune in the entertainment and football industries, but not banking. Similarly they cheer and laugh at the downfall of their kind. Seeking to embarrass, humiliate and destroy – Jade Goody was a creation of this. She made a fortune out of being an empty headed talentless nobody who was foul mouthed and angry.
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So the “poor” youth grow up wanting it easy, they want to be rich, but sneer at those who work to get there. They don’t give a damn about anyone else, because their parents didn’t either – whoever dad is. So they will bully, intimidate, rob, beat up and in some cases, murder. They have esteem only from others, by being in groups, by getting attention from what they own and show off, and through sex and drugs. Alone they are nothing, and alone they despise and fear those who have something – because they were loved, learnt and worked.
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By contrast, McCartney noted how little kindness is expected or respected. Perhaps it is so easily exploited and so is hidden behind closed doors, the example she gave was of a woman with her two small children on an Easyjet flight. The booster seat would not fit the older child, so a neighbouring woman passenger offered to sit the child on her lap to make it easier. Easyjet ordered the mother and the two children off the flight because of fear of “abuse”.
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It is not poverty that is wrong in Britain. More money wont help, because healthcare is free, there is plenty of cheap housing and a very intact welfare state. Education may need substantial reform, but there is only so much that can be done in communities where children arrive bored, uninterested and not valuing education at all. Even the most innovative, creative schools can only go so far. Tougher law and order may help somewhat, far too many teenage thugs know they can get away with intimidation, violence, burglary and vandalism and know their “rights”. The current prison crisis must strengthen the hand of them all. While government can be tough on crime, open up education and use welfare as a carrot and stick, there needs to be something else – a cultural shift.
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This is a shift from the empty headed hedonistic escapism so worshipped, and the notion that identity and esteem come from others and from being in a group. A shift from the nihilistic distrust of others, envy and seeing other people as a means to your own end, rather than seeing them benevolently as fellow human beings. A shift towards generously acknowledging when others have achieved and created, rather than sneering that someone was trying to prove to others. A shift away from glorifying in the decline and degradation of others. A culture where it was more important to believe in yourself, than to care what others think. This culture does not come from leftwing identity based politics or conservative religious guilt.
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and the answer is not political, it is philosophical - it has to come from individuals, not the state.

3 comments:

Callum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lindsay said...

You touched a chord with me, Liberty Scott. But don't be too optimistic about South Auckland. There was a spate of youth killings just prior to Xmas. It's getting pretty messy here as well.

Your thoughts about the 'group' mentality reminded me of a call to talkback I heard today. It was from an older male secondary school teacher. There has been some stats flying around about Maori male academic failure in the past week. This teacher described how whenever a Maori or Pacific student wants to achieve, he is singled out by his cultural cousins, many of whom are "gang propsects", and mercilessly harrassed. The aim being to beat them into submitting to the herd mentality. It just broke my heart listening to this mild-mannered man talking about the pressure brought to bear on those kids who try to rise above.

libertyscott said...

Yes that is the fundamental problem - kids get bullied because they "think you're smart eh"? That is the insipid culture perpetuated by the whole envy, hatred of wealth/success mentality that the left, often inadvertently, feeds.

A man in his 60s, charity worker, was pushed under a train in London this morning by some youths - there is still hope in NZ.