The Kids Are Not All Right

Philadelphia’s leadership is doing British conservatism better than the British conservatives.

As the Tories grapple with the latest wave of violence in Britain, they look at Birmingham and feebly try to understand how it happened. Meanwhile, flash mobs in Philadelphia have been causing similar (if less spectacular) violence, and a brave mayor’s response has been very different. American leaders could learn much from recent British attempts to reinvent conservatism—but in this case, Philadelphia’s leadership is doing British conservatism better than the British conservatives.

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Peter Hitchens cuts through the BS efficiently, castigating the British elites for failing to recognize the hand they played in creating the youngsters who have been smashing windows, stealing property, and setting fires.

“No doubt [the elites] will find ways to save themselves. But they will not save the country. Because even now they will not admit that all their ideas are wrong, and that the policies of the past 50 years – the policies they love – have been a terrible mistake. I have heard them in the past few days clinging to their old excuses of non-existent ‘poverty’ and ‘exclusion’.”

Several NRO writers argue that the fault belongs to Britain’s abandonment of patriotism and Western civilization, and there is probably some truth in this. But Hitchens hits nearer what I think is more likely the core of the problem, because it is common with the young generation across borders—young Brits are taught that everything from healthcare to their iPhones is a right, and when they are not happy, the culprit is social forces over which they have no control. They know little authority or structure to give them a foundation, and less sense of upward mobility and responsibility to give them a ladder. The technocratic society has eroded the things that would have enabled them to live a better life.

A kid has no sense of where his basic needs (let alone the luxuries which are billed as basic needs) come from, no discernable structure to give order and rhythm to his life, and no notion that he could change his circumstances for the better. Entitlement combined with the kind of real disenfranchisement the Left never talks about. And the stunningly obtuse British leadership—unwilling to confront the realities of its own social policies—wonders why he feels the need to go around smashing things.


American youth, of course, are not far behind, particularly in certain groups. Many of today’s kids view many material needs—luxuries in previous generations—as staples (“rights,” according to the Left), and have been told for generations that their deprivations are the fault of social forces (white people, rich people, etc.). And Philadelphia, which unlike some other cities has not been known in recent years for its tough stance on crime, has had problems with violence—including, recently, youth violence. In recent months, flash mobs all over the city have beat up passersby on the street for no reason other than the fun of it.

But Michael Nutter, the mayor, has not stared in befuddlement like his British counterparts (or his predecessor). Nor has he blamed the system. He criticized black fathers (“sperm donors” and “human ATMs”) for not providing structure and discipline, and told parents they might soon be spending time in jail with their kids. Then he addressed the kids:

“If you want us to respect you, take those doggone hoodies down, especially in summer,” “pull your pants up and buy a belt,” “comb your hair,” “learn some manners,” “keep your butt in school,” and “extend your English vocabulary beyond the few curse words that you know. If you go to look for a job, don’t go and blame it on the white folks or anyone else if you walk in to somebody’s office with your hair uncombed and your shoes untied or your pants half down, tattoos up and down your arms, on your face, on your neck. And you wonder why somebody won’t hire you? They don’t hire you because you look like you’re crazy!”

The Philadelphia elites rose in righteous indignation to mimic their British counterparts. Nutter (a black man himself) was, of course, a racist, and didn’t understand that poverty and white people cause kids to turn into thugs. Yet in the midst of the elites’ hysteria over Nutter’s high-profile curfews, they missed the quieter, proactive steps he had taken—community partnerships and policy changes designed to promote responsible parenting and citizenship and reduce the need for government intervention in the long run.

Leadership and Habituation

Whether Nutter’s policies turn out to be successful remains to be seen—but he clearly recognizes that to the extent that the problem is “social forces,” those forces are weak institutions failing to provide the structure for developing good habits.

Michael Oakeshott noted decades ago that America is a “rationalist” society, which makes it tend to discount the importance of habituation and structure. We want to solve our problems with grand schemes or with education—explaining complex social problems with ideologies, and with simplistic buzzwords like “poverty.” Yet this usually only makes problems worse.

“[It is counterproductive],” Oakeshott observed, “for a practical politician to find the intricacy of the world of time and contingency so unmanageable that he is bewitched by the offer of a quick escape into the bogus eternity of an ideology.”

The irony of this is that the British Tories are in the process of embarking on their Big Society project, which has been based on an idea much like Oakeshott’s—that Britain’s social problems run deep enough that only the gradual rebirth of civil society can save it. Unlike American conservatives, British ones have begun to delve deep into “the intricacies of time and contingency” instead of trying to solve national problems with sweeping simplifications like balanced budget amendments and “less government, more liberty.” (This recent publication from a British think is an example of how practical British thinkers are trying to be.)

But in this case, British leaders have proven weak when asked to directly confront the failures of their antiquated mid-20th-century social policies. Leadership requires more than good schemes–it requires exercising the courage to develop and direct good followers, and Michael Nutter has a thing or two to teach the Brits about that.

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UPDATE: After some dithering, Prime Minister David Cameron finally had this to say, which is more in line with his Big Society platform: “Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivized – by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally demoralized.”

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