Monday, August 15, 2011

Riots; and the Big Idea

I've been thinking for a while now about those riots in the streets of London and other British cities. It all seemed so very unlike the rather tame and orderly England where I was brought up, and where the only sign of public protest was those quiet, largely pacifist demonstrations against the "nukes." To have whole gangs of young people running amok and looting their own neighborhoods would have been inconceivable in those days. But of course, even then there were the "Teddy Boys", with their black velvet Edwardian collars and their "duck's arse" hair styles; and later, after I had left the country, I read about the wars between the "mods" and "rockers" with, respectively, their Vespas and their motorbikes. And there was Pinky, already in 1938, in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. The strain of disenchanted, rebellious, nihilistic youth is no new phenomenon.

And yet... it seems to me that there's a common thread that connects these youthful sociopaths with the recent slaughter of innocents in Norway and what has been happening in the streets of numerous countries in the Middle East. I noticed how quickly the authorities--and even the media--sought to dismiss the London riots as "not political." Prime Minister David Cameron castigated the rioters as a bunch of thugs--which undoubtedly they were. There were thoughts about a sense of entitlement amongst these youngsters, as though it were perfectly appropriate to steal what others had, but they could not afford. I even heard one commentator, on the BBC I believe, attribute the whole miserable affair to an absence of work ethic among the young people of today. Work ethic! As if they had the prospect of work to be ethical about!

Of course it's political. It's geopolitical. In this increasingly crowded world, where the values of the last century simply no longer apply, it's all geopolitical. It has been more than a century since some began to worry that machines would deprive large numbers of human beings of work, and the effects of recent advances in technology are making it clear that their dire predictions are now reaching fulfillment. There is not enough work to go around, and the work there is requires sophisticated skills and more than basic education to acquire them. It is also easily transferable around the globe. Yet "work" is the foundation of the civilization we have created, along with the money earned and the goods we purchase with it. With vast numbers of our young people, here in this country and in Europe, facing the very real prospect of lifetime unemployment, the stays have been kicked out from beneath us. Our building has begun to crumble.

There was an excellent article by Neal Gabler on the front page of yesterday's New York Times opinion section. It was titled, The Elusive Big Idea, and it pointed to the substitution, in our society, of information in the place of thought. It seems to me that we're in desperate need of the next Big Idea--the one that takes us beyond the all-too evident cracks in the capitalist system, the growing gulf between rich and poor, the old five-day work week and the paycheck, beyond even the rusting social security and national health care schemes, into a whole new concept of how we humans can live together on this planet without destroying it--and, in the process, our own species. If we don't find that Big Idea, I fear that the riots in London and the Middle East--no matter how different their causes and their manifestations--might look like minor disturbances in the light of what is to come.

One of the most basic of human needs--along with food, shelter, good health, rest--is hope. Where there's no hope, to coin a phrase, there's fire. I can well understand the deep despair that lies at the heart of today's worldwide unrest. I feel it in the pit of my stomach, a sense of anxious doubt about the future, not for myself, obviously, but for my children and my grandchildren. I have just finished reading the powerful novel, The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer, about the days leading up to World War II; it starts with the edgy but still poignantly hopeful days in pre-war Paris, and depicts in heart-wrenching detail the decline and decimation of a Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest as the war rages around them. Those were bleak days indeed, when Hitler brought our Western civilization to the brink of collapse.

We managed to step back from the precipice then. Will we need a new world war to bring us back this time? Will we come up with a truly new, and truly Big Idea? Or will we fall into the abyss of our own making?

I sat in our little Laguna Beach sangha yesterday evening. Thanissaso Bhikkhu, always a reassuring presence, was on hand to teach us. I keep returning to the refuge of Buddhism as the only reasonable and sane way to live my life. Perhaps, I thought, we don't actually need a new Big Idea. We already have a very old one that could very well work for us, if only we would listen--and follow its precepts to act more skillfully in the world.


khengsiong said...

It is often said that minorities in Europe do not integrate into mainstream societies as well as in the US...

Renz said...

I hear you brother. I hope the clean up is fast in London, I feel sad that a country like that falls apart.

I love your optimism and turning on your Buddhist faith for strength and courage.

Perhaps these paintings will help to keep you focused and calm