The violence that occasioned Radford's article, the divergent assertions about its proximate causes, and the “bromides” prescribed to prevent its recurrence are problematic enough. Did Margaret Thatcher sow the wind in the 1980s, and is Britain now reaping the whirlwind? Or was Theodore Dalrymple right all along in blaming liberal theorists, whose ideas are seized on by coddled slackers and doom them to a “life at the bottom'? Is the problem ill-advised social, or antisocial, engineering?
Still more worrisome, as Radford notes, are the “longer-term structural factors that turned economic malaise into scenes from a war zone.” Those factors are not reducible to the problems posed by “Britain's evolving industrial make-up” and “its decline in real income for the first time in decades.” At least as important is “the nation's failure to convincingly maintain its traditional sense of civic belonging.” But here, too, one may expect divergent diagnoses and prescriptions. Opinions about what sustains and what erodes “civic belonging” depend on varied views as to how citizens interact and how they should interact. And that naturally recalls Radford's opening sentence, in which he cites Mrs. Thatcher's “famous dictum that there is no such thing as society --only families and individuals.”
Taken out of context, that looks like a radical rejection of Donne and Terence. But if one reads the 1987 interview from which it came, it becomes clear that the “dictum” was more rhetoric than cultural anthropology. The society whose existence Mrs. Thatcher denied was only the “society” to which the apparently undeserving poor looked for relief, or the “society” she alleged was senselessly blamed for various problems. If a word has no real-world referent, if it is delegitimized, it can be used to dismiss the arguments of those who use it. No society, then. Instead, what is needed is “living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and... help ... those who are unfortunate.” Society, nonexistent. Living tapestry, beautiful. Helping the unfortunate, fine. It's just that it somehow “went too far,” and people were “manipulating the system.”
Rename society as she might, Mrs. Thatcher knew it was necessary. Ostensibly more complacent about the loosening of social bonds, and even of those within families, was Samuel Johnson. Looking out on the London of 1772, Johnson observed: “Sir, ... in a country so commercial as ours, where every man can do for himself, there is not so much occasion for that attachment. No man is thought the worse of here, whose brother was hanged.” In “uncommercial countries,” he explained, each man must be linked to the head man's reputation, staking a claim on his protection. As commerce increased, first “large circles, or clans,” then even families, lost importance. All this from Doctor Sam, defender of social hierarchies and addicted to the huge social creation that was London.
The truth is that tribalism, in one guise or another, beneficial and pernicious, seems to be an ineradicable part of our nature. “Us and them” categories are formed with terrifying ease, as the Stanford prison experiment of 1971 showed; small wonder that more time-honored taxonomies are so potent.
And none are more potent than ethnic and racial ones. The latter persist as what Henry Fowler might have called “sturdy indefensibles,” clearly indefensible on scientific grounds. In the U.S. we have repeatedly renamed one such category. The “Colored” surviving as the “C” in NAACP and the “Negro” of the United Negro College Fund have given way to “African-American,” with no improvement in accuracy. Rarely is there any acknowledgment of how much Europeans and indigenous Americans have contributed to the ancestry of those so classified. (Non-European ancestors of so-called Whites are similarly forgotten.) Even more remarkable is the category “Hispanic,” created during the Nixon administration (Richard Rodriguez called Nixon the “dark father of Hispanicity”). It replaced the variously unsatisfactory “Latino,” “Chicano,” and “Mexican-American” (the paradoxically non-racial “La Raza” was bypassed). And it not only renamed a cultural category but also converted it into a racial one (though “race” in this sense is scientific nonsense, and the “racial” background of “Hispanics” is highly varied).
It seems matters are hardly less muddled in Britain. Radford, in describing the residents of Edmonton and East Enfield, uses as categories contrasted with “white working-class” both “Turks” and “Greek-Cypriots.” Really? Greeks aren't white? This recalls the no longer sustainable “Black men (variant: wogs) begin at Calais.” Yet a corollary doctrine made its way here with the British colonists. Keats might as well have written “Anglo is white, white Anglo, that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” One other axiom, that white is better, was only sometimes made explicit. It was left to Ignatiev, Brodkin, and Guglielmo and Salerno to offer their various perspectives on the albification of the Irish, Jews, and Italians, respectively, in the U.S.A.
The taxonomies may be distorted, but their influence is considerable. Any effort to restore “civic belonging” must take that into account.