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Monthly Archives: August 2011

Lammy and fatherhood

In areas like mine, we know that 59% of black Caribbean children are looked after by a lone parent. There is none of the basic starting presumption of two adults who want to start a family, raise children together, love them, nourish them and lead them to full independence. The parents are not married and the child has come, frankly, out of casual sex; the father isn’t present, and isn’t expected to be. There aren’t the networks of extended families to make up for it. We are seeing huge consequences of the lack of male role models in young men’s lives..

That from David Lammy, who was writing on fatherhood well before the riots kicked off, here willing to say what all too many on the professional left would shy away from.

Which might give the impression he thinks fatherhood is important. Which it is. And good on him for saying so.

Can’t think why, then, he voted against a bill that stipulated the welfare of children conceived through fertility treatment had to include consideration of the need for both a father and a mother.

Or why, indeed, he voted against a bill simply wanting to enshrine the need to take into account the welfare of a child conceived through fertility treatment, with such considerations to include the need for a father.

And much else besides, should one care to look for it. Truth is, for all the anguish and despair, the apparent collapse of belief in family and fatherhood amongst the social ‘underclass’ merely reflects the collapse of belief in family and fatherhood amongst the political class.

(hat-tip Guido)

Social Micawberism

From the socialist Norman Dennis,

On any performance or characteristic that can be measured from smallest to largest—any ‘continuous variable’—most people are clustered on both sides of the category’s average score. The numbers then tail off in one direction to the few who have extremely low scores (a few English adults are under three feet tall). The numbers tail off in the other direction to the few who have extremely high scores (a few English adults are over seven feet tall).

Very frequently one category’s bell-shaped curve overlaps with that of another category. Very frequently, indeed, the intra-group dispersion from the lowest to highest scorers is much larger than the difference between the average for the two groups—there is a very large overlap. The average height of the category ‘women holding British passports’ is lower than that of the category of ‘men holding British passports’. There are more women in the ‘small stature’ tail of the distribution than men, and more men in the ‘tall stature’ tail than women. The curve showing the number of women of different height is shifted to the low end of the distribution as compared with the men’s curve. But the curves overlap very considerably. Many women, that is, are taller than many men. Everyone knows that both things are true. Men are taller than women. But many men are smaller than many women.

This is so obvious that no difficulties ever arise when the matter is discussed. No one ever tries to argue that because there are undoubtedly tall women and short men, this proves that men and women are the same height, though it is quite possible to argue that under modern urban and economic conditions the difference is no longer of much social significance (that is a second, separate, but also an empirical matter).

Yet since the 1960s the first argument has been applied quite recklessly to the characteristics, achievements and experiences in the area of sex, child-care, childrearing, and adult mutual-aid. It can be shown that children biologically created in any number of technically available ways, and subjected to almost any conceivable sort of parenting, can be found who do as well on almost any conceivable criterion

as some children born to and brought up by their permanently married biological parents. Therefore (the non sequitur runs) families without fathers are ‘just as good as’ the institution of life-long heterosexual monogamy as the context for procreation and socialization. Or they could be just as good as long as they were given enough money: fatherhood is only a matter of cash. Or they would be just as good if the matrix within which sexual practices, and arrangements for the safety and well-being of the child, had been those created by, say, Danish conditions, not by British economic and social development. Or ‘the jury is still out’, and we do well to remain neutral and inactive on the question of whether these ‘alternative families’ do on the average a better job for children brought up in them.

‘If Mr. Micawber’s creditors will not give him time’, said Mrs. Micawber, ‘they must take the consequences.’ So the policy of social Micawberism is happily propagated, at the expense of a generation of children or more, that we may ready ‘in the case of anything turning up’.

‘The soft-bigotry of low expectations’

I remember once having a conversation with a particular faux-radical ‘revolutionary’ bourgeois lefty, who maintained that swearing throughout a conversation was perfectly legitimate since it constituted a rejection of that oppressive regime imposed upon us through a variety of taboos and social norms dictated to us by the bourgeoisie.

Which I found curious. My ‘working-class’ upbringing was and remains as impeccable as anyone else’s, and yet my mother would wash my mouth out with soap the moment I turned potty-mouthed in her presence. Needless to say, it’s not something I did very often. Was my mother a class-traitor? Or was she suffering from that legendary false-consciousness that a great many working-class folk seem, so inconveniently, to suffer from?

Well, I don’t know. But the values she instilled were certainly ones that have helped me get on in life, so neither do I care very much.

Still, it leads to me that phrase that one often hears banded about, in a whole host of contexts, that being the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations.’

It’s a funny term. One originally coined by Michael Gerson, who served as speechwriter to President George Bush for five years. For some on the left, this fact alone will be enough to deny that there is any wisdom in the words. For others, this pithy phrase gives voice to that frustration felt when anything approaching a debate on the lived realities of the now fabled ‘working-class’ come to the fore.

The issues on which one can detect this soft-bigotry are many and diverse, and the phenomenon is not, strictly speaking, applicable solely to the working-classes. Faux-radicals suffer from much the same deficiency when discussing the upper classes as the middle-class Guardianistas do when discussing the lower.

Still, it was the response in some quarters to the Tottenham riots that got me going on this topic, and so there seems as good a place as any to focus in.

So, what does the ‘soft-bigotry of low expectations’ look like in the context of recent events? Well, put plainly it is the drive toward rationalising behaviour that in all other stratas of society would be considered entirely beyond the pale, to the extent that the wholesale denunciation of such behaviour is often tempered by an appeal to a host of contextual factors. It usually comes dressed up in the guise of ‘understanding’, when in reality it is closer to ‘excusing’, whilst remaining careful to emphasise, of course, that excusing is precisely not what it is trying to do.

So for example, we read Diane Abbott today who, whilst at pains to reject the actions of the thugs who attacked Tottenham as in any sense justified, nonetheless goes on to list a whole host of mitigating factors that, whilst not offered as justification, nonetheless suggests the kind of rationalisation of their actions that at the very least implies it. We hear, for example, of the “canteen culture” of certain sections of the police and of how in some senses they haven’t learned from the riots in 1985 (in which, the implication is, they were solely and wholly to blame); we hear of the shooting of Mark Duggan, with no word whatsoever on the fact that the police were being shot at, by someone in a minicab, in which Mark Duggan was sitting, and whom they thought was firing the shots, something which might very well turn out to be an accurate assessment; we hear of the police disregard for the family of Mark Duggan, of their tardiness in enabling the Duggan family to ‘see the body and pay their last respects’, that some thought Mark Duggan had been killed in cold blood, and that it was (allegedly) the actions of a policeman beating an innocent young girl on a vigil for Mr Duggan that precipitated the rioting; finally, we hear that some parts of the community were a tinderbox waiting to explode because ‘Haringey Council has lost £41m from its budget and has cut youth services by 75 per cent. The abolition of the education maintenance allowance hit Haringey hard, and thousands of young people at college depended on it.’

For someone not seeking to ever justify the violence used by the thugs terrorising Tottenham, Abbott’s lengthy and one-sided attempt at understanding the factors that lead up to the riots could very well be taken, should people so choose, as an implicit justification of the rioters and the legitimacy of the cause over which they were rioting.

David Lammy was much more impressive and spoke passionately and clearly, with only the odd slip, about how these actions were not in any sense justifiable.

But even he, when recalling the not-so-very-distant past, fell into contrasting these riots with the riots of 1985, in which the fractious relationship between police and the public are presented as in some sense sufficient for explaining what happened on those fateful, murderous nights – a comparison that brings with it, as with Abbott, at the very least a suggestion that the police were responsible for how the people of Tottenham rose and reacted that night, that there was sufficient cause for them to turn their discontent into rioting and, eventually, into murder.

Well, I’m sorry, but no.

Poor people are just as capable as anyone else of coping with adversity whilst refraining from violence. Poor people are just as capable as anyone else of tackling hardship through appeal to the channels afforded us by living in a representative democracy. Poor people are just as capable as anyone else of remaining steadfast and dignified in the face of even the most intense provocation.

Indeed, the majority do just this. And speak more harshly than most on the minority that do not. They know that they are not lesser people that ought to be held to lesser standards. They recognise that it is calumny to suggest that we should expect no better because these people are poor, as if poor people have sole recourse to loutish passions and little else. They know that even poor people, even poor people, are moral agents in possession of free will who can choose a particular course of action over any other.

Poverty does not necessarily lead to violence. Poor people are perfectly capable of being civil, too. Neither does poverty lead necessarily to vulgarity, or lack of sophistication*, or boorishness, or simple-mindedness, or thuggery, or gang worship, or crime, or anything else that gives sanctimonious middle-class types the opportunity to wallow in the fall of working-class respectability (a fall they have helped instigate and accelerate) as a means of looking all caring and understanding of the hardships their comrades face.  No, poverty does not lead to any of this – it is merely class hatred with a condescending smile to suggest otherwise.

Or better, it is the soft bigotry of low expectations. And it is prominent on the very side that ought to be challenging it.


*Diane Abbott has similar form on this with regards immigration, preferring to suggest that the poorest take a hunter-gatherer approach to immigration (they simply want more resources) rather than a more sophisticated objection focussing on communality, shared norms, reciprocity, identity etc.

Great chunks of Labour voters are on the Right. Apparently.

Interesting piece here by David Hodges over at LabourList, pointing out that the left need to take the opportunity given by the introduction of the e-petitions in order to bring left-wing ideas and debate into the public forum. Which I think is entirely right.

But if the left are ever to become champions of the people then they really must stop writing off any ideas that do not coincide with the views of its politically engaged core as ‘right-wing’ and thereby somehow opposed to the Labour movement. Hodges does it here, saying

The Right will pursue their campaigns to reinstate capital punishment or rage against green and bin taxes with extreme vigour. We must not let them succeed in dominating this space, masquerading as the public’s voice, defining the narrative.

Well, Mr Hodges, you’re simply going to have to get over the fact that support for capital punishment is not a right-wing issue, but transcends such boundaries and encompasses rather a large chunk of traditional Labour voters too, with working-class folk more likely to support it than middle class. Same is true, I strongly suspect, on opposition to green taxes. To bin taxes. To EU membership. To largescale immigration. To crime and overly-lax punishment. And to much else that too many in the Labour Party would sneer at as right-wing, thereby alienating their own voters and relying on little more than good-will and tribalism to get them out voting again. Good-will and tribalism that, as we have seen, is rapidly diminishing.

I’m not saying there should be capitulation on these issues (I personally am opposed to capital punishment, for example). But deriding those who happen to dissent from contemporary Labourite and New Left orthodoxy as ‘right-wingers’ can only, in the end, be counter-productive. Convince and cajole by all means – alienate? Probably not the greatest idea.

See also:

Culture Clash: How Labour can look to reconnect with the poor

Labour Values – only ‘progressives’ need apply

Labour and the Progressives

Balancing interests – or muzzling the progressives

Purnell: social conservatism and Labour

Like our parents and grandparents before us

Abbott speaks the wrong language

The Left and the left