Notes From the Edge

You’re Not Supposed to Notice

June 30, 2011

Multiple Pages
You’re Not Supposed to Notice

There seems to have been a lot of rioting recently. The Greeks are rioting over government spending cuts. Hockey fans rioted in Canada’s nicest city. Soccer fans staged a riot in Argentina. And…uh-oh, what’s this? Riots all over the USA: in Washington, DC, in Peoria, IL, in Philadelphia, in Chicago, in Philadelphia again….What’s going on?

Rioting is a pretty normal state of affairs. Ancient Alexandria’s inhabitants were, the historians tell us, “always riotous.” The Gordon Riots in 1780 London destroyed the city’s two main prisons and damaged the Bank of England, as well as several embassies.

Speaking of London:

He had come prepared to incite a riot. The elements were there. The men already in the bar agreed with him and his friends that the barrier was a bloody shame. A silence spread among them, like the thickening in the air before a storm. One man poked a hole through the screen with his cane. A cadet gave it a shove. Someone else kicked it, and it moved. In a flash the whole crowd, suddenly excited and infuriated, rushed at the flimsy encumbrance and demolished it. Amid the din X shouted: “Ladies of the Empire! I stand for liberty!” It turned out that there were no ladies present, soiled or otherwise; the prostitutes had prudently decamped.…

Sordid stuff. A London music hall (i.e., vaudeville theater) named The Empire was laid out with a promenade space alongside the men’s bar so that ladies of the town could “describe their specialties and cite their prices in stage whispers.” A crusader against vice had persuaded the city council to erect a barrier between bar and promenade. This was the barrier destroyed in the riot on Saturday, November 3rd, 1894.

“He’s black, she’s yellow, they’re Jewish. We all know it, but for goodness’ sake don’t mention it.”

But who was X, the riot’s ringleader? None other than 19-year-old Winston Churchill, later to become Sir Winston Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, PC, DL, FRS, Hon. RA, twice Prime Minister of Britain, and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. (The quotes above are from William Manchester’s The Last Lion.)

Not many of us have incited a riot on behalf of street hookers. Well, I know I never have. I can’t even recall ever having been in a riot, though I had a close brush with one once.

It was around 1970 in Nottingham, England. I was visiting the place on business and went out drinking with some colleagues in the evening. We heard a disturbance in the street outside our pub and went out to look. A mob of young men, more than a hundred, were storming up the street, yelling wildly, and swinging out with their fists against passersby. It was terrifying. We ducked back into the bar and the mob flowed past. I have no idea why they were rioting—something to do with soccer, probably. (Where was the sheriff?)

A few years before that, English seaside family vacations were being ruined by the mods and rockers wars. Rockers were English bikers. They had greased hair, sideburns, leather jackets, and motorbikes. The mod was the metrosexual’s evolutionary precursor. He blow-dried his hair, wore natty suits, and rode a motor scooter. Mods and rockers hated each other. They came out in force on summer weekends and fought pitched battles on England’s few decent beaches.

These recent riots and mob attacks in the USA have all featured young blacks, and I’m just the kind of impertinent, shameless commentator you’d expect to dwell on the fact. Why then am I trying to dilute the truth by dredging up all these cases of white folk rioting?

Here’s why. If you have been born and raised in the USA, race is never far from your mind. Native Americans—people like my kids—have a mental Race Buzzer that goes off in a thousand different contexts and whose purpose is to drown out certain kinds of thoughts. The darn thing’s on a hair trigger. If you were raised in some other place where race was a thing people hardly ever thought about, this is really hard to get used to. Trust me on this.

It was only in the 1990s, for example, when the fuss about The Bell Curve came up, that I realized why everyone was so agitated over the book. The expression “IQ,” heard by raised-in-America ears, sets off the Race Buzzer. It doesn’t do that for the rest of us.

An Englishman of my generation had his principal notions about IQ formed by Michael Young’s 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy, which is a fictional exploration of the consequences, mostly negative, of stratifying a society by “merit,” defined as IQ plus effort. There is nothing about race in the book. It takes place in a fictional future Britain that, like Britain in 1958, is 99 percent monoracial. The riot comes at the end, when the narrator gets stomped to death by a low-IQ—but entirely white-English—mob.

American race panic, if you’re not raised with it, seems a bit odd, like the Chinese obsession with “face” or Muslims fretting about women showing their hair—a quirk of the national character. I bang my shins against it all the time, even around the family dinner table:

Mom: Those people at #70 down the street? Their son got into MIT.

Dad: Wow, that’s great. They’re Jewish, aren’t they?

Daughter: Dad! For heaven’s sake! You’re a disgrace!

Dad: What? What’d I say?

The rule here, the rule I met when it was too late to internalize it, is that you’re not supposed to notice. He’s black, she’s yellow, they’re Jewish. We all know it, but for goodness’ sake don’t mention it.

That’s why all those reports about mobs, gangs, and riots in Philadelphia, Chicago, Peoria, and DC are telling us about “youths,” “teens,” or “thugs.” In the age of cell-phone cameras and YouTube uploads we can all perfectly well see that the perps are black, but it would be a gross breach of etiquette (one I just committed, I guess) to let on that you’d noticed. I just watched a segment of the O’Reilly show titled “Violent Teen Mobs Causing Chaos Across Country.” In the entire 6:15 segment, neither Laura Ingraham nor either of her two guests used any of the terms “black,” “African American,” or “colored.”

So that’s why I’m pondering non-black civil disturbances. I’m an immigrant. Like any immigrant—any immigrant of my age and background, that is—I want to be more native than the natives. I want to hear that all-American buzzer go off in my head, the one that tells me: Don’t notice! Riots happen everywhere, all the time! These are just youths, just teens!

What, after all, is the point of thinking otherwise? There’s a problem here that has no solution. Never has had, never will have. We’re stuck with it forever, and in our hearts we all know it. Best policy: Train yourself not to notice.

I’ll get it right one day.


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