Orange Méchanique

A couple of weeks ago, I made the trite observation that the French cityscape of burned out cars and smashed shop windows would make an impressive steeplechase for the riders of hobbyhorses of all colours.

Here’s a new horse in the race: an interesting riposte to the peddlers of the “European Intifada” theory, for all you libertarians. Reason editor, Orange Méchanique, reckons that Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange provides the template for the French riots:

What makes Alex an engaging narrator, though, is not just his linguistic invention or the mordant wit of his observations, but that he harbors no illusions about the world he lives in—an overwhelmed, politically calcified welfare state where teenagers menace the streets when they’re not being shuffled between public schools and juvenile detention centers. From page one, Alex recognizes a central fact about the state that provides his food, shelter, schooling, and jail time: The people in charge don’t give a crap whether he lives or dies. They don’t even care, really, whether he commits crimes. They just want to make sure he doesn’t cause them trouble.

Of course, the state has to be seen taking care of business, and Alex regularly bumps up against authority figures whom he views with wry bemusement. He is officially in the charge of a probation officer (or, in one of the book’s brilliantly anodyne euphemisms, “Post-Corrective Adviser”) named Mr. P.R. Deltoid—”an overworked veck with hundreds on his books.” In an unnecessary gloss, the film makes it clear that Mr. Deltoid is sexually interested in Alex, but the character functions better as merely a self-interested, self-pitying public servant. As he puts it:

“Just watch it, that’s all, yes. We know more than you think, little Alex.” Then he said, in a goloss of great suffering, but still rocking away: “What gets into you all? We study the problem and we’ve been studying it for damn well near a century, yes, but we get no farther with our studies. You’ve got a good home here, good loving parents, you’ve got not too bad a brain. Is it some devil that crawls into you?”

You could hear echoes of that despair in recent weeks, as liberals expressed surprise at the burning of public schools and civic centers. After all, why would these crazy kids destroy the very bounty that the state has provided for them? Burgess’ supreme insight was that, despite the popularity of the phrase “grinding poverty,” poverty in a modern state is almost never grinding. One of my first reactions, when watching the Kubrick movie in high school, was to envy Alex the vast amount of leisure time his truant lifestyle seemed to afford him. What drives the rioters in France may be Islam, it may be a lack of opportunity, or the disrespect of the wider culture, or alienation from the keepers of “Gallic pride” (whatever that is). It’s probably some combination of all those things, and a few others. The one thing that definitely isn’t driving any of the rioters is an empty stomach.

The clash-of-civilizationists have one important point: The London bombers, the murderers of Theo van Gogh, and the banlieu rioters are all Muslims, and it’s vain to deny this connection. (Then again, it’s not clear that anybody is denying it: After about the fiftieth media story berating the media for ignoring the story, I’m starting to smell a rat.)

But there is an even clearer pattern of a welfare structure that sings the praises of the nation while discouraging recipients from feeling any connection to the nation—a one-size-fits-all style of governance that cultivates, if it doesn’t actually breed, anti-social behavior. The French government makes a particularly choice target for schadenfreude: With one hand it fails to make cité residents to feel like full citizens (by, for example, ensuring an Arabic-sounding name is not a barrier to a good job), and on the other it enforces fake national unity on pointless matters (by banning headscarves in public schools). But the pattern repeats itself everywhere the state provides for the basic needs of its outsider groups while standing in the way of their pursuit of happiness.

Hat tip: Joe M