In 1959, at a time of violent unrest among American youth, a publisher commissioned a study of juvenile delinquency from Paul Goodman. The resulting volume, Growing up Absurd, was an immediate if unlikely success. Goodman had already written more than twenty books, none of which had made any great impression. And fifty years on he is once again unknown. But to re-read his book in the aftermath of this summer’s riots is to be visited by uneasy feelings.
The Prime Minister’s initial response to the British riots, it will be recalled, was to blame them on something called ‘sheer criminality’. What he meant by this became clear when sentences of four years were handed down for using Facebook to ‘incite disorder’. A month later he acclaimed the ‘Spirit of London Awards’ as a ‘powerful antidote’. One of its ‘London heroes’, meaning a young table tennis player, visited Number Ten to be paraded before the cameras as the acceptable face of youth. Cameron’s government appointed Louise Casey, ‘respect tsar’ under former prime minister Tony Blair, to head the response to the riots. She shall from henceforth be known as the ‘troubled families tsar’. £440 million have been allocated to ‘transform the lives’ of the 120,000 families in England whose ‘culture of disruption and irresponsibility’ is allegedly the problem. Labour Lider Ed Miliband meanwhile has been crying in the wilderness for ‘a new ethics’. Mr Blair blamed bad parenting. The journalist Kenan Malik denounced the atomisation and moral poverty of the society that had created the rioters.
Fifty years ago, Paul Goodman compared British public culture favourably with the easy denunciations and shallow explanations that followed the unrest in America. The voices of politicians and journalists were balanced, in Britain, he argued, by ‘more learned and honorable voices’ which could ‘thoughtfully broach fundamental issues of community plan, penal code, morality, cultural tone, with some certainty of reaching a public forum…’ He had some knowledge of the British cultural scene and was thinking of people like Bertrand Russell and Herbert Read. It was these he went on to emulate in his analysis of what had gone wrong.
The ‘explanations’ offered then by American politicians and commentators bear a striking resemblance to those of their current British counterparts, as outlined above. The Rowntree and Open Society Foundations, in association with the London School of Economics and the Guardian, are putting together a ‘data-driven’ report, Reading the Riots. This will, presumably, hear from ‘more learned and honorable voices’ in the course of its inquiries, as well as from those who were actually involved in the rioting. It is to be hoped the resulting document will read as well as Growing up Absurd.
‘Sheer criminality’ in such a context is a term so meaningless as to be almost non-verbal in its effect. What was its purpose? It was not so much language as a form of ostentatious finger-wagging, to supply a demand for such gestures. This demand was, I take it, ‘discovered’ by the pollsters, having been generated by journalists. It was then picked up on and magnified by political speech-writers. So how did Goodman answer the speech-writers and commentators of his own day? Here is a very brief sample of how: ‘Thwarted or starved in the important objects proper to young capacities, the boys and young men naturally find or invent deviant objects for themselves. Their choices and inventions are rarely charming, usually stupid, and often disastrous; we cannot expect average kids to deviate with genius.’
Goodman’s emphasis is immediately apparent: these young people are at once ‘thwarted’ and ‘average’. Theirs is not some ‘innate’ condition nor are they remarkable cases. Their behaviour follows from a reality in which we all participate. ‘As they have been kept from constructive activity making them feel worthwhile, a part of their energy might be envious and malicious destruction of property.’ Note that his approach is not an apologetic, still less a romantic one. It would be compatible, for example, with some of what is aimed at by the Government’s apprenticeship programmes. Such programmes are, however, clearly not attracting some young people. To which the only sensible reaction must surely be to ask why not.
In seeking to explain Goodman did not set out to excuse anyone, but rather to show how American society was implicated as a whole. Much of the ‘blaming’, he suggests, is best understood as a defence mechanism by which we conceal that implication from ourselves.
So to the ‘new ethics’ of Mr Miliband. There were calls for ‘a new ethics’ in 1959 too (literally, the same words), and calls for much besides, stuff like ‘an aesthetic suitable for the upreaching of taste… a more meaningful existence.’ Goodman’s response was as follows: ‘Existence is not given meaning by importing into it a meaning from outside.’ Such language, with its ‘buoyant abstractions’, was ‘spoken as if miracles were to be had for the asking.’ In reality, by contrast, ‘the meaning is there, in more closely contacting the actual situation, the only situation that there is…’
His example is a programme of the Youth Board in New York in which young offenders were drawn out by people involved with and interested in them. To him this programme’s partial success demonstrated that it is only then, when these adolescents have come to ‘accept themselves’ through being accepted by a sympathetic adult, only then ‘the spiral of proving will be arrested.’ It is not, pace Kenan Malik’s relatively thoughtful column, their isolation as individuals that is in itself to blame. That term “isolated” needs qualifying. Whether or not these young people acted as members of organized gangs, it seems most unlikely that they are or were without any social context at all. Even if the context is all made up of TV shows or the internet or “stuff,” there is still somebody somewhere financing and making and broadcasting those shows, running those websites, advertising that stuff.
Rather than “isolation,” it is that whatever context they have—whether “mutually blackmailing accomplices” or mass entertainment—is humanly inadequate, trapping the young in a pre-adult state of development. Gangs or the TV are able to do this because society offers these youngsters no natural inducement to advance to the next stage. And that “advance to the next stage” cannot be made under compulsion. Goodman contrasts this partially successful programme with measures proposed to ‘deal with’ juvenile delinquency in New York, eight out of eleven of which were punitive.
As for speechifiers about ‘bad parenting’, they too were on hand in 1959 with their hold-all explanation. For Goodman, to talk about parenting was to talk about the degree to which a society promotes the sort of partnerships between adults in which children can grow as they should. A ‘commercially debauched public culture’ like our own had already then long since ceased to affirm the institution of marriage. This is a question which, in Britain as in the US, long pre-dates the 1960s. ‘Married couples no longer enjoy the support of society,’ Cyril Connolly could write in the 1940s, ‘although marriage, difficult enough at any time, requires such social sanction.’
Part of what makes Growing up Absurd still so readable is just this way Goodman refuses to cordon his findings off from fundamental questions about the surrounding culture, the one we’re all involved in. The analogy between the lawlessness of British streets in August and that of British bankers over the past 30 years is, by now, well worn. Those who shouted loudest and most publicly about it might ponder another connection Goodman makes.
The young people he was writing about had found they could make the news by joining in delinquent behaviour, which then got reported in the papers (now it goes on TV and the internet as well). How is this essentially different, Goodman asks, from the young man in advertising who ‘may work hard for a year to get two five-second shots on TV’? The gangs ‘perforce, take short cuts to glamour. Do they teach the junior executives to take short-cuts or is it the other way?’
He suggests, in other words, that publicists of all kinds are in an entirely comparable line of business to those whose opportunities for attention-seeking are much narrower. I am strongly reminded of the army of pundits rattling off their 800-word prescriptions last summer. Certainly there were honourable exceptions: for example John Berger’s reflections for opendemocracy.com and Gary Younge’s piece in the Guardian comparing and contrasting the situation in Detroit in 1967 with that of British cities now.