27 August 2011

The Pane of Glass

In all the discussion after the riots we heard an interesting story about a lecturer. He began lectures on society by bringing out a pane of glass. As he holds it up he asks questions, if this is all that separates people who want something from the things they desire then why is it that most of the time in most places the glass remains intact? Why is it that we do, most of the time, choose order?
This has been an extraordinary year.
·         We have seen the Arab spring, applauding as the young people of Egypt overturned a regime with their powerful hope for something new and better, and we have seen the dictator wheeled into court on a hospital bed.
·         We have seen the fires being lit in Greece as the impact of the damage done by the banks becomes intolerable for sections of the population.
·         We have seen half a million people make their way to London for a quiet orderly well marshalled political protest, with a fringe of disorder.
·         We have seen Murdoch, the controlling force behind such a powerful media empire brought to answer questions, and we see that he is in the end an old man, with an incomplete grasp of the actions done in his name.
·         We have seen a deluded young man systematically acting out his fantasies in Norway, leaving behind the deep grief of so many families and a whole nation.
·         We have seen fires being lit and panes of glass being broken in this country as unanswered questions over a killing ignited passion in one community, and then as the news coverage of firs dominated our screens, spread to many more.
·         We saw groups of young people caught up in the moment, for that mad moment choosing disorder, and we saw people die as a result.
·         We have seen a tsunami of comment and opinion as many people reveal their attitudes about society in an attempt to tell story of the riots in a way that justifies their beliefs and their actions.
·         We have seen the courts respond to the mood expressed in much of the press and impose sentence that seem to many to be out of all proportion. We see the Police commit themselves to spend two years working through CCTV pictures to bring the rioters to book.
·         We have seen the Arab spring turn to autumn as columns of excited young men high on powerful emotions shoot their way into Tripoli. And we have seen the media enter a hospital where hundreds of wounded people were left to die.
This has been a year in which all of us have been reminded just how thin the sheet of glass actually is.
The idea that we can stop the glass being broken by CCTV and police men with riot shields is in the end a fantasy. The glass only remains intact by consent. It is intact if people make the choice that it should be so.
There are an increasing number of people seeing the scale of the challenge that this presents us with.  There are so many that I could mention, here are couple.
Marc Reeves @Marcreeves of the Birmingham Post has come forward with his assertion that Business as usual is not an option.
Billionaires in US and France have raised the question of whether they should be asked to contribute more, whether it is in anyone interest that society should be as unequal as it is. Many politicians in this country have been reading the Spirit level.
It is good that people like Charles Moore and Marc Reeves are challenging their readers. It is wrong to allow people to make the assumption that the pane of glass will remain intact if the energies of our young people cannot, for whatever reason, take a positive form.
Delivering a positive future now at the time when austerity means everything seems so much more difficult can only be done if we begin the urgent task of re-imagining our society in a way that will satisfy the needs of all our people, now and into the future.
It is tempting to pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves that democracy, the way we do it, is now being gifted to Arab countries, but here we are seeing big questions about our own democracy. It is the thinnest of veneers, and it may no longer answer to its purpose.
My favourite quote from Benghazi was the graffiti seen on a wall that read “we want institutions”. In Libya now they will face the task of forming institutions with a mixture of hope and fear.
In this country Many of our institutions, Parliament, the press, the NHS, the Justice system are now under the microscope. What we see is not always pretty.  Maybe if we want that pane of glass to remain intact it is time to say “we want institutional reform”.