Horatio Morpurgo

Writing the Riots

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 is then picked up on and magnified by political speech-writers. So how did Goodman answer the speech-writers and reporters 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.

But I’ve mentioned Cyril Connolly – like him, Goodman saw himself as an all-purpose literary man. He realised what an anomaly this made of him under current conditions but it seems he just didn’t really care. Understanding the wider malaise, of which juvenile delinquency was a symptom, involved him, necessarily, in state of the culture questions. When he invoked Shakespeare’s Iago and Edmund or Dostoevski’s Stavrogin in his discussion of delinquency his intentions were anything but ‘elitist’. What such references communicated, rather, was a profound optimism: that we can face and resolve these questions through the best of what we already have. Why gesture vainly after ‘a new ethics’ when most of us know so little about what our own best thinkers have already formulated, if we will only treat them not as a cultural chore but as a very present help.

Growing up Absurd also contains references to several of the books Goodman had written in the 1940s and 1950s, and to several of the many jobs he had taken, too. He was by now almost fifty and one has the impression of a man throwing everything he has into one last push. And this time it worked. His reputation was established, the novels and the poetry and the work as a Gestalt therapist had availed after all. He was perhaps a little too old to take his sudden celebrity quite seriously, though the attentions of attractive young people, of both sexes, were very much to his taste. For the generation which said never trust anyone over the age of thirty, it is indeed astonishing to find this fifty-something being made such a fuss of. He would become a crucial figure in the student, civil rights and anti-war movements.

But it did prove to be very much his last throw. He died of a heart attack in 1972 and the public role had begun to pall long before that. He was from the outset critical of much of what we associate with the Sixties. He thought little of the rock music and the Beat literature and the drugs. Towards the end he wrote poetry mainly, withdrawing to a farmhouse in New Hampshire. With the decade’s passing, and the loss of his son in a climbing accident, a weariness came over him:

Oh the number of speeches I have made

is like the witch-grass in the garden

and the press conferences for peace

have been almost as many as the wars.

It may be objected that the very optimism of that decade makes it a poor guide to a decade like our own, just getting off to such a relentlessly pessimistic start. To be sure, there are no birds this year in last year’s nests. But if their optimism came too easy, might not the same be said at times of our pessimism?

Taylor Stoehr taught literature for most of his life at the University of Massachusetts. He has also been involved since 1994 with the ‘Changing Lives Through Literature’ programme. This has grown from an initial project in 1991 and has been shown to significantly reduce re-offending rates among probationers in Massachusetts. Significantly, Stoehr was a close friend of Goodman’s and after his death edited several of his books. The Changing Lives Programme is so simple it sounds incredible: it offers probationers six months off their sentences in return for taking a literature course.

But they read, on that course, as nobody ever showed them how to at school. There are no grades and everyone is listened to. Classes are arranged so as to encourage exchanges between men of different generations. The books are chosen for the power of the writing and their power as stories – for their relevance, too, to the sort of lives that are actually lived by young blacks in American cities. Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, about a young man’s journey to self-respect in mid C19th America, is the core text – and has repeatedly proven its value as such. A sister project in Exeter, England, used Oliver Twist.

It doesn’t always work, but when it does it achieves something very like that ‘acceptance of self’ which Goodman understood fifty years ago as the heart of this matter. A book about the Changing Lives Programme is forthcoming next year and Stoehr has also edited a new Paul Goodman Reader (PM Press, 2011). The first ever documentary about Goodman opened in New York in October. 

Most of the Occupy protesters outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, like those in New York and elsewhere, are young. Coming from all manner of directions, most of them are asking some version of, how can I, or we, advance to the next stage—and what might a less venal economics look like? This time they are asking politely. The speechwriters and most of the journalists will do with that question what they are paid to do with serious questions: they will find ways to ignore or belittle it.

It's still the right question.