The impotent threats of impotent leaders

11 Aug

They may come from different political perspectives (in theory, anyway) but there are interesting similarities between British PM David Cameron’s authoritarian threats against the rioting mobs, and those used by Julia Gillard on the matter of water-borne asylum seekers.

Whenever there is social unrest of almost any kind, politicians pull up the same violently repressive cliches: stamp out, crack down. I/we will not allow, full force of the law, tough stance against criminals, illegals, queue jumpers. This ritualized language is the backbone of authority’s discourse when faced with challenges it ‘s very likely incapable of controlling. The less likely the possibility of control, the more violently repressive politicians’ language becomes.

While there is a place for dissent and disobedience in a liberal democracy, these acts can only be performed within the strict parameters of acceptable middle class behaviour. It is not acceptable to riot, either in the streets of London or behind the razor wire of a detention centre. Middle class manners do not allow for extreme behaviours of any kind. This is why politicians have absolutely no hope of competently addressing extreme behaviours: they don’t understand them and they’re scared to death of them. All they can think of to do is threaten with imprisonment or expulsion, either of which may at some point become necessary, but neither of which do anything to calm a red-hot situation.

The bottom line is, David Cameron cannot control the rioters. He may bring in water cannon. Australians know from Woomera that doesn’t work. It’s a very bad look, especially for a country aiming to put on the best Olympics ever next year. The effects of water cannon are extremely temporary, unless it inadvertently kills or injures someone, and it’s use will further incite the rioters it blasts all over the streets.

The bottom line is, Julia Gillard cannot control the asylum seekers who are already here awaiting assessment, or those she intends to expel to Christmas island. She cannot stop them trying to poison themselves, going on hunger strikes, sewing up their lips or killing themselves. Her plan to despatch them to Malaysia is now completely out of her control, and in the hands of the High Court. Even if she has them shot again them with bean bag bullets she’s still got no control over them, and that’s a bad look too.

You cannot control human beings who feel they have nothing to lose. You can only attempt to create a society in which human beings are not driven to that extreme. People exhausted by failure frequently resort to savagery. Politicians consistently fail to understand this. There’s no votes in understanding it.

Once, in less sophisticated times, the public might have been reassured by politicians using tough language in a crisis. Not anymore, but politicians haven’t caught up with the change in the public’s credulity. Consequently they look increasingly impotent as it becomes more apparent that their rhetoric is hollow. The objects of their wrath are entirely un-cowed by the blustering, and more often than not, they’re driven to greater extremes by the threats.

So Cameron throws hundreds of youths in jail. Imprisonment then becomes a right of passage and the offenders emerge even more brutal and brutalized than when they went in.

God only knows what’s going to happen to the asylum seekers, but it doesn’t look like the boats are doing any stopping, and there’s still the problem of expelling unaccompanied minors into very uncertain conditions and futures.

So what exactly do the politicians hard line positions achieve?

Votes, of course. Because there’s still enough of us who want to hear the rhetoric, even if we know it doesn’t work. The authoritarian rhetoric reassures. It makes us think somebody’s in charge even though we don’t really believe it. In full authoritarian flight, the politician appears to possess the “truth” about the situations we’re facing, and the right things to do about them. It’s a chicken and egg thing: the use of authoritarian language facilitates authority.

Of course, the fact that these events are taking place at all signifies the degree to which our politicians really have lost control.

14 Responses to “The impotent threats of impotent leaders”

  1. Steve at the Pub August 11, 2011 at 8:51 pm #

    The only way to handle the British looting/riots was robustly.
    Water cannon work. Baton charges work.

    The law-abiding citizens whose life’s work is tied up in the looted shops deserve better from the state they pay taxes to.

    The louts are looting only because they are allowed to get away with it.
    The police are not allowed to stop the riots. The citizenry have to do it themselves, in areas where they are cohesive/organised enough to do it. (eg, turkish precincts)

    A couple of baton rounds fired down a street clears it pretty fast.
    The PM of the UK wants to grow a pair. He has to keep faith with the 99% of the population who don’t “kick off” when they are allowed to.


    • Jennifer Wilson August 12, 2011 at 9:11 am #

      SATP – all of your recommended methods can stop rioters in their tracks – but only for five minutes. They’ll be back, madder than ever. So what next? Kill them?


      • Steve at the Pub August 12, 2011 at 7:48 pm #

        You’re saying that using superior violence will not work on people who understand nothing but violence. On the contrary Jennifer, it works very well, and they don’t come back for more. If perchance they do, baton charge ’em again.

        All it took to stop the current “bludger uprising” in UK was a few ethnic types standing shoulder to shoulder looking as if they meant business. When the chips were down there wasn’t any fight in the looters/rioters.
        Imagine what some fair dinkum police action would have achieved.

        Kill them? Shooting on sight IS the accepted manner in which to deal with looters. The taxpayers who are having their life’s work burned down & looter deserve nothing less from their country. You’d only have to shoot a couple, there isn’t any fight in this bunch.


        • Jennifer Wilson August 13, 2011 at 6:29 am #

          No I’m not. Of course “superior violence” will stop “inferior violence” in the short term, if short term is all you’re interested in.


      • Steve at the Pub August 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

        Stop it in the short term? Of course. The rot has to be stopped in its tracks.
        A riot is one of the most short term events there is.

        This one was only a recreational riot/loot anyway. There wasn’t a dash of political or any other type of passion in the crowds. They were doing it because nobody was stopping them.

        The bulk of the looters quite possibly are too lazy to get a job, and lack the self-disciplne to order their lives properly. Such layabouts certainly were never going to be up for a real fight.

        The police (or the government) ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
        This was the PM’s moment, & he squibbed it. The voters won’t be forgetting that all that expensive police force they pay tax for was not as effective as a few ethnics who looked like they meant to robustly defend their homes/livelihoods.


  2. Marilyn August 11, 2011 at 9:30 pm #

    And of course they never had any control because they don’t own the lives of the people they plan to abuse.


  3. David Horton August 12, 2011 at 8:14 am #

    Ah, well said indeed Jen, you beat me to it. The idea that understanding causes is weakness and increasing punishment is strength goes back a long way. Those who don’t understand history take pleasure in repeating it. Oh and while “right of passage” may indeed be what Cameron has in mind the more usual form is “rite of pasage”!


    • Jennifer Wilson August 12, 2011 at 8:51 am #

      Oh, taa David – I’d like to say that the spelling of “right” was a deliberate clever pun but it wasn’t! In spite of being highly over-educated, I still can’t spell sometimes. It’s because of my underprivileged background as a granddaughter of the British working class.
      But look how I turned my life around!! Why don’t these thugs go out and get themselves a PhD?! Well???


  4. Sam Jandwich August 12, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    I must say I have a strange kind of sympathy for the rioters. London has a long and proud history of civil disobedience, or as a Londoner mate of mine puts it, “lobbin’ bricks a’ coppers”, and it seems to me there is an element of that in the current situation. The rioters want to be met with force. It’s a bit of a laugh to be sprayed with a water cannon, and having a genuine, level-playing field opportunity to slug it out with the police is something that a lot of people spend their lives craving for, even if it does result in ending up in the calaboose for a while. But more that, it serves as a reminder that, no matter how much bluster comes from the police and politicians, it’s the people that own the city. And that’s what makes it such an interesting place.

    Just imagine how delighted we’d all be if this happened in Canberra!


    • Steve at the Pub August 12, 2011 at 7:51 pm #

      Sam, had the rioters wanted to be met with force, all they have to do is take on some of the Sikh/Turk/Polish picket lines.

      But it hasn’t happened, they’re not riotesr, they’re just thieves.


      • Sam Jandwich August 16, 2011 at 9:57 am #

        Ah Steve, you of all people should know that you can’t believe everything you read!


  5. Marilyn August 14, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    Well I know, they could transport the thieves to the colonies. That worked a treat before.


    • Jennifer Wilson August 14, 2011 at 6:38 pm #

      They’re getting closer – somebody got six months for pinching six bottles of water – like, out to the colonies for nicking a loaf of bread.



  1. Alive with the dead « The Watermelon Blog - August 12, 2011

    […] over at No Place For Sheep has pre-empted, almost word for word, what I had intended to write today. She sets out nicely the kind of conservative mentality […]


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