Monday, March 12, 2012

A history of violence

Three points from which I will start in hope of arriving at a point in the end:

  1. There is a sense in which violence has disappeared from everyday life, at least when it comes to (people like) me. Evidence: fights were part of life when I was a kid, both at school (where the other kids would stand around chanting "Scrap! Scrap!") and on the streets, especially outside pubs. This doesn't seem to be true any more. I live in a different country, so it's hard to compare, but I don't think there are any fights like that at my kids' schools. If a fight broke out it would be a big deal and all the parents would probably hear about it. Evidence that this is a general truth and not merely a peculiarity of my life comes from the fact that people like the Rolling Stones and Elton John could sing popular songs about fighting in the street in the 60s and early 70s (although the Stones' song is supposedly a political statement about apathy--I don't think that fact is well enough known to affect my point), whereas by the late 70s Slaughter & The Dogs were asking "Where Have All the Bootboys Gone," and by the 80s the Newtown Neurotics were rejecting "Mindless Violence," which apparently had gone from the gentlemanly fair fighting of the bootboys ("Do you want a scrap? All right. Get ready then.") to something closer to murdering old people (as also decried in the Smiths' "Sweet and Tender Hooligan"). 
  2. It is well known that "Anglo-Saxon" words are frowned upon in polite society while Latin words are considered much more respectable. This seems prissy until you feel the origin of the words as when, for instance, I was watching a Danish film (as I remember) and noticed that the Danes use the word 'fuck.' That fact might not strike you unless you know enough English history to know about the terrifying attacks by Danes in the 9th century. I think I read about them in extracts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which I remember as a series of rumors about the movements of the pillaging horde. Raping and pillaging, presumably. So 'fuck' is the word the rapists use. The rapists who travel unpredictably in an unstoppable (or at least unstopped) army. Understandable that it should send shivers through centuries, even if these shivers end up being a little gutless. Except that this history is all based on my imagination as far as words go. According to the internet, Anglo-Saxon words weren't considered bad until the Norman conquest of 1066, when the Anglo-Saxons were on the losing side. So perhaps disliking these words has always been prissy. I have a hard time not believing my version though.
  3. At Washington and Lee University for the Wittgenstein Workshop I noticed an old photograph showing the university's neoclassical colonnade in the background, with what look like shacks in the foreground (where the town's mostly African-American neighborhood is now). I suppose there would not have been such a neighborhood in the days of slavery, but it made me think of Neil Young's line about "tall white mansions and little shacks." The fine buildings look triumphant (in a bad way). What is now an excellent liberal arts university open to all was then a place of white, male privilege, after all. The classical look seems to rub this in the noses of others.
There is baggage in words and buildings. Not that they are nothing but such baggage, of course, but it's there. We suffer a kind of historical blindness or deafness if we ignore it. This doesn't mean we should tear down Washington and Lee, or never say 'fuck.' It does mean, I think, that we need to know history if we are to know ourselves. But I suppose that's just a cliché, the kind of thought more likely to be repeated thoughtlessly than actually taken in (like "Never again").

I'm not looking for a theory of history to buy into (although I am interested in collecting a few plausible contenders), but economics certainly seems to play a big part in Viking raids, imperialism, and slavery. It also seems to be behind the disappearance of the bootboys (young men so fond of kicking people that they are identified by this habit). "Where Have All the Bootboys Gone?" is worthy of a short essay on its own, but I'll try to focus on the answers it implies to the question it so memorably poses.

The opening couplet is almost perfect comedy: "Wearing boots and short haircuts/ We will kick you in the guts." If they had just gone with 'nuts' instead of 'guts' it would have been a great parody of punk rock. But the line that people laugh at the most is "They drink tea from a cup." This brings us to the sociological analysis that Slaughter has to offer. Some bootboys apparently become bourgeois, drinking tea instead of beer, and from a cup instead of a more manly, blue-collar mug. Others "get married and settle down," which might explain the tea cups. And the rest "leave for a foreign town," presumably elsewhere in Britain rather than anywhere literally foreign. So social aspirations (tea drinking and no more fighting at the request of their wives) and economic ambition or necessity (leaving their friends to seek work away from home) appear to be at the root of the disappearance. This all seems plausible as the working class has been squeezed at both ends by the opportunity to rise socio-economically for the lucky and sinking into a pride-less, culture-less underclass for the unlucky. And that's in line with the policies of the Thatcher government ("the enemies of the British working man" according to the Newtown Neurotics), who wanted that kind of opportunity and were prepared to accept that kind of cost. (And who may well have believed there was no better alternative.) They famously advised the unemployed to "get on their bikes" and move to where the jobs were. (My dad lived for a while in something like a van down by the river in much this spirit after he lost his job.) 

So what's my point? Perhaps it's that people tend to do things for short-term economic gain, but that these things can have cultural effects that are much harder to measure and predict, and that can last for centuries. I want also to create a kind of conceptual collage in which this idea is brought together with Nietzsche's genealogy of morality and Wittgenstein's suggestion that a whole mythology is contained in our language. Beyond that I don't think I have a point to make, except that I prefer History to Economics, and the disappearance of the bootboys is not necessarily a good thing.  

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