Reckoning on a Riot

Yesterday’s New York Times Week in Review section found sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh wondering why we are not out in the streets, rioting for bread.

You can tell it’s a prospect that gives him a little thrill – or a touch of academic brain fever. Venkatesh’s writing rises above social-scientific banalities only when he’s describing the complete breakdown of social order.

He is sure that if we all stop blogging and texting, twittering and talking on cell phones, and if we can all get over the shame we all feel over the massive credit card debt we all carry — no, really, this seems to be his argument — we will all get in touch with our true feelings again, or at least with the righteous anger we ought to be feeling over AIG bonuses and Chrysler’s nosedive and John Thain’s interior decorating budget; and in the light of that new day we will all rise up and take to the streets.

Not to worry, of course: Professor Venkatesh assures us that there won’t be angry, unruly mobs in the streets bent on mayhem. Why would there be? We will all turn out for a riot, but stay just for good conversation with our fellow citizens, kind of a democratic carnival or street fair, or a big town hall, in which, I guess, unemployed bankers, sinecured academics, Toledo plumbers and everybody else will come to approve a new program of social justice.

Maybe I’ve been living in New York City too long, but I prefer to avoid crowds when I can, especially angry crowds, and I don’t expect people driven to the street by anger suddenly to turn all warm, mushy and benevolent at the sight of fellow sufferers or the prospect of a conversation. Maybe we would all be moved by pity and compassion and realize a sense of shared purpose if we only could come face to face, and acknowledge our pain. But isn’t it just as likely — more likely — that the day of reckoning so eagerly anticipated by Professor Venkatesh wouldn’t turn out the way he expects?

What the world needs now may be love sweet love; but there will be no easy resolution to the political and social conflicts this economic crisis might generate. Democratic deliberation is above all a habit, one we are out of; concerns about the thing we hold in common — the res publica — have given way, for now, to worries over the losing everything we have, or own. So it is with some regret that I would inform Professor Venkatesh — pace Rodney King — that we probably can’t all just get along; and, what’s more, we probably won’t.

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