We are in danger of forgetting that waiting comes before wanting

November 12, 2005
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 12th November 2005

The scenes of France in flames have been disturbing — night after night of cars on fire, buildings ablaze, angry youth and embattled police.

This is not the first time we have seen how quickly societies can descend into chaos. It happened in the Netherlands after the murder of Theo van Gogh, in New Orleans after the hurricane and in the Lozells area of Birmingham during the recent riots. We are seeing the emergence of a new politics of anger.

The causes are simple: ethnic ghettos, immigrant enclaves, concentrations of poverty, unemployment and young people with strong feelings of exclusion and resentment.

We know also what will happen. There will be stronger policing; violence will become more sporadic; tempers will cool; measures will be taken. Lessons will be learnt. The attention of the media will turn elsewhere. Until the next time.

Yet it is hard not to feel that something serious is happening. Paris, Amsterdam, New Orleans and Birmingham are not the Balkans or the Middle East. If violence is in the air in the citadels of liberal democracy, alarms should be ringing.

At such times, scattered phenomena come together to produce a mood of foreboding. I think, for example, of the growing impatience with the political process. When television becomes more powerful than parliaments, people quickly realise that the newsworthy gesture gets you more attention than years of lobbying and representation. Violence becomes photo-opportunity.

Then there is the collapse of the concept of national belonging, the feeling that we are all in this together and that the distress of some of us is a matter for all of us. Far from being a means of integration, multiculturalism has become a path to segregation. There are fewer mixed neighbourhoods, more urban and suburban ghettos. The ties that bind grow ever weaker. The forces that divide become stronger year by year.

Our sense of time seems to be changing. We live in the moment, with little feeling of connection to a national past and a collective future. News comes to us in soundbites. We experience events less as chapters in a novel than as a series of music videos, disconnected images bound together by rhythm not narrative, pace not plot. We are losing the long-term prospective that alone allows us to make sense of events and feel we are part of a collective story.

I first noticed the change when credit cards were born, one of which was advertised as “taking the waiting out of wanting”. I recalled Freud’s definition of civilisation as the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct. Society depends on waiting as well as wanting.

Language suggests a connection between these things. Think of the words “political” and “polite”, “urban” and “urbane”, “civilisation” and “civility” all derived from Greek or Latin words for “city”, the place where strangers come together to live and trade. They remind us of the myriad habits of self-imposed restraint that alone allow people of different faiths and customs to live together graciously. Cultures built on anger cannot survive. This is where we need the wisdom of the past. One of the most striking features of the Hebrew Bible is the way it distinguishes between state and society. The ancient Israelites became a state when the prophet Samuel, at the request of the people and with the permission of God, anointed Saul as King, turning the people from a loose collection of tribes into a monarchy.

The Israelites became a society, however, 400 years earlier when they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and received their constitution as a nation under the sovereignty of God. You have to build a society before you can have a state. States exist by reason of power. Societies exist through a shared moral code and a sense of collective responsibility. The symbols of states are palaces and parliaments. The institutions of society are families, neighbourhoods, communities and schools.

For some years now we have been living under the illusion that you can have a state without a society, politics without politeness, civilisation without civility. You can’t.

There is no shortcut that allows us to bypass the long, slow task of society-building; integrating minorities, creating a shared sense of history and destiny and cultivating a national conversation in which each of us has a voice. Otherwise the prospects are dark. When conversation ends, violence begins.