Chris Grayling ‘hopelessly full of shit’


2:02 pm - August 25th 2009

by Sunny Hundal    


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In a speech in London today, shadow home secretary Chris Grayling will compare parts of Britain to the US television show The Wire.

The Wire used to be just a work of fiction for British viewers. But under this government, in many parts of British cities, The Wire has become a part of real life in this country too. Far too many of those features of what we have always seen as a US phenomenon are now to be found on the streets of Britain as well.

So how well versed with The Wire was Mr Grayling?

When asked on BBC News this morning it seemed Mr Grayling was trying to wing it.

Interviewer: Have you really seen any more than that first episode?
Grayling: Yes I’ve seen a number of … I’ve seen most of the first series. I have seen a number of the other episodes yes. I have.

Oh dear.

Perhaps he should heed the call of the show’s writer himself, who once said it would was dangerous to create policy based on the show.

It is possible that a few thinking viewers, after experiencing a season or two of The Wire, might be inclined, the next time they hear some politician declaring that with more prison cells, more cops, more lawyers, and more mandatory sentences that the war on drugs is winnable, to say, aloud: “You are hopelessly full of shit.”

Why, he may be talking directly about Chris Grayling himself.

And what about the stats themselves then? Michael White writes:

Now down to the stats. The city of Baltimore, where The Wire was set by local reporter David Simon, has a population of around 640,000 and a murder rate – falling, I am happy to note – of 234 in 2008, down from 282 in 2007 after rows about fiddled figures – a detail which echoes the TV series.

Is that around 40 murders per 100,000? That’s around six times the New York rate of 6.3 per 100,000 in 2008 (523 murders, slightly up on 2007) and a lot, lot higher than the UK – where the murder rate per 100,000 is around 1.4, slightly higher than France, lower than Scotland (2.56), a lot lower than South Africa (49.6). The overall US murder rate is 5.5 – a quarter of post-Soviet Russia’s.

In fact, the common thread linking murder rates in every country appears to be extremes of wealth and poverty, despair, plus the easy jump that makes to drug-related crime.

PS Context: of the 1,574 youngsters who died between 10 and 19 in 2008 half did so because of illness, 546 in accidents, and 84 in suicides – slightly more than those murdered.

But when you’ve got a ‘Broken Society’ narrative to sell, who cares about the stats or thoughts of whether it’s wise to make judgements after watching a couple of episodes of a TV series?

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


Did Chris Grayling mention the murder rate?

Also blogged about this.
http://www.nextleft.org/2009/08/boris-must-know-graylings-wire-argument.html

I felt this was one clear example of how the ‘broken society’ argument works, where I think that perhaps the central strategic aim is to “other” and segregate the problems of the underclass from those of mainstream society. This allows concern to be expressed (paternalistically) but for the issues to be separated from questions of the distribution of opportunity, income and wealth – because the causes are always moral rather than social or economic.

It is probably also the case that Grayling is up for and looking for a row about his mischaracterisation of British cities.
– He exaggerates wildly, comparing many British cities to the Baltimore of the wire
– The challenge is put that this is sensationalist nonsense
– He gets to retort that he isn’t complacent; doesn’t think current levels of crime are acceptable even if they aren’t “yet” at Baltimore levels, while his opponents appear to be debating statistics.

I felt that this was largely how the London knife crime debate played out in the Mayoral election.

I think there is a genuine problem here for the liberal-left of this successful framing. The evidence put up by Richard Wilkinson offers powerful evidence that inequality structures social problems, whereas the right (including those who are sincerely motivated like Iain Duncan Smith, even if I would disagree with his characterisation of the issues, as well as silly opportunism like that of Grayling) always tends to articulate the social problem as causing the inequality.

But being right about that issue of causation does not necessarily help the liberal-left to compete in public and political arguments with the frame being put up by the right …. “Its the inequality, stupid” may be an important piece of analysis, and it is a very important overarching message to get across.

But if that seems to be all that the liberal-left has to say about particular social issues – particularly crime and violence – then I think we will quite probably lose these public arguments, and be challenged with ducking them.

Do others agree? If so, is there a way out of this that does not accept a “full of shit” framing and posturing of toughness – which leads to more prisons, etc and then does further stoke up fear of crime (at a time when it is falling), requiring a further round of toughness for reassurance, etc. I suspect that a stronger focus on issues like restorative justice could be a legitimate left-liberal response, combined with the overarching inequality message.

Perhaps Grayling’s argument today is so sensationalist and silly that it undermines his own case …. but overall “broken Britain’ has proved more resonant and powerful as a public narrative, despite being highly questionable as a description of our society.

Andrew Boff

That is a silly defence. He mentions violent crime, gun crime, drugs and fatal stabbings, so he does inded mention murders.

His sweeping claim is (without any caveat at all) that The Wire can not now be viewed in Britain as a US-based fiction when it now accurately reflects the reality of “many parts of British cities” – that the “horrendous portrayal of the collapse of civilised life and of human despair” of The Wire which “used to be just a work of fiction for British viewers. But under this Government, in many parts of British cities, The Wire has become a part of real life in this country too”.

If he meant to say -“obviously I do not want to sensationalise here. Let us be clear that the rates of murders, violent crimes, drug addiction, imprisonment are not at all at the same rate as in Baltimore in reality, still less at the level that watching the TV show might suggest, but I do think we should be worried” then he left any such point out of his speech.

But what he said was that The Wire can be taken is an accurate portrayal of the reality of many parts of Britian’s cities.

What he said was “Over the past decade violence in our society has become a norm and not an exception” – whatever this means.

He would need to retract and revise his remarks for your challenge to be valid.

Sunder,

Lots of good points.

You are quite right that the left risks getting into honest debates with itself about what the significance of statistics really is, whilst the right pushes an empirically baseless narative which nonethless has great popular appeal and political traction.

Having said that though, I think there is a lot to be said for Sunny’s “Full of Shit” approach. That is, maybe a good response is to fight back aggressively. To call out the scaremongers as being indeed full of shit, and make a conscious effort to be hopemongers: to point to all the things that are going right in society and do it loudly, painting scaremongers as shallow opportunists.

Then again, this will be very, very hard. The majority of the media, for example, has an established narrative about society going to hell in a handcart (c.f. recent focus on a few negative crime figures amidst a sea of positive indicators that things were getting better consistently). That’s a major block to communicating a more positive message coupled with a “you’re full of shit, you cynical manipulator of people” bolshiness.

So what’s the answer? Short of banning the Daily Mail and making seasons 1-5 of The Wire compulsory viewing (to teach people how social problems are deeply complex and politicians are full of shit), I don’t know.

Are Chris Grayling and Maurice Levy one and the same? I think we should be told…

“are not at all at the same rate as in Baltimore in reality, still less at the level that watching the TV show might suggest”

Dunno if the TV show is that misleading, really.

234 murders in Baltimore in 2008. 365/234 = c.1.5

So a murder every 1.5 days in a population of 640,000

That’s massive.

And given that most of the murder in Baltimore IS drug related, the depiction of The Wire isn’t that far off reality, I would say.

Paul

Thanks. I agree. Not challenging Grayling’s misrepresentation would be worse: my post is similar to Sunny’s in that respect. He may this time be so off that it backfires.

But the whole “broken society” and “underclass” argument is inaccurate and resonant in a way that makes it politically effective, certainly as the frame through which issues of inequality are increasingly discussed.

To some extent, there is a choice between “no it isn’t” OR “yes, but who broke it?” … it can be hard to sustain both arguments … though the truth is that it is such a significant exaggeration and wrong as a general picture, though seen to be validated by being true of specific dramatic, high profile examples of chaotic social breakdown.

“it can be hard to sustain both arguments ”

Well yes, but that’s probably because it’s incoherent to sustain both arguments beyond a certain point! (But I know what you mean).

“though the truth is that it is such a significant exaggeration and wrong as a general picture, though seen to be validated by being true of specific dramatic, high profile examples of chaotic social breakdown.”

This is what bugs me, and has been bugging me for a while. I did a load of (rambling, unfocused) stuff on my blog a couple of weeks ago about how, in particular, the media appears to both be a necessary component of desirable free democratic society, yet paradoxically constrain the virtues of such a society if it systematically lies and distorts.

It really is very, very difficult to know how to fight back. After all, knowing how to fight back means knowing what the target is. And that’s hard.

For there’s a degree of chicken-and-egg in the Tory “broken Britain” narrative; sure, the media was already pushing fear (and hate) as a unit-shifting product, and the Tories under Cameron have consciously tapped into something that was already there. But is this modern narrative that society has gone to pot (“because when I were a lad ye could leave t’door unlocked and nobody took a thing, but now they’d have the fillings out of your teeth whilst you slept”) in some way new?

I suspect so, but it’s hard to nail down why. Sure, human beings have *always* been nostalgic and worn rose tinted spectacles, but the I do wonder if the mass media, say, 40 years ago pushed the same unrelenting message of fear, in particular fear of other members of society whom one does not know?

My hunch (though I don’t have, you now, evidence for it) is that actually it didn’t. Rather, the narrative of fear – in particular, fear of crime, fear of the unknown other lurking in the shadows – is a phenomenon which has grown since the 1980s, because it fits incredibly well with the Thatcherite concpetion that there is no such thing as society. Now I’m not ascribing strict causality here, it may only be correlation (and it may all be in my head), but a media which pushes a relentless message that other people are dangerous and to be feared in the face of abundant empirical evidence that this is less and less the case goes very very well with a prevalent political settlement that emphasises individuation, atomism and there being “no such thing as society, only families and individuals”.

Now, if my hunches are right, and what we’re looking at is not just opportunistic politicians, and media outlets shifting units, but a cultural and political shift towards suspicion of others in an anti-societal manner, then fighting back against people like Grayling becomes a mammouth task.

Though I still suspect that banning the Daily Mail would help.

Another grand gaff from yet another monstrous Tory tit.

I just can’t WAIT until they’re in charge…

This argument about inequality seems a tad funny to me Sunder. Presumably, Richard Wilson isn’t arguing there is some kind of iron law between a nation’s gini coefficient and health and well-being. Rather there is some nexus of habits, institutions, ideologies that somehow add psychological significance to wealth inequality and thereby create additional stress on individuals at the bottom of this pecking order. Because, on its own, money is just numbers used to exchange goods and services. And all other things being equal, more money (regardless of who else has even more money) means access to more ways of satisfying ones desires.

So wouldn’t it be better to tackle this nexus of structures that somehow add this additional significance to wealth as a signifier of being “superior” than to tackle wealth inequality itself? After all, if you don’t tackle those structures that encourage zero-sum thinking you might just see the metric of hierarchy being replaced by other signifiers of social status. What we really need is to break down the need for social hierarchy at all.

I think that narratives on both the left and the right contribute to this emphasis on wealth as some sort of status signifier. For sure, Thatcherism’s emphasis on becoming a capital investor, owning a house, driving a car but NOT doing anything non-traditional (like having a rave or forming a hippy commune) contributed. But you also get the likes of Polly Toynbee wondering around interviewing bankers on why they “deserve” their pay (as if moral desert had anything to do with it), thereby implicitly excepting more wealth as a signifier of greater merit, rather than just as a consequence of market transactions.

But you’d agree Nick that the comparison to The Wire shows that on this issue Grayling is hopelessly full of shit?

12. Shatterface

If Grayling had watched The Wire he’d have realised that it portrays the ‘tough approach’ to drugs to be an abject failure, and that the key lies in education and decriminalisation.

The show makes conscious allusions to the prohibition of alcohol.

The figures used by the Home Office show crime to be much higher than either police or BCS figures. Instead of discussing this though, Grayling has decided to witter on about a television programme of which he seems to know very little.

“Sure, human beings have *always* been nostalgic and worn rose tinted spectacles, but the I do wonder if the mass media, say, 40 years ago pushed the same unrelenting message of fear, in particular fear of other members of society whom one does not know?”

Personally I’m convinced that crime was much lower a few decades ago. Unfortunately I don’t think there’s any simple way to return to such low levels of crime, whether you lock ’em all up or redistribute wealth. Social values have changed significantly and we no longer live in the sort of close-knit communities that we used to. It may be that increased crime is a price we pay for “modernity”.

“The show makes conscious allusions to the prohibition of alcohol.”

And the fact that the war on drugs is based on lies.

One of the best ways it did this, IMO, was to make subtle comparisons with the war in Iraq, which was also based on lies (possibly also implying that these wars based on lies take their toll most heavily on the American lower classes).

Hence in series 3 the corner boys stop calling their drug bags “red tops” or “spider bags” but refer to them as “WMD”.

Which is of course extremely fitting in itself.

“Personally I’m convinced that crime was much lower a few decades ago. ”

Even though the figures show crime consistently falling?

“Social values have changed significantly and we no longer live in the sort of close-knit communities that we used to. It may be that increased crime is a price we pay for “modernity” ”

Perhaps.

Or perhaps you are conflating “modernity” with “Thatcherism” and “increased crime” with “a perception of increased crime”

?

16. Shatterface

Hence in series 3 the corner boys stop calling their drug bags “red tops” or “spider bags” but refer to them as “WMD”.’

The final series also explored the role of the media in turning complex social and political problems into simple narratives of goodies vs baddies.

You have to wonder if Grayling saw any of it at all.

“But you’d agree Nick that the comparison to The Wire shows that on this issue Grayling is hopelessly full of shit?”

Yeah pretty much. I would say it also demonstrates how good our relatively restrained policy on drugs is in comparison to the shit that Americans have to put up with.

“You have to wonder if Grayling saw any of it at all.”

No, I’m not wondering at all. He obviously spoke without ever having watched the programme, having instead been told to name-drop a trendy new show to demonstate how “in touch” he is whilst pushing rhetoric about a broken Britain.

My understanding is that overall crime is lower now than it was in the 90s but still high compared to the 50s and 60s. Aha, here we are on murder stats: http://burningourmoney.blogspot.com/2007/01/capital-punishment-self-denying.html

Pretty consistently increasing. Incidentally, I am not implicitly endorsing the death penalty which that link does – just worth thinking about the increase.

Nope, the Tories are not going to make things worse – maybe they should have any “science” minister watch all the Star Trek series and films, now that would be cool!

I would cry if I didn’t laugh!

21. the a&e charge nurse

I don’t think we can avoid the grim reality of places like Moss Side simply by shouting down Grayling, although I’m perfectly willing to concede he’s a chancer, and that this particular issue represents no more than flavour-of-the-week for him.

It is worth adding that gun crime and homocide rates (as well as an in-depth knowledge of The Wire) are something of a red herring since I think Gray’s central concern is the cycle of deprivation sustaining such unpromising, and often lawless communities. For example Grayling highlights the lack of meaningful sanctions against young serial offenders until they reach the stage where they are committing far more serious crimes (by which time it is too late for most of them).

Whether slightly more or less people are being beaten up or robbed nowadays is a somewhat meaningless statistic for those whose lives are blighted by today’s criminal element.

It goes without saying that Moss Side will have a percentage of extremely able and conscientious citizens, and I’ll bet they are absolutely sick of the negative publicity – nonetheless if we are looking for a community hampered by turf wars, drug addiction, poverty and academic under-achievement I’ll bet Moss Side comes pretty high on the list?

A relative of mine used to live on the borders of Moss Side and in the end she simply decided enough was enough – she was able to get out and if I was in her situation (and had the opportunity) I would do exactly the same thing.
http://gangstersinc.tripod.com/GangsofBritain.html

Who in their right mind wouldn’t?

21 – A&E

…but what do we do to stop those young men and women going down the route of crime?

3000 new laws NuLab have enacted, more prisons – and there is still a call more more prison places. What are those on the right going to do, simply put everyone in prison? They will cry a great ‘Yay’ at that one – until, as we see, they don’t like the laws – then it is a matter of “You can’t do that it is against my civil rights!” But it is the law! They cannot say ‘Just don’t break the law if you don’t want to go to prison’.

There is, still, a small minority who commit crime – but once you start asking, as I have above, how do we stop it other than just banging people up you are charged down as a lilly-livered liberal by the right. All they say is send them to prison! Like that has worked for the last millennia.

All this by those like Grayling is a smoke screen against what is the problem that brings about this kind of crime – and he will not do anything about it.

Poverty is the real enemy of society – and that is something those on the right wish to advocate more of.

Errr… where do right wingers advocate more poverty?

Thing is incarceration actually does work pretty well. It is one of the reasons why crime has dropped since the 90s. You just lock up the small minority of criminals when they have committed a serious crime for a decade or so, after which they have usually calmed down a bit (crime is primarily an activity of the 18-35 demographic). Then you are done. And that has knock on effects of taking out the peers of those at risk of falling into a life of crime, and acts as a deterrent for those otherwise tempted.

If we have problems with prison places, well we could start by legalising drugs and perhaps using more compensation ased penalties for property crimes.

24. the a&e charge nurse

[23] No argument there, Will – I wouldn’t trust the likes of Grayson as far as I could throw him.

Having said that the war of words (between those on the left or right) seems to be increasingly irrelevant to those who suffer the direct consequences of anti-social behaviour in some of our inner city hell-holes.
Remember when Cameron tried to seize the initiative with his embarrassing hug a hoodie moment?
http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2006/jul/09/conservatives.ukcrime

Mind you I don’t think the communities themselves can ever escape responsibility for the effect their children’s behaviour has on others (or the way adults relate to each other, of course).

Many people from deprived homes stand up for decency, or recognise the value of social responsibility whereas others are invariably drawn to anti-social behaviour, crime or drug addiction.

The most important factor in my mind is the type of adult role model available to each generation of children and it is this relationship that has become increasingly problematic whenever there is a prolonged absence from socially valued roles.

25. The Grim Reaper

Sunny Hundal telling us that someone else is “full of shit”. Oh, the irony…

Who seriously expected the politician in question to have actually watched The Wire? Most politicians in these situations show they have no idea about popular culture. Take one Gordon Brown – he told us he liked the Arctic Monkeys, yet couldn’t even name one of their songs. The only thing this proves is that Chris Grayling is a bit of an idiot.

Nice to see the Grim Reaper is utilising the classic: LOOK OVER THERE technique, unfortunately it doesn’t work and it is very, very tiresome.

Nick:

I’m not sure if you were around in another thread where the merits of prisons were debated to death, the thing is is that that don’t really work that well at all.

First of all, you have to buy into the idea that locking people up is connected to a finite number of criminals, which may mean trotting out the stat about how crime is commited by a core of people but any criminologist will tell you that this core of criminals is fluid and every changing. More importantly, the number of criminals is not finite.

Then you have to ignore that prison population has been rising hand in hand with crime since the 1900s; so if prison worked then crime would go down but aside from the 96 trend, it has not, it has been rising since 1900.

Finally, prison is only a deterrent if you are making a concious decision to commit crime and you have very little to lose by being banged up. That is one of the factors that stops me, a fear of prison nevermind the dislike of commiting a criminal act BUT if you have little to lose or perceive you’ve little to lose prison holds little fear.

And I say that as someone who has worked in one.

I must have missed the other thread.

“Then you have to ignore that prison population has been rising hand in hand with crime since the 1900s; so if prison worked then crime would go down but aside from the 96 trend, it has not, it has been rising since 1900.”

That is not an effective way to measure incarceration rates though. You really need to consider the ratio of incarceration to crimes committed. Crime was lower in the past, so, of course, you would expect the absolute level of incarceration to be lower too. Instead you need to measure how tough the penalties are for each crime committed. And in that respect, incarceration for a while was lagging behind the increase in crime. In the 90s it caught up, hence the moderately lower crime rate today.

I am not claiming lack of incarceration is an initial cause of crime, only that it can be part of a solution. And things like drug legalisation might be rather more beneficial.

Nick:

Again Nick as you missed that thread you’ll know that it is an effecticve way of measuring, becuase if prison did actualyl stop crime then crime would not rise at the level it has, as prisons have gone hand in hand with that.

Either prisons stop it or they don’t? Clearly they have some impact but not on the scale you seem to suggest.

Also, certain types of crime where lower in the past but some where not, take murder for instance, the 30s and 50s were two massive murder peaks that far outweigh current murder rates.

Also, you forget that we still utilised captial punishment then, a further false deterrent, as crime kept on going up.

My point is, prisons are not much of an answer.


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