David Cameron's great expectations

Updated: 2011-09-02 14:00

By Naomi Wolf (chinadaily.com.cn)

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NEW YORK – As I listen to the news coming out of England after the recent wave of urban riots – and as I read Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's compelling new biography of Charles Dickens, Becoming Dickens – life and art seem to be echoing each other.

In the wake of the riots, British Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed reviving children's courts, urged harsh sentences and orange jumpsuits for convicts, and floated even more odious ideas. For example, convicts could be intentionally exposed to public harassment through cleanup assignments, and their families, who have not committed crimes, could be evicted from their state-subsidized housing. Cameron is also testing arrests for Facebook comments, the suspension of social networks, and more lethal power for police.

In Dickens' England, the judiciary was not independent, and newspapers were subject to state censorship. Kids (like Oliver Twist) were punished in ways designed to break them; poor people convicted of relatively minor offenses were transported to Australia, or given publicly humiliating forms of punishment; police had unchecked and violent power over the poor.

I am not endorsing leniency for looters and thugs; but we already know where the raft of punitive legislation that Cameron is proposing, and his efforts to exploit civil unrest to clamp down on civil liberties, would lead the country.

Likewise, we already know what an England without a social safety net – where the poor have no hope and no mobility – looks like. Public education barely existed for the "lower orders" 150 years ago, and university was a fantasy for them – as it could well be again, with tuition fees set to triple under Cameron.

In Becoming Dickens, Douglas-Fairhurst, rejecting recent "poststructuralist" literary theory, reexamines Dickens and his England within their historical and political contexts. This approach yields valuable insights – and not a moment too soon. Such "historicist" interpretations of Victorian London have also appeared recently in the fascinating current exhibit at the Wellcome Collection, "Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life," and in Bill Bryson's new bestseller, At Home, which examines the social history surrounding a Victorian curate's manor.

The renewed interest in Victorian social history – what people ate and wore, who worked for whom, etc., as opposed to the history of battles and "great men" – may not be a coincidence. Western capitalist societies, especially the United Kingdom and the United States, are currently in the process of spooling time backward to the pre-Victorian era, for the benefit of a small group of elites that excludes the working and middle classes who benefited most from the Victorians' social, economic, and political reforms – let alone the poor.

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