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Big Brother caused our hooded youth

Mark Steyn | May 17, 2005

From my own personal observation of sullen teens in ghastly clothing loafing about dreary British shopping malls, I'd say a lot more of them seem to be hooded than their equivalents in dreary American or dreary Canadian shopping malls. It's some while since I've been to a dreary Fijian or dreary Uzbek shopping mall, so I don't want to overstate my case but there seems to be some indication that the United Kingdom is becoming a world leader in hooded teenagers. Why should this be?

Obvious answer: CCTV. The British are the most videotaped people in the history of mankind, caught on camera by official surveillance devices as they go about every humdrum public manoeuvre. If you're a grown-up, this might not seem a big deal: you can go back to your pad, collapse on the sofa and pick your nose far from Tony Blair's prying eyes, though doubtless this chink in the 24/7 monitoring system will eventually be rectified.

But, if you're an adolescent, far more of your social rituals take place in public - meeting friends at the bus stop, enjoying a romantic moment by the non-operative ornamental fountain outside the KwikkiJunk Centre, etc - and it seems entirely reasonable that adolescent garb has artfully evolved to provide its wearers with such privacy as can be found under the constant whirr of the Big Blairite Brother's telly cameras.

This is the usual law of unintended consequences. Just as the increasing sophistication of home-security systems has led burglars to conclude that it's easier to wait till you're in, knock on the door and punch you in the face, so the ever-present 24-hour surveillance devices have ensured that, even if you get a look at your assailant, you'll never be able to pick him out of a police line-up. "Er, well, he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, officer." "Did the shadow on his upper chest indicate any other features, such as the length of his nose?" "It might have, but I couldn't tell, as the sweatshirt was black." "Hmm. A black sweatshirt. Well, that narrows it down a bit."

In the comic books of my youth, there used to be ads for amazing X-ray specs that allowed you to walk down the street and see through women's clothing to the lacy brassiere underneath. Even at that tender age, I was suspicious of how the amazing specs knew how to penetrate the coat and blouse but stop discreetly at the underwear.

But, if the technology does indeed exist, then clearly we now need to install special hood-penetrating cameras up and down every High Street. Indeed, if rural constabularies are still planning to put cameras in trees to watch for illegal hunts (as was announced a while back), they might want to order extra-strength X-ray film just in case wily MFHs start obscuring their features by pulling up their fourfold scarves.

Instead, in the absence of a multi-billion-pound overhaul of the CCTV network, the Government is now toying with bans on headgear and hooded garb. Not all hooded garb, of course. Burqas, chadors, hejabs and so forth will be more than welcome. But more provocative clothing, such as baseball caps and Lord Irvine's old full-bottomed wig, will be out.

Perhaps teen clothing will undergo another evolution, and the youth of the nation will be hanging out dressed like John Simpson in that burqa he wore to liberate Kabul.

One assumes the Prime Minister is genuine in his wish to restore "respect on our streets". He has made Hazel Blears the minister for "Anti-Social Behaviour, Community Safety and Active Citizenship", and, if it takes making her full-blown Secretary of State for Respect, he's prepared to do it. Perhaps he'll promote her to Lord Privy Seal of Approval, in charge of the National Dress-Code Licensing Authority.

But respect is a two-way street, and two-way streets are increasingly rare in British town centres. The idea that the national government can legislate respect is a large part of the reason why there isn't any. Almost every act of the social democratic state says: don't worry, you're not responsible, leave it to us, we know best. The social democratic state is, in that sense, profoundly anti-social and ultimately anti-democratic.

Even as Tony Blair was calling upon his surly citizenry to re-learn elementary social interaction, the European Parliament was voting to forbid British citizens from working more than 48 hours a week. The Guardian seemed to think these two items were related: "A government that wants its citizens to treat each other with greater respect, while also lobbying to allow businesses to have employees work longer than 48 hours a week, is surely confused between cause and effect."

For the lads at the Guardian, the baying yobbos on Britain's streets are workaholics letting off a little steam after 10-hour shifts; to others, they're bored adolescents who'd benefit from a part-time job or two.

Each to his own. Possibly it's true, as the Euro-regulators insist, that some folks are being coerced by bosses into working more than 48 hours against their will. But coercing everyone into not working more than 48 hours regardless of their will is, in the long run, more damaging.

Why is it that a political culture that thinks nothing of radically liberating the citizen from so many traditional responsibilities reacts with surprise when so much of the other social capital accumulated over centuries turns out to have vanished? If you insist on treating free-born citizens as children incapable of taking responsibility for their own lives, it's hardly likely such people will inculcate ancient social norms in their own children.

CCTV is at least a literal baby monitor for the public square; most of the other infantilising trends of advanced society are merely metaphorically so. In that sense, whatever we're wearing, these days we're all boyz in the hood.

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