In the London Telegraph, Theodore Dalrymple asks, “Why has Britain turned into a giant rubbish bin?”
An Englishman’s street is now his dining room, and his country is his litter-bin. When Englishmen – or a sizeable number to judge by the results – arrive at a beauty-spot their first impulse is to chuck at it a vividly coloured empty bottle or tin of revolting drink with which they have recently refreshed themselves.
Drive down the A14 from the M6 to Huntingdon or Cambridge and every verge, every roundabout, is littered by the thousand, or the million. Such filth is not the handiwork of a handful. Until I drove down and saw it flapping in the trees, I hadn’t appreciated how much polythene there was in the world. Where does it come from? Who knows? Even more to the point, who cares? Certainly not the local authorities, that have so many other bigger worries – like how to pay the pensions of staff who took early retirement.
Dreadfully incompetent and dishonest as public authorities are, our pavements are not mottled by discarded chewing gum because of them; and it is not only because of them that our streets are the filthiest in Europe, if not the world.
Not long ago I had the humiliation of being answered with an aggressive and flat refusal. Perfectly politely, I asked a woman, who threw her cigarette end down at my feet as we entered Euston Station, to pick it up. If in retaliation I had criticised her slovenliness, I should no doubt have been arrested for insulting behaviour. In the absence of any sense of civic duty, we have no defence against litterers.
Britain was not always so filthy. I suspect that it is the result of a toxic mixture of excessive individualism (there is no such thing as society), and of an easily inflamed awareness of inalienable rights (who are you to tell me what to do? I know my rights). What I do is right because it is I who do it; the customer is always right, and life is my supermarket.
The virtual world has become more real and all-encompassing to us than what used to be called the real world. Those who toss rubbish from cars are in a bubble, and in a trance; separated physically from the world, bathed in music, usually trance-inducing, they glide past everything around them like ghosts in haunted houses.
Overall, I don’t think America has a similar level of garbage; 35 years before Ward Churchill became a household name, by and large, Americans heeded the silent tears of proto-phony Indian Espera Oscar de Corti, better known as “Iron Eyes Cody.” But it certainly has a graffiti problem. Unlike litter, which “liberal” elites have always publicly frowned upon, many “progressives” see graffiti not as the vandalism it is, but as some sort of “free expression” by overzealous youth and/or an oppressed underclass. (Doubly ironic when otherwise they’d be complaining about spray cans of paint damaging the ozone layer.) You can see how bad graffiti has gotten when you drive by virtually any railroad yard or watch a freight train pass by — seemingly every railroad car has been vandalized with gallons of spray paint.
In his newest “Best of the Web” column (also the source of our headline above), James Taranto describes the problem getting worse, because, not coincidentally, the left is happy to give vandalism a free pass:
Heather Mac Donald will love this one: The New York Times reports on a disturbing new trend of vandalism against trees. In San Francisco, “every tree” on one block “has been spray-painted in shades of purple, red, white and black.” The reason? “Graffiti, taggers believe, is not easily covered or removed from trees without harming them.”
But here’s the part that tells you everything about the Times’s worldview:
The vandalism has angered residents, and possibly threatened the health of some trees, which are remarkably rare in San Francisco because very few tree species are indigenous. The tagging also appears to violate one of the tenets of the graffiti subculture: it is supposed to be a reaction to urban life, not an attack on nature.
We would describe the people who create graffiti as vandals damaging the property of others. The Times sees them as a “subculture” that has “tenets,” one of which is that you do not vandalize trees. Even more hilarious, it informs us of these alleged tenets in an article that proves they do not exist.
And this isn’t the first time that Gray Lady has given such vandalism a pass. As Mark Steyn writes in After America, “sometimes there’s so much writing you can barely see the wall:”
On my last brief visit, Athens was a visibly decrepit dump: a town with a handful of splendid ancient ruins surrounded by a multitude of hideous graffiti covered contemporary ruins. Sit at an elegant café in Florence, Barcelona, Lisbon, Brussels, almost any Continental city. If you’re an American tourist, what do you notice? Beautiful buildings, designer stores, modern bus and streetcar shelters…and all covered in graffiti from top to toe. The grander the city, the more profuse the desecration. Go to Rome, the imperial capital, the heart of Christendom: the entire city is daubed like a giant New York subway car from the Seventies. Look at your souvenir snaps: here’s me and the missus standing by the graffiti at the Trevi Fountain; there we are admiring the graffiti at the Coliseum.
A New York Times feature on Berlin graffiti reported it as an art event, a story about “an integral component of Berliner Strassenkultur.” But it’s actually a tale of civic death, of public space claimed in perpetuity by the vandals (like graffiti, another word Italy gave the world, as it were). At the sidewalk cafés, Europeans no longer notice it. But it is in a small, aesthetically painful way a surrender to barbarism—and one made even more pathetic by the cultural commentators desperate to pass it off as “art.” And it sends a signal to predators of less artistic bent: if you’re unwilling to defend the civic space from these coarse provocations, what others will you give in to?
For the Times, I’d say the answer to that is endless. And if you can’t see the wall for all the handwriting upon it, you can thank the newspaper and its staff for the aesthetic “privilege” they’ve bequeathed to you.