If Hollywood Made A Biopic Of My Last Month, It Would Be Directed By Michael Bay

This last month has set a record for “number of disasters causing people to email Amanda and ask if she’s okay.” Riots when I was in London, the earthquake in New York last week, and then of course Hurricane Irene.  Cities should consider paying me to stay away from them.  Also, fair warning to the citizenry of Pennsylvania: I will be in Philly next weekend.

I appreciate the good wishes, though, and I’m fine, y’all. Promise.

Some random other thoughts on said disasters:

Rock me like a hurricane:

  • My friends J and L, finding themselves on the top floor of an elevator building, two blocks from an evacuation zone, and past L’s due date, did the only reasonable thing they could under the circumstances: they threw a hurricane party, with live music.  They are my heroes.
  • While I am pleased that New York took such pains to ensure that we would not be endangered by the hurricane, Mayor Bloomberg’s two-pronged strategy of “scare the crap out of the citizenry” and “proactively ensure that the city is shut down ahead of time, regardless of whether the hurricane actually hits” seemed to get a little out of hand on occasion.  I think my favorite moments were Bloomberg’s Spanish speaking, (which of course now has its own parody twitter feed in tribute), and when he said that electricity in Lower Manhattan would probably be cut off preemptively to avoid damage to the cables, at which point Con Ed announced that this plan was news to them. 


  • Why don’t we give earthquakes names like we do hurricanes?  Perhaps we could name them after fruits.  “Where were you when Kumquat hit?” 
  • When Kumquat hit, I was in my apartment, having just arrived home off of an overnight flight.  Hence the following exchange:
    • Amanda: Do you feel the ground shaking?
    • Husband: Hee hee, is somebody a little tired?
    • Amanda: *checks computer* It was an earthquake!  See?  READ THE INTERNET.

London’s (well, was) Burning

  • Lee, who is a real live British Person, has some interesting thoughts about the riots over at Roving Bandit.  You should read them!
  • Obviously things were unusually bad there that weekend, but what on earth did U.S. media coverage of the riots say, to prompt some of the concerned emails I received?  I assure you, reports of babies being roasted in the streets have been greatly exaggerated.
  • In fact, I know that everyone else was shocked by the smashings and stealings, but I myself was surprised at how little violence was directed at people, rather than at stuff.  From what I saw, and read, it was really more like violent shopping than what I usually think of as rioting. (In many cases, apparently, looters stopped to try things on before stealing them.)  In my opinion, that should actually be taken as a pretty good sign about the State of British Youth – if that’s as bad as it gets, it’s not that bad.
  • That being said, if I were Britain, I’d be having a long, careful think about my class system right about now.  I don’t mean economic opportunity, which is a related issue, but not the same thing.  (Class in the U.K. is more like race in the U.S. than class in the U.S.)  I am consistently amazed at how big a deal class is there, and I still don’t completely understand it.  However, I’m pretty sure that if you’re going to construct your society around a set of sometimes-arcane rules for social behavior and status, and rely on them for everyday stability, you probably need to make sure that everyone has an incentive to buy into the aforementioned byzantine set of rules. I have no idea about the specifics of the rioters’ lives – I’m sure that some of them were poor, and that plenty of others were doing fine, economically.  But it doesn’t shock me that they didn’t feel much allegiance to a society that’s not really set up to benefit them in any way. 

Amanda Taub


  1. I'm an American living in the UK. I'm not sure what you mean about shopping?

    3 guys in Birmingham were killed when someone when someone drove a car over them to break into their store.

    2 police constables were driven over by an idiot who didn't feel like stopping.

    An elderly woman was killed jumping out of a building that was set on fire.

    Those are some examples. I'm not sure what your definition of non-violence is, but what happened here was definitely violent.

    Also, I can tell you for a fact that the class issue is about class, and race issues are about race. Race and class are distinct issues here.

  2. Ron,

    (1) I didn't say the riots weren't violent at all, just that I was pleasantly surprised that they weren't more violent. Given that the police had completely lost control of the situation, the fact that there was not more interpersonal violence despite the general atmosphere of violence against property was, I think, somewhat encouraging.

    (2) I also didn't say that class and race are the same issue in the U.K. Rather, I said that class issues in the U.K. are more similar to race issues in the U.S. than they are to class issues in the U.S.

  3. As a general rule of thumb, North Americans like talking about "class" in Britain approximately 78,000 times more than British people do. It's got that nice aristocracy/royal/old-buildings-and-quaint-stuff ring about it.

    We have rich people and poor people, you have rich people and poor people, everyone has rich people and poor people. Why is it that Americans who know nothing about Britain somehow thinking there's some kind of rigid class structure that we have that you don't have over there. Is it the funny way people talk, or that we all still either live in castles or are the peons of those that do that gives it away?

    From my (admittedly not that educated about the US but, you know, why not pontificate) perspective conspicuous consumption, the minutiae of class-division by the neighbourhood you live in, the car you drive, where you went on holiday – this is much more a US thing than a UK thing.

    Yes there are some British people who ask which school you went to before they ask what you do, live off Daddy's trust fund, have slightly silly accents and look a little inbred – but these are a small minority and are not particularly looked up to by the majority. You're more likely to find footballers in the pages of Hello I would imagine.

    For me, at least until I hear a darn sight more convincing explanation than I ever seem to get from Americans, this idea of a 'class-bound' society in Britain bears no relation to the reality of my experience growing up in England. The small amount of inter-generational social mobility statistics that there are show UK and US social mobility being roughly equal, and slightly below the mobility in more progressive societies in Europe.

    And "class in the UK is more like race in the US than class in the US" – what on earth could this possibly mean?? Sorry to get picky on this point but this is one of the things that just really bugs me – it's bad enough that Americans just think they can say "class" and think it is actually a word that means something, but now it's also more like race in the US? Seriously, WTF Amanda?

    Politicians like talking about 'class' sometimes after events such as these – in the context of terms such as 'underclass' precisely because it explains nothing, and allows blame to be put on a group that everyone thinks is someone other than themselves. I'd like to think that those of us who are social scientists could do a little better than that.

    What these riots were about is complex, but more related to a section of poorer youth, who do not feel themselves members of the wider communities in which they live – this is completely different to the 'working class'. People have tried to classify these types of youths into a 'class' of their own (like the guy who wrote the book about Chavs) – though I don't really see how that works in the traditional sense since it seems as much based around age as anything else.

    I largely agree with Roving Bandit – even though he does use the c-word he explains in what sense he means it. But more often it's a word that provides the opposite of information – and I'm pretty sure that what Americans think they mean by it is not the same as what we British mean by it, and that both are pretty confused and contradictory notions.

    Sorry this is so negative, and nice to see you've been spurred by the Blattman into posting a bit more 🙂 – love the blog you guys!

  4. "In fact, I know that everyone else was shocked by the smashings and stealings, but I myself was surprised at how little violence was directed at people, rather than at stuff. "

    Really? Because a ton of British students are pissed right now that their whole system is being taken from them. They're the victims. Massive increases, supposedly approved by their so-called representatives, on those with the least money (and power) [students]. I'd say that was a tremendous attack on lots of British people, and they have a right to be infuriated.

    What do you think would happen if there was a 'slight rollback' of their Healthcare system? Right.

    There'd be a revolt.

  5. I completely agree with Ash. This is nothing to do with class in the Jane Austin sense. This seems to be, to me at least, much more about inequality of wealth, income, education, opportunity, etc. It's about rich and poor, not low and middle class.

    I do like the Amanda's 'violent shoppping' phrase though. This sums up the riots for me.

    A lifetime Londoner, whose family has been buying furniture from Reeves Corner (the furniture shop that was burnt down) for decades.

  6. I'm also British, and also have to agree with Ash that Americans seem to be much more interested in "class" in the UK than British people are.

    As for Amanda's reference to "construct[ing] your society around a set of sometimes-arcane rules for social behavior and status", I just had to laugh. What is this based on? Hugh Grant movies? Honestly, I feel that the US is a more socially conservative place than the UK.

    More seriously, I don't understand the basis for saying that rioters "didn't feel much allegiance to a society that's not really set up to benefit them in any way." I don't underestimate the deprivation and serious long-term problems in some inner cities. But the British state doesn't completely neglect these people: at the very least, everybody benefits from a welfare system which by international standards (yes, I am looking across the Atlantic) is quite generous.

  7. Amanda, as another American living in the UK, I actually think you've made a very apt comparison in saying that class issues in the UK are "more like race issues in the US than class issues in the US".

    (I'd also like to note for @Ash and @Ron, that that is all she has said: "more like". A fire engine is more like a car than like a zebra; that doesn't mean anyone is suggesting that they're the same thing, so chill out!)

    First, Ash, I can understand why you think that:
    (1) Americans are obsessed with the British class system to a degree that far exceeds the actual role it plays in the lives of British people;
    (2) America, as a wealth and consumption driven society (i.e. as it is portrayed in the British media) actually focuses much more on class than Britain.

    After all, a great deal of US popular exposure to British "culture" is in the form of period dramas and interviews with the Duchess of York on Oprah. (However, Amanda is not US popular culture, she is an American who lived in the UK for a considerable amount of time…)

    The issue really is that class in the UK–like race in America–is more about identity than income. Whereas, class in America is mostly about income and does not play such a large role in defining identity.

    Ash, you've rightly pointed out that there are rich people and poor people in both the UK and the US, but I'm sure you can name (just off the top of your head right now) 5 people in the UK who are rich but will never be upper class (if not, I will: Katie Price, Kerry Katona, David Beckham, Cheryl Cole, Alan Sugar). Similarly, I'm sure you can think of examples of people who are upper class (even nobility) who are not extremely wealthy (e.g. Sarah Ferguson's upper class status has nothing to do with her income from book deals or any of her income whatsoever).

    While I'm sure you'll rightly point out that I've just listed a bunch of tabloid celebrities who live ostentatious lifestyles, I'm sure you'll have no trouble thinking of people in the UK who, despite quite clearly being middle class (as we would understand it in America – university graduates with white-collar office jobs) insist that they are working class. Are they? I don't know, but I usually struggle to find people in America who would insist that they are any class at all.

    In America, while people certainly strive to increase their incomes and social standings, class as an idea that is detached from income plays much less of a role in identity. When I meet a British person, I can instantly tell by his accent, the way she dresses, and the way he presents
    himself what class he/she identifies with. When a British person identifies with a different class than the one they were born into, this is, to say the least, frowned upon.

    On the other hand, in America, this idea of a quality that is integral to your social identity is much more closely associated with race. While it is perfectly normal for many rich people and poor people speak with the same neutral 'General American' accent (for which an equivalent non-class related accent does not exist in the UK), many African-American and Latino celebrities deliberately try to avoid speaking this way on TV, for fear of 'sounding white'.

    You're right that it's a confusing issue, and you're also right that people mean different things when they're talking about class!

    I think, however, that, as Amanda has lived in the UK, she has some understanding of what both Americans and Brits mean when they say class, which is why she was trying to create an analogy that could give American readers a bit more perspective on the issue.

  8. Tyler, thanks for coming to my defense. You are right, I was trying to provide an analogy that would explain things better to my American readers. You described the issue better than I did.

    (You are also right that I've spent some time in the UK. I am hesitant to bring this up by way of rebuttal to the previous comments, because in general I want people to feel like this blog is a place where they can discuss issues regardless of their "credentials," official or otherwise. But: lived there for years, married to a Brit, my parents and one of my sisters live there, all my in-laws live there, and, as I'm sure you can imagine given the foregoing, many of the other people I love most in the world also live there, and I visit often. Much as I love Hugh Grant movies, they are not where I get my information about real life.)

    In the hope of clarifying my point a little further, I offer this anecdote: when my husband was a small child, his private primary school sent a note home with each of the pupils from the father of one of them, who was running for Tory MP. He urged the parents to vote for him, because if Labor got into government, they would shut down all private schools, and their children would be forced to go to state schools, where, he warned, they would be beaten up every day – the obvious implication being that the burly prole kids at the state school were the dangerous natural enemies of posh private-school children.

    Now, obviously this story is nuts, and hardly representative of ordinary behavior. However, if this was a story about crazy local school politics in the U.S., who do you think would be playing the roles of "posh private school children,"and "scary state-school children"? Yeah, I think so too.

    (And for those who still think I'm making all this up because I think all British people live in Buckingham Palace, I refer you back to the Roving Bandit post I linked, which also has some interesting thoughts w/r/t class divisions, particularly the quote from the NYT's review of Chavs.)

  9. As a bona fide Brit I am mostly inclined to agree with Ash and Daniel with a nod to Amanda for trying to put things in a way her fellow Americans may understand. I think perhaps a key similarity between class in the UK and race in the US is that the distinctions – and importance attached to them – varies substantially between communities (and I don't mean just geographically). So while there are some times and places in which class may appear to be important in British society, there are many other times and places when it is frankly irrelevant. Wealth, of course, as everyone points out, is always a great divider.

    As for "construct[ing] your society around a set of sometimes-arcane rules for social behavior and status", that – as Hugh Grant might say – is just codswallop!

  10. Context: I'm a Brit who's lived in America. I generally agree on the class/race analogy. Huge differences, but also a lot of similarities and looking into one I think helps illuminate the other.

    I think Tyler says it best. Amanda, while I do see your point, I think you take it a bit far with that last paragraph – class boundaries are much less fluid than they were, and ALL societies are grounded in arcane rules for behaviour that benefit some more than others.

    Also, as Brits, I think we would be wise not to dismiss the views of outsiders who know us well. They look at us with a critical eye in a way that we can't, and often come up with insights that we can't because we take our customs, social mores, etc for granted. Doesn't mean they'll be right about everything, but we should sure as hell listen.

  11. Re Ash:

    as a brit living in the UK I couldn't disagree more with your comments. I'm working so only came on this site for a minute and don't have time to respond to each point, except to say I find it hard to believe you ever lived in the UK (unless in a bubble).

    btw – the vast majority of "rioters" "looters" or perhaps more likely "chancers" were not poor or disaffected youth. They were students, middle class employed youth to late 20's/early 30s (incl a law student ot two!). This fact has been discussed in some depth in UK news and TV (BBC, newsnight etc) although it was pretty damn obvious even at the time. The rioters and why they did it has much more to do with how the young see the lack of discipline in the UK (and that's from someone in their 30s!), the idea that any kind of rioting if even loosely in the name of social good is ok (take the May Day Riots which are almost a point of passage nowadays and which happen every year) and – in many ways – that if something can be had for nothing why not. If you want to look at actual social upheavels in relation to class/poverty in the UK the Thatcher years and the Poll tax riots should be the point of reference.

    The class system in the UK is entrenched and very much part of the social and poltical order. As well as one's opportunities. It is much more compex and less obvious than the basic "I'm richer than you" model the US is, essentially, based on.

    To Amanda – you are dead right that there needs to be a serious discussion about class (which is more akin to the Indian caste system in many ways). But in the UK class is tied to geography (a huge north south divide in England, let alone vast differences in areas only mies apart), social norms, lineage, accent, profession (of your parents and grandparents even) and very much subscribed to be the majority of brits, whether or not they agree with it ot even consciously buy into it or not. I can't see it ever changing much myself. To understand the class culture in the UK it has to be seen in terms of how england cam eot be, it's history, it's movement through religious changes, and the fact that it is an island. It has never had a "revolution" and indeed those americans (e.g. thomas paine) that disagreed with the status quo in the Uk, Left here generally for that reason.

    (hmmmm..so much for working, that was, after all, a long post!!)

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