It was ever thus. Over excited young men letting off steam in a collective frenzy have characterised all civilisations at one time or another, and their enthusiasm is regularly harnessed by social engineers who want someone to do their dirty work. The mood of the mob is an indicator to the nature of society.
Roman youth interrupted and denigrated the holy women’s ritual of worshipping the Bona Dea, bringing calamity on the republic that led to revolution and the imperial stranglehold on Roman politics. Parisian mobs in the eighteenth century toppled the government after sharpening their cudgels on the cats of the bourgeoise a few decades earlier. The mobs of frustrated German shock troops with nothing to do after the First World War were crafted into the SS-Totenkopfverbande (Death’s Head Organisation) which did the dirtiest work of the dark years of the Third Reich.
The banners under which these mobs march is an indicator of political intent. Young French apprentices loathed the cats which represented the comfort and luxury of their masters. The French revolution put the masters themselves to the guillotine. The SS troops marched for a mechanical purity that did not recognise shades of grey or honour cultural nuance. They pillaged the great works of art across Europe that carried the official stamp of greatness. At the same time they destroyed the art and artists in their midst.
With that background in mind, it is disturbing that the Australian flag has been dramatically identified with mob violence against minorities a number of times in recent years. Patriotism has been described as the last refuge of scoundrels. Last week indicates that also it inflames the worst passions of cowardly bullies.
What national identity are we building?
Of course, unpleasant mob violence is not only done under the flag. A dance at the Repentance Creek Hall near Lismore on Saturday night was violently destroyed by a large group of drug crazed youth who smashed cars, beat dancers and then beat a hasty retreat in the face of peaceful chanting by the locals who refused to fight back.
In the search for an approach that might steer this energy to more productive pursuits two things stand out. Firstly, everyone agrees that methamphetamines, like ice, play a significant role. Our management of drugs though has spanned the spectrum from intelligent harm minimisation strategies to the disastrous zero tolerance. Criminalising recreational drugs simply drives them underground making them stronger and more profitable as a result.
More subtly, though, the total lack of integration between age groups means that youth are left to their own devices. The lack of imagination they show in entertaining themselves screams out for those of us who are a little older to get involved and organise activities that steer the mob away from its worst excesses. The challenge is that we have already developed a culture of alienation and segregation. Experience has taught me that it is tedious and difficult to engage bored mobs with a head full of grog and a lust for action in their eye. We have to do whatever it takes, though, to turn this ship around.