Archive for May 16th, 2005

The Hooded Flaw

Bit of a shitstorm in Britain this week over the news that a shopping centre in Kent has banned patrons from wearing hooded garments. This chimed nicely with arch liar Tony Blair’s announcement that as part of his third term in office there would be a campaign for decency and respect (although I’m not sure if he actually said respect, given its current connotations) on streets, in schools etc.

(Before I continue, I must disclose that until I heard the news that ‘hoodies’ would be banned from this particular shopping centre, I had never heard the term ‘hoodie’. It seems I come from a pre-modern era when said garments were referred to as plain old ‘hooded tops’.)

Cue much ruminations in the Great British press about the iconic status of hoodies (it’s a hip-hop thing, apparently), its wearers (can’t remember who these were so here’s a made up list: Vanessa Feltz, Princess Anne, that lady who ran topless onto the pitch at Twickenham twenty odd years ago ah yes Erica Roe, Lenny Henry, Norman Tebbit, Basil Brush, Peter Sutcliffe and Lionel Blair), and why people wear them (a sense of brooding anonymity, lingering menace, covers bald patch, hides chip-pan hair and beer-gut, disguises hump on back). Mostly people wondered whether or not they were too old to be wearing one.

All of which appears to be missing the point entirely. The hoodie wearer is not being excluded from the shopping centre because the authorities disapprove of his dress sense or social status, nore even because of other shoppers’ discomfort at his presence. There is no great blow being struck here for a decent society. Indeed shopping centres by their very nature cause considerable discomfort, as any visitor to the Blanchardstown Centre or Liffey Valley in Dublin will tell you.

The places are filled with simmering tensions – finding a car parking space, the queue for the ATM, the shoe-fitting services, getting assailed by tangoed ladies in the cosmetics section of Boots – but provided these tensions lead to consumers spending as much of their cash as possible in the shortest period of time possible on a regular basis, they are acceptable to those who hold a stake in running shopping centres.

The main reason the hoodie wearer is being excluded is because he represents a barrier to consumers parting with their well-earned readies. They take up valuable space, block free circulation of consumers from shop to shop, and represent a drain on security resources. And perhaps most important, they don’t spend enough money to justify their presence.

In defence of the shopping centre authorities, it’s nothing personal. It just so happens that hooded kids inhibit other shoppers from spending money. The shopping centre has no obligation to be socially responsible – its only obligation is profitability. If the most solvent and free-spending sector of its clientele was also the most flatulent and obnoxious, it would see no need to take any measures of exclusion unless optimum profitability were affected.

Aside from sartorial considerations, perhaps one reason this news item has provoked so much interest is the realisation that public spaces aren’t really as public as the Great British public was inclined to think. The action taken by the shopping centre authorities in Kent deftly sent the message out that your main function in shopping centres is to buy stuff. And you thought it was a great place to spend your Saturday. Move along now, and keep your hands off the pic’n’mix.

Balkanise This.

Many sages nodded in agreement with Seamus Mallon’s pre-election remarks about the ‘Balkanisation’ of Northern Ireland. Since the election, it seems like ‘Balkanisation’ is a bit of a buzzword.

Some might say that this while the previous process of ‘polarisation’ left conditions rather arctic, ‘Balkanisation’ at least offers the prospect of warmer weather. Other less tuned-in citizens may have interpretedthe remarks on ‘Balkanisation’ of Northern Ireland as a direct reference to the increasing numbers of Eastern Europeans arriving to these shores; perhaps a continuation of polarisation, but with less Poles.

References to foreign places are best left alone when discussing Northern politics. Mallon’s prognosis was inappropriate, because it introduced yet another foreign historical analogy to NI politics. The last thing the place needs is another one of those.

Apartheid, The Ku Klux Klan, ethnic cleansing, and the Nazis; NI politics is full of questionable analogies with more momentous events in other places, all in considerably direr circumstances.

It is easy to see why this is done. By affiliating yourself or your tribe with recognisable victims of documented injustices or atrocities elsewhere, you can acquire a sense of the moral high ground without having to engage seriously with the attendant contradictions and complexities of your local predicament.

When it comes to the North, nearly all parallels and analogies with other places are either tendentious or useless. The term ‘Balkanisation’ falls into the latter. People in the North would be far better off trying to find their own local words to describe their predicament, as an antidote to the MOPEry that thinking about other places seems to cause.

Rather than talk about ‘Balkanisation’, perhaps Seamus Mallon could have spoken of ‘Ulsterisation’ or ‘Northernisation’ to describe current developments. That is, the process by which Northern Ireland becomes more like itself.

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May 2005