A little-noted incident across the pond, weekend before last, may be a troubling sign for the future over here. The UK, deep in the mire of debt as we are, has been taking scissors to the budget, and some people don't like it. A bunch of people in fact.
On March 26, well over a quarter-million marched through central London in a union-organized protest of Prime Minister David Cameron's announced £130 billion in spending cuts. Labour leader Ed Miliband was there. So was columnist Mark Steyn, who got into a brief verbal tussle with a little old lady from Yorkshire. Though the main protest was orderly, an unsavory sideshow developed later in the afternoon, as a few hundred anarchists, "students," political gangsters, and representatives of UK Uncut (an anti-business protest group), split off to start a wild rumpus at specified targets. The Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC Holdings, and the Ritz Hotel saw windows smashed, paint hurled, and furniture tossed into the street. Protesters made themselves at home at Fortnum & Mason, an upscale grocery, stuffing bags and pausing for impromptu picnics between the fine wines and cheeses. Mayhem continued into the night, racking up 160 injuries, 200 hundred arrests and millions in damage. The police could do little besides contain the violence; stopping it was out of the question.
They're worried about "the wedding" now-on Facebook and Twitter, some of the same elements are hinting about the same kind of demonstrations during William and Kate's big day.
A few of my relatives have been predicting a breakdown of American social order for the last 20 years. When Y2K failed to materialize, other crises obligingly lined up: 9/11, the Iraq War, the subprime mortgage crisis, the collapse of Lehman brothers, and on and on. Before long, runs the refrain, we'll be seeing riots in every major city and most of the minor ones. The trouble is, I'm starting to think they may be right.
I've always resisted claims that America is a hairsbreadth away from becoming Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, because American society is unique: excitable yet complacent, dissatisfied with government yet generally content with itself, a polyglot culture united by a common sense of optimism and possibility. The Great Depression brought us down but didn't finish us off; the social order held even when the financial order collapsed. Historically, British culture also is diverse (or more so than most European countries), innovative, optimistic, and orderly. But in two generations, the stiff upper lip has sunk into a petulant pout. It can happen here. Perhaps, in places like Madison, Wis., it already has.