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David Cameron’s Great Expectations

NEW YORK – As I listen to the news coming out of England after the recent wave of urban riots – and as I read Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s compelling new biography of Charles Dickens, Becoming Dickens – life and art seem to be echoing each other.

In the wake of the riots, British Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed reviving children’s courts, urged harsh sentences and orange jumpsuits for convicts, and floated even more odious ideas. For example, convicts could be intentionally exposed to public harassment through cleanup assignments, and their families, who have not committed crimes, could be evicted from their state-subsidized housing. Cameron is also testing arrests for Facebook comments, the suspension of social networks, and more lethal power for police.

In Dickens’ England, the judiciary was not independent, and newspapers were subject to state censorship. Kids (like Oliver Twist) were punished in ways designed to break them; poor people convicted of relatively minor offenses were transported to Australia, or given publicly humiliating forms of punishment; police had unchecked and violent power over the poor.

I am not endorsing leniency for looters and thugs; but we already know where the raft of punitive legislation that Cameron is proposing, and his efforts to exploit civil unrest to clamp down on civil liberties, would lead the country.