A visitor from another planet would find many aspects of daily life in this particular corner of Planet Earth something of a puzzle. Why is it that so many millions of human beings are prepared to watch a small number of people called "celebrities" doing nothing in particular on TV? Who are these "tabloids" who seem to be able to tell those in government what to do next? And what, above all else, are the "yobs" who seem to spread fear everywhere they go?
From the way their numbers are increasing, and their behaviour declining, the visitor would assume that yobs must be some kind of alien species which threatens the very fabric of society, causing the government to introduce increasingly panicky measures: Asbos, closure orders and now, at the suggestion of the Prime Minister, state-sponsored supernannies.
Nothing, though, deters the British yob. Although he has been around for years, he seems to have reached his prime. When a recent report revealed that adults in this country are more afraid of young people than any of their European counterparts, one commentator described the fear of feral children as an all-pervading social horror that was second only to global terrorism.
There is an element of neurosis to all this. We live in fearful times and yearn fretfully for perfect domestic harmony and a family life of respect and happiness. It is a fake dream, of course, but is one that plays well in editorials and on reality TV. The idea that children, the sweet dimpled focus of this longing, will one day become a social cancer is the stuff of nightmares - and right now we are hooked on nightmares.
All the same, there are undeniably hundreds of thousands of children and young people who are out of control, alienated and contemptuous of pretty much everyone and everything. Each generation rebels, but this revolt seems peculiarly bored, boozed up and lacking in purpose.
The response of successive Home Secretaries has been to talk sternly of the right of the victim, and to introduce yet more punitive measures. If the kids want to live outside society, the message seems to be, let's show them how uncomfortable that can be; the bullies are bullied in their turn. Recently John Reid vowed to introduce more "swift and effective" measures against yobbish behaviour, including "closure orders", which will ban the anti-social from their own houses for up to six months. Parents need to be shown that they should take responsibility for their children, Dr Reid said.
Belatedly, government has recognised that the problem is not one of children growing up too fast but of adults not growing up at all. Living in a culture where childish values - impatience, emotional incontinence, the need for instant gratification - are played out in the media and in public life, many infantilised adults have no more idea about social responsibility, kindness or self-discipline than a primary school child. Interviewed in the aftermath of some teenage ghastliness, these parents invariably exude an air of petulance, bewilderment or am-I-bovvered leeriness which is openly and unashamedly childish.
The problem with John Reid's policy of squeezing the inadequate until the pips squeak is that their sense of alienation is merely increased. Tony Blair's idea of state-sponsored supernannies makes much more sense. Odd as it may seem, some people really do need help when it comes to the tricky business of being a grown-up.
Praise the Lord - a bestseller!
As if to prove that not only does God exist, but that He/She has a divine sense of humour, Richard Dawkins' polemic against religious belief has become a huge success. Just as it used to be a good idea to include the name of a fierce animal in the title of thrillers, now the very mention of God helps to shift units in bookshops.
In other words, the very entity whose existence the professor questions has - praise the Lord! -made his book a bestseller. "It is immoral to brand children with religion," Dawkins, left, has thundered from the pulpit, while announcing plans to set up an organisation which will campaign with DVDs and books against religion in schools. He has only to look at the bestseller lists to see how badly this plan could backfire.
* It should, I suppose, be a cause for celebration that, thanks to an EU directive, the moggies and pooches which the Chinese treat as a useful profit centre will no longer have their fur sold in Europe.
It is estimated that two million cats and dogs are killed for the Chinese fur trade every year and that a significant percentage of the market ends up in our shops as "Asian jackal", "Corsac fox" or "Gae wolf".
This trade is said to be particularly odious, but it is difficult to see why. There is nothing about a cat or a dog that makes the skinning of it for fur any more shocking than if the same thing had happened to other animal - indeed, being domesticated, it might actually suffer less. Either the fur trade is immoral or it is not. Questions about the species involved are not about cruelty, but reflect our own sentimentality.Reuse content