Wildly, madly, the West is destroying itself

Oct 10, 2020 | Read

The Australian newspaper’s Inquirer section today published an edited extract of an upcoming Ramsay lecture by acclaimed author and journalist Lionel Shriver. Her full Ramsay Lecture will be broadcast on Wednesday 14 October at ramsaycentre.org
For the full article as it appears on The Australian newspaper website click here 

Suicidal Covid ‘public health’ policies and the Marxist Trojan horse of BLM zealotry are products of our perilous complacency. We may be tempting an implosion on a historical scale. 


The widespread COVID-19 lockdowns and the increasingly venomous Black Lives Matter movement are both destabilising phenomena instigated by people suffering from a perilous complacency. A surfeit of Western security, with no major wars and nearly uninterrupted prosperity for 75 years, has created an ahistorical under-appreciation for the fragility of order. Perhaps the hyper-racialising of the West in the second half of this year will prove a temporary mania, at the end of which we’ll have fairer, more sensitive societies. But somehow I doubt it.

We don’t commonly characterise folks who want to altogether overturn the way a country works “systemically” as complacent. But I would argue that most of this year’s abundantly white, middle-class protesters embody the epitome of complacency. These are not people who expect to make any personal sacrifice to make the world a better place. To the contrary, by positioning themselves as “allies” on “the right side of history”, they expect to reap rewards, and to jettison older, purportedly prejudiced generations even more rapidly than younger generations do as a matter of course. BLM bandwagoners assume they can change everything while everything they fancy stays the same.

Weekend revolutionaries imagine they can bring an end to capitalism and still keep all the fruits of capitalism that they take for granted. They think they can install a neo-Marxist equality of outcome, boot out all the wicked old white guys like Tim Cook, and keep their iPhones, replete with regular OS updates. They imagine they can pack faculties and student bodies with minorities regardless of qualification and “decolonise” the curriculum to rid it of “white knowledge” and still have prospective employers regard their degrees from Harvard as meaningful commendations. They want to undermine the means by which their parents earn a living yet still expect to crash back home when they’re low on cash, where they can always raid the refrigerator when feeling peckish. Woke white activists want to demonise “whiteness” as the sole source of all evil, while mysteriously believing this does not entail demonising themselves. Apparently the joyful embrace of one’s own “fragility” grants the right to hector others while triggering a racial opt-out clause.

The same brand of white activist helped draft “open letters” to Princeton and Stanford, the Poetry Foundation, and a beleaguered liberal bookstore in Denver, to name a few. The signatories reliably demanded aggressive, instantaneous affirmative action, often well in excess of regional or national demographic proportions. Yet if governments, schools and businesses embrace “anti-racism” as their sole prime directive, as opposed to producing a saleable product or performing a valuable service, competency is bound to decay at what was once these entities’ driving purpose: to provide for the common defence, to educate students for viable careers, to manufacture products that consumers want to buy. Should most Western institutions and corporations devote their principal energies to “anti-racism”, China will clean up. As a result, “equality” zealots will level the playing field by making everybody poor. Forgive me for stating the self-evident, but advocates of wealth redistribution need wealth to redistribute.

Rioters are dependent on a functional society or they have nothing to disrupt. Hoodlums still assume that if they get thumped with a truncheon a well funded and skilfully staffed hospital will patch them up. Looters rely on a generous supply of operational businesses whose premises can be ransacked and which are chock-full of the fruits of capitalism like high-end trainers. Eager to acquire more free stuff, looters blithely expect these businesses to replace their windows and restock, the better to get ransacked again.

As with cake, this northern summer’s activists wanted to have their police and defund them, too. We can take it as a given that none of these often well-off white protesters have any desire to live in truly lawless cities — where their phones are snatched on the street and their homes are repeatedly burgled. Where women are raped with impunity and petty grudges are settled with violent assault. Where everyone lives in fear of arbitrary injury or even death because this is a city without legal recourse. By the time this summer’s failed utopian project nicknamed CHOP in Seattle had lived with no police presence for three weeks, four shootings had occurred within the zone’s mere six blocks, one of them fatal. With chastened, demoralised police forces embracing passivity as a means of self-protection, murders in Chicago, Minneapolis and New York have been soaring. Yet according to a core tenet of the BLM-inspired American medical students in White Coats for Black Lives, “Policing is incompatible with health.” You’ve got to be kidding me. Nothing is less healthy than being dead.

For all their demands for “systemic” transformation, 2020’s protesters don’t really want that much to change. They want to keep curating their playlists on Spotify and ordering oat milk from Amazon Fresh. They want Netflix to keep churning out new entertainment, through whatever nefarious corporate machinations, because they’ve already binged the fifth season of Ozark.

Thanks to horrible racist capitalism and centuries of oppression, their computers can communicate instantaneously with Minsk. They not only have enough to eat but a range of dim sum in their local supermarket’s freezer, from shrimp to pork to vegan pumpkin. This past spring, you can be sure that these same young people got as consternated as everyone else when those supermarkets ran short of paper towels. Thanks to the police they detest, in many smaller cities these protesters still enjoy safe spaces — in the sense that safety used to mean, protection from physical harm.

Up to a point, dedication to racial equality — in countries that have never been less prejudiced — is laudable. But in a society that provides shelter, clean water and sustenance to the vast majority of its inhabitants, even in densely populated cities where otherwise we’d be slaughtering each other in packs, the opportunity to obsess fetishistically about microaggressions and unconscious bias is one more luxury born of the system they abhor. Even the right to demand curtailment of free speech requires the right to free speech.

In the US, I’m loath to histrionically predict a second civil war. Nevertheless, in Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, DC, San Francisco, New York and Kenosha, arson­ists are literally and figuratively playing with fire. This northern summer has seen the most tumultuous civil unrest since the 1960s. Opposing sides in the culture war no longer seem to feel like citizens of the same country. Few in the white majority feel any responsibility for slavery and many white Americans are themselves struggling to pay bills or unemployed; should the reparations movement be victorious, white resentment could be incendiary. And if a deadly confluence of logistical disarray and mutual distrust means there’s no clear winner after November’s presidential election, I foresee mayhem.

Centuries in the making, contemporary Western civilisation is so complex that it shouldn’t really work at all — but somehow, after a fashion, it does. In fact, on the whole we’ve never lived more comfortably, more peaceably or more justly. Yet shrill voices on the hard left preach that countries such as the US, the UK and Australia are a disgrace and should inspire only shame. Subjecting the fruits of one’s forebears’ toil to contempt signals not only complacency but ingratitude.

Nevertheless, I reserve my own contempt not primarily for callow protesters with no appreciation for how utterly dependent they are on social order to afford to dabble in disorder. Young people have always erred on the side of poorly thought through idealism and sanctimonious hot-headedness. In my own teens and 20s I wasn’t any different. Far more do I deplore the grown-ups: global leaders in 2020 who should know better.

With rare sane exceptions such as Sweden’s, Western governments have installed unprecedented lockdowns of their societies for month upon month, and continue to threaten the reimposition of economically catastrophic, near police-state condi­tions on their ostensibly “free” populations. These governments are also guilty of an obscene complacency. Having done no cost-benefit analysis before pressing a giant pillow over the territories entrusted to their guidance, politicians have credulously assumed that civil liberties can always be magically restored (and that’s assuming these officials don’t come to rather fancy wielding unlimited power). There will always be more taxpayers. Treasuries can always “borrow” — meaning print — more money, and the currency will still retain its value.

The authorities’ capitulation to COVID hysteria — which set the emotional table for racial hysteria — has inflicted a scale of destruction that might, had anyone looked before they leapt, have been anticipated. Indeed, a 2006 paper by Thomas Inglesby, director of Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, predicted nearly every disastrous consequence of a theoretical lockdown that we can now verify in practice. This expert on epidemics wrote: “The negative consequences of large-scale quarantine are so extreme … that this mitigation measure should be eliminated from serious consideration.” Yet even poor countries have aped this clumsy protocol, which may kill millions from starvation.

A US flag burns as protesters gather in downtown Los Angeles to demonstrate outrage over the death of George Floyd on May 27. Picture: AFP

Once lockdowns are finally eased, successfully terrified workforces refuse to venture out their front doors — especially in the UK, where two-thirds of employees are still working, or neglecting to work, from home. For some processes are far easier to set in train than to reverse. It’s not that difficult to frighten people. Un-frightening them is a bastard.

Small business has been ravaged by bankruptcy. Public transportation with minimal ridership is running unsustainable deficits and many systems will enter a death spiral of reduced services followed by even smaller riderships. Financial and commercial centres of great cities such as New York and London are hollowed out. Midtown Manhattan, Wall Street, the City of London, and Canary Wharf are ghost towns, as if commandeered by film crews for movies about the end of the world.

The West’s collective GDP looks like an apple that a St Bernard took a bite of. The performing arts, precious in and of themselves but also vital engines of tourist revenue, have been incinerated. Airlines are on their knees. Unem­ployment is headed to a scale not even seen in the Depression, and job losses are often as irreversible as fear. Swathes of restaurants, bars, hotels and nightclubs have closed for good. Tax bases have effectively been plunged into vats of acid as demand on the public purse has skyrocketed.

Widespread, simultaneous, long-lasting and often repeated international lockdowns may be unprecedented but COVID-19 is not. Asian flu in 1957 killed between one million and two million worldwide. Hong Kong flu in 1968 killed between one million and four million. During both pandemics, world leaders didn’t close so much as a newsagent. COVID deaths worldwide have killed just over one million — and owing to peculiar data collection whereby anyone with COVID necessarily died from COVID, Western coronavirus death counts may be inflated. The disproportionate re­sponse to one more disagreeable, albeit occasionally lethal, virus boggles the mind. There’s growing acknowledgment that lockdowns will cost many more lives than they saved, and that’s assuming they saved any lives, rather than simply dragging out inevitable fatalities over a longer period.

But my biggest worry isn’t the immediately devastating econom­ic losses and personal suffering that this copycat, kneejerk over-reaction has wrought. I’m worried about implosion on a more historic scale. Lockdowns have sped up the rate at which national debts are burgeoning. How tall can a house of cards rise before it topples? According to “Magic money tree” thinking, aka modern monetary theory, a government that controls its currency can print money to cover its expenses without limit. We can see why this theory is so popular: everything for nothing.

The American flag flies at half-mast in honor of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as US President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Cecil Airport on September 24 in Jacksonville, Florida. Picture: AFP

What’s wrong with this fairytale? It’s deeply counterintuitive, and never underestimate common sense. I can’t cite a single product that can be manufactured in infinite quantity and still retain its value. Flood the market with corn, and the price of corn plunges to below the cost of production. Our gut intelligence dictates that the logic of oversupply also pertains to money: the more you conjure from thin air, the less it will buy. As an ominous early warning, the US Federal Reserve announced last month that it would not be raising interest rates, even if inflation rose to above the Fed’s target. Stay tuned for more such cheerful news from the Bank of England and the European Central Bank.

The international monetary system is held together with rubber bands, bits of string and appeals to divinity. Because it’s in everyone’s interest to have confidence in this fragile kludgeocracy, we all determinedly have confidence in it. But frankly, ever since all money became fiat money — backed by nothing and therefore generated ad infinitum at no apparent cost — countries have competed with each other over whose currency could be more worthless. The race to the bottom is well under way. Me, I’m astonished that any currency in the world right now is worth anything at all. I’m positively impressed that the pound and the dollar continue to be accepted in exchange for genuinely valuable tangibles such as wheat and oil. But we have succumbed to complacency. The insouciant assumption runs that because we’ve been getting away with murder for all this time, and so much rides on our continuing to get away with murder, we will therefore be able to get away with murder forever more. We can thus pile up national debts of over 100 per cent of GDP, even over 200 per cent, so why not three or four hundred per cent? A thousand? Isn’t the sky the limit? Yet all Ponzi schemes collapse. The only uncertainty is when.

I dread ever having to watch the civilisation that has nurtured me, and that has provided me such an exhilarating cultural inheritance, fall apart. I could not bear a real-life dystopia in which the Statue of Liberty is toppled and Parliament burns to the ground. In which libraries and online search results are strictly policed to serve a single, narrow, fanatical dogma (a process Facebook and YouTube have already begun).

Today’s hard leftists are eager to bulldoze their “systemically racist” societies into landfill but have no constructive replacement for what they would gleefully destroy. Their blind rampages go hand-in-hand with our idiotic COVID lockdowns. Both the Marxist Trojan horse of BLM zealotry and these suicidal, shortsighted “public health” policies eat away at everything in Western life that I treasure, from reading artful, ideologically unorthodox books to being able to buy a chicken.

Yet in protesters and politicians alike, I detect that deadly complacency, as if you can rock a boat as wildly as you want — all because it has stayed afloat so far.

Lionel Shriver is an award-winning author and journalist.
This is an edited extract of her Ramsay Lecture to be broadcast on Wednesday at ramsaycentre.org.