Lionel Shriver

The West has lost its moral high ground

The West has lost its moral high ground
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International travellers running the gauntlet of English airports must already test negative for Covid before the flight, and on return to the UK get tested again before boarding, fill out a locator form, quarantine for ten days and test negative twice more. But that’s not enough oppression for Boris Johnson’s government. As of this week, outbound intrepids have also to fill out ‘declaration forms’ explaining why their trip is essential. Not doing so is a criminal offence.

This new hoop to jump is obnoxious on a host of levels. The declaration form came in on the very day the first few lockdown restrictions were eased, with hospitalisations and deaths dramatically down and more than a third of the adult population vaccinated. Recall how last summer’s mask mandate was levied right when infections were at their nadir. The message is clear: ‘Don’t believe for a minute this horror show is over. We’ve assumed total control over your lives down to the nittiest of gritties, and we’re not giving it up.’ According to gov.uk, we would-be passengers ‘may’ bring supporting documents to justify our wanderlust; the deliberately vague language implies that the decision to allow us to fly will rely on police caprice. Still more bureaucracy will further cripple the airline industry. And the purpose of the form-filling is intimidation. If we’re at all shaky about whether the purpose of our journey qualifies us for release from HMP UK, the intention is to frighten us out of the notion.

I wish this were a non-sequitur: I just finished Kai Strittmatter’s We Have Been Harmonised; Life in China’s Surveillance State. It’s a sobering read. Strittmatter notes the many ways in which the West naively or cynically plays into the Chinese Communist party’s hands, most conspicuously with the ‘betrayal of democratic values’ and a failure to live up to the West’s ‘own ideals’. The author cites Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as examples of the US ‘using the same police state tactics as the regimes it always condemned’. But although this 2019 publication’s 2020 paperback has been updated to include the emergence of Covid, the distinguished journalist misses a trick. Liberal democracies do indeed ape the very policies that make China seem such a forbidding, dystopian place to live, but a glaring example is absent.

Like much of the West, Britain has navigated this pandemic with heavy-handed state coercion: threats of ten-year imprisonment for not filling in a form properly, fines of £10,000 for organising a protest of any sort, arbitrary arrest and police harassment for sitting on a park bench or walking a dog in the wilderness. Whatever is not expressly permitted is forbidden. It’s the state’s business whether we hold our mother’s hand. Rule is by decree; rare parliamentary approval of still more draconian restrictions is a rubber stamp. Dissenting scientific opinion is suppressed, sledgehammer-subtle propaganda goons from hoardings and broadcast media almost exclusively recapitulate government messaging. The public is encouraged to shop recalcitrant neighbours and relatives to the authorities. Does this sound like somewhere else you know of? Like Covid itself, lockdowns were exported from China, then espoused by the World Health Organisation, a once reputable institution now largely captured by China as well.

There were other routes to managing this disease. Reliable, benevolent advice, financial support for at-risk age groups, sequestration of Covid patients in healthcare settings — methods that pandemic prepared-ness studies already commended. Instead, most of the West abandoned once-sacrosanct principles on a dime, and democratic governments fell over themselves in their eagerness to copy not only one another, but China. In so doing, our politicians have demoted our civil rights to privileges — ever provisional, readily revoked, restored only if we’re terribly good, like children hoping for presents from Santa. So-called rights — to free movement, free association, free speech — now resemble the ‘social credits’ Chinese AI apps award for paying your bills and refraining from jaywalking. Thus the West kisses goodbye its last few square inches of moral high ground. Under stress, the West is demonstrably as authoritarian as the CCP. The supreme ideals of harmony and safety are peas in a pod.

What’s especially unnerving about the ever more efficient, all-seeing and all-controlling CCP is the purely mechanical vision of civilisation that constitutes this trend’s natural end point. What’s a society for? To work smoothly and frictionlessly, like a coffee-table widget? To ensure all citizens help the contraption function, like securely tightened screws? Science fiction has long capitalised on the westerner’s instinctive horror of a social machine that works too well. Our competing vision has traditionally entailed an element of disorder. Western liberty allows for creativity and even, quietly, the breaking of rules. It’s a burden, granted, but in the West the purpose of our lives is for us each to determine. Altruism is a choice.

As China exalts tranquillity and obedience — harmony — we now exalt public health. For the past year, we’ve nobly made personal sacrifices for the perceived well-being of the whole. Meanwhile, all other values have taken a backseat: friendship, family, curiosity and adventure, art. But health as a value is mechanical. Some advisers of the Johnson government actually want not only mask mandates but social distancing to remain in effect for the foreseeable. That would indefinitely eliminate ‘household mixing’, otherwise known as having a life; an audience for sports, cinema, music, lectures and all other live performance; festivals of every stripe; financially viable restaurants and pubs; shared religious observance and extended family celebrations of Christmas, Easter, Passover or Eid; crowded weddings, funerals, baby showers and graduations. But who cares? Barring non-Covid calamity, we would be well. Our individual bodies would physically function, even as the larger body politic would continue to sicken.

The retired Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Sumption observed mournfully last week that constraints on the state are mere conventions. But a state can do anything, really. And now the British state has done anything. Ask the Chinese (or George Orwell): totalitarianism reliably masquerades as patriotism. Submitting to an authority who knows better is always for our own good.