Lost in the shitstorm of previously unimaginable events ushered in during the Coronavirus Pandemic, I have often been reminded of a play by the Swiss dramatist Max Frisch ‘ Herr Biedermann und die Brandstifter’ ( 1953).
Variously translated as ‘ The Arsonists’ , ‘ The Fireraisers’ or ‘The Firebugs’, the piece was inspired by the insidious Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, and indirectly by Frisch’s earlier experience of Nazism in Switzerland’s German neighbour.
The play is an allegory in which Herr Biedermann, an Everyman figure, plays host to a pair of suspicious characters who take up residence in his attic. Despite reports of mysterious fires breaking out across the city, and seeing his lodgers lugging petrol cans in and out of their loft, the well-meaning Biedermann remains blind to the fact that he has welcomed the arsonists in under his own roof. They are hiding in plain sight.
The absurd Biedermann can stand for the entire opinion-forming class of the Western world during the 21st century, culminating in the confusion and chaos caused by the Covid-19 crisis. Particularly in the US and the UK, our complacent ruling caste is allowing the arsonists to run rampant, making a bonfire of the values which our rapidly declining liberal ‘civilisation’ is supposed to embody and uphold.
And while the pass is sold within the citadel, in the world without, the barbarians are assembling, ready to kick in our rotten worm-eaten gates and destroy us. When Soviet Communism and its east European satellites collapsed at the end of the 1980s, a fatuous American academic, Francis Fukuyama, wrote a notorious book, ‘ The End of History’ in which he foretold the future as a worldwide rolling out of liberal democracy: decent, peaceful, and legal forever more. Not quite, Francis. Those who have inherited the earth are the Xis, the Putins, and the Erdogans, and lower down the scale, the terrorist bombers, the hate filled fanatics, and the Woke warriors.
Thirty years on, similar Panglossian tomes continue to appear from the Ivory towers of western academia, penned by naive optimists who share Biedermann’s blindness to the actual state of the world around them. This, despite the obvious fact that History has not ended, but instead has firmly marched in the exact opposite direction from the path Fukuyama predicted. The woolly headed and appropriately named Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker, in books like ‘Enlightenment Now’ and ‘The Better Angels Of Our Nature’ juggled statistics in a bid to prove, with Emil Coue, that ‘every day, and in every way, humanity is getting better and better’.
Similarly, the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, in his book ‘Humankind: a hopeful history’ unpacked the story in William Golding’s bleak novel ‘ Lord Of The Flies’. Using a real life incident when a group of Australian schoolboys were similarly marooned, and cooperated, rather than competed, to survive, Bregman suggested that Golding’s boys reverting to barbarism was just the misanthropy of a silly old gloomster with a deplorably negative view of humankind.
In an earlier book, ‘ Utopia for Realists’ Bregman proposed that if everyone in the world received the same basic income, the problems of the planet would vanish overnight . One is tempted to respond that if leaves on the magic money tree were banknotes we’d all be squillionaires. But unfortunately we live in the world of reality, and facts are stubborn things.
The grim reality identified by Thomas Hobbes back in the 17th century is the classic conservative position that the primitive life of man is ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ only ameliorated by caution and strong curbs on our naturally aggressive, acquisitive, and destructive drives. All innocently idealistic attempts to construct the Utopia that Bregman is banging on about have ended in mass murder: witness the bloody history of the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions.
Pinker’s better angels are more than balanced by the Lucifers within who would plunge us into the darkest pits of hell. Too late , perhaps, he is seeing the error of his ways after himself coming under attack from his own Wokeist colleagues within the hitherto cosy confines of Canadian academia. Pinker, along with luminaries like Salman Rushdie, JK Rowling and Noam Chomsky, is among the 150 signatories of an open letter published in Harper’s magazine bleating that free speech is threatened by a new climate of intolerant illiberal repression. Now they tell us!
These ‘ liberals’ are following in the ignoble tradition of useful idiots like Mirabeau, Lafayette, Danton, Karolyi and Kerensky: ‘moderates’ who sawed through the branches they were sitting on and were surprised to find themselves drowned by the storm they had unleashed. They were contemptuously shoved aside and superseded by the Robespierres, the Lenins and the Stalins who took the path of revolution to its murderous logical conclusion.
Those who are most to blame for the slow suicide of our culture are not so much the brainwashed mobs of ignorant yahoos howling in the campuses and on the streets, but the Biedermanns in the lecture halls and TV studios who have given the fire raising hate mongers their approval and their opening. They have committed a new treason of the clerks: a betrayal of the very civilisation they were charged to defend. They deserve all that is coming to them.
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