Remembering A Great Speech, And A Great Man

Today is the anniversary of one of Winston Churchill’s greatest speeches.  That’s saying something, because the indomitable Churchill — for all his faults and eccentricities and excesses — had a special, unique ability to turn a phrase and galvanize a people.

8ec76852803822411c294f54f33ec32d-1000x1000x1On June 4, 1940, Churchill rose to address the British House of Commons and the British nation.  His speech came in the immediate aftermath of the evacuation of British and some French forces from Dunkirk, in the face of overwhelming odds and the armed might of the German Werhmacht.  He reported to the House on the miracle at Dunkirk — for a miracle it truly was — but also recognized the need to address the terrible predicament created by the Nazi blitzkrieg.  Great Britain’s principal ally, France, had seen its forces routed and its supposedly impregnable Maginot Line bypassed and was on the brink of surrender.  The United States, with Pearl Harbor still more than a year away, was neutral, and the Soviet Union had made a devil’s bargain with Hitler and was, for the moment at least, Germany’s ally.

Great Britain stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut, and Churchill recognized that bombing of the British Isles, and an eventual invasion, were a virtual certainty.  How would the British people, having just absorbed one of the most devastating beatings in the history of the British Empire, react to that prospect?  Churchill knew that he had to rally them somehow, and he used his June 4 remarks to achieve that goal.  The conclusion of his remarks, where he addresses the prospect of continued struggle, is one of the greatest, most inspiring feats of oratory in the history of the English language:

“I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Note the reference to the United States in the last sentence.  Fifty-eight years ago today, Churchill knew that he would ultimately need our help — and eventually he got it.

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Board Game Indoctrination

Of course, I played Monopoly as a kid.  What American kid didn’t?  And Life, and Chutes and Ladders, and Risk.  They were fun games that everybody had, and a great way to pass the time on a cold and rainy weekend afternoon.  And, as I was moving my little tin race car or cannon around the board, trying to purchase selected properties, work out trades to establish my monopolies, build hotels before everyone else did, and then hope that other players would land on my properties and pay me lots of that colorful Monopoly money — especially those rich gold $500 bills — I wasn’t thinking that basic cultural and social training was being drilled into me with every move.

img_5823But, of course, it was.  Part of the training was just the idea of a game that had rules that you and every other player had to follow, or else the game wouldn’t work.  Monopoly players, for example, couldn’t just move their pieces to whichever spot they chose or freely take money from the bank; they had to roll the dice and count out the spaces and pay for houses and hotels to make their properties more valuable and take their medicine if they landed on Boardwalk and accept getting knocked out of the game if their money was gone.

But while kids moving their pieces around the board might not realize it, there was deeper social and cultural training, too, in the sense of what you needed to do to win the game.  If you played Monopoly, you wanted to buy property, make the most advantageous trades imaginable even if it meant ruthlessly taking advantage of your kid sister while doing so, accumulate every monopoly, drive other people out of business and into bankruptcy, and have the biggest bank account ever.  What better introduction to the American capitalist model of the world than Monopoly?  And you learned about the desired behavioral norms in other games, too.  In Life, you wanted to get that college degree and land on those pay days.  In Chutes and Ladders, you saw that if you landed on a space that showed good behavior, you could climb up the ladder to the top, but if you landed on a space where the kid had broken a window with a baseball, it was down the chute to the bottom.  And in Risk, you wanted to build armies in your corner of the world and then have them sweep across other territories until you conquered and dominated the entire globe.

I thought about the social and cultural aspects of board games when I saw this article about board games sold during the Nazi era in Germany.  When you think about it, it’s no surprise that some Nazi board games would reflect core concepts of the Nazi system.  The games feature swastikas, goose-stepping and Seig Heiling soldiers, and heroic defense of the Fatherland, and encouraged players to plot attacks on the English coast, shoot down Allied planes, or defeat troublesome Jews.  What kid growing up in Germany playing these games wouldn’t be subconsciously channeled into specific, officially sanctioned ways of looking at the world?  And the same is true of the early Soviet Union, which featured games like Electrification, Revolution, Reds vs. Whites, and Maneuvers:  A Game for Young Pioneers, all of which tackled pressing issues that the country was confronting in the ’20s and ’30s and indoctrinated the players in the accepted, official view of those issues along the way.  (Presumably people didn’t have to pay for the communist games.)

It makes you wonder what the board games in North Korea, Iran, or ISIS-controlled territories look like.  I’m guessing that, in North Korea these days, they play a lot of their version of Risk.

Documenting The Axis Of Evil

In his 2002 State of the Union speech, President Bush described Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as parts of an axis of evil in the world. He was criticized by some for not engaging in constructive dialogue with those entities, but now a detailed United Nations report shows just how extraordinarily evil the North Korean regime really is.

The 400-page report was released by a specially appointed UN Commission. It compares the crimes being committed in North Korea to those that occurred in Nazi Germany, and for once the conclusion is apt rather than reckless hyperbole. Through interviews with refugees and victims, the report documents the starvation, torture, discrimination, and repression that are key elements of the North Korean regime. It describes how North Korea operates a system of unspeakably cruel labor camps and prisons, where inmates are starved, murdered, raped, and subjected to forced abortions; escapees described prisoners being forced to drown their own children and dig their own graves before being murdered by guards with hammers.

The atrocities in the labor camps have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, and hundreds of thousands more have died through starvation as a result of governmental policies that use the supply of food to keep the population under control. The report finds that North Korea also practices discrimination against women and others in a rigid, state-assigned class system, prevents the free exercise of thought, conscience, and religion, and operates a police state in which security forces use violence and cruel punishments to create a climate of fear.

The UN report reminds us of the Holocaust and calls for prompt international action to end the atrocities of an evil government, but that is not likely to happen. North Korea denies all of the allegations of the report. More importantly China, North Korea’s ally and protector, indicates that it will not support any intervention. As awful as the North Korean regime is, and as terrible as the suffering of its people may be, the international community has few options short of invasion — and there does not seem to be much appetite for such a step.

So, we are left with a report that probably will not change the reality in North Korea — but that report nevertheless serves a useful purpose. There truly is evil in the world, and it is important for us to be periodically reminded of that unfortunate fact.

Failing To Make Sense Of The Senseless

When something awful happens, like yesterday’s horrific shooting at the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, our natural tendency is to try to explain how it could have happened.

We want to know what would motivate a young man to engage in such brutal, inhuman behavior.  What made him decide to charge into a movie theater and terrorize and kill complete strangers who were excited to be among the first to see the latest summer blockbuster?  When and why did he run off the rails of normal thought and conduct?  Could — and should — anyone have seen warning signs that might have prevented the senseless loss of so many lives?  Should the laws be changed to try to prevent this from happening again?

I can understand this impulse, but I also think such efforts are doomed to failure.  Has anyone successfully explained how Nazi Germany or Jonestown could possibly have happened?  The unfortunate reality is that there is evil and insanity in the world, and when they come together terrible things can happen.  We’ve endured countless mass shootings, stabbings, bombings, and suicides, in this country and in others, by people who are acting out of impulses as disparate as a lust for power, religious zealotry, a desire to be famous, racial and tribal hatred, and a hunger for revenge.  Some people just lose their marbles and lose their moral moorings.

This is not a comfortable conclusion, unless you’re a hermit.  If you want to participate in society, you just have to grit your teeth and accept the fact that the guy sitting next to you in the movie theater, or the sports stadium, or the school cafeteria, might be one of those people whose existence and outlook can’t be rationally explained.

Mein Kampf, And Combating Speech With Speech

Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s feverish biography and racist Nazi manifesto, has not been published in German since 1945.  That will change soon, when an annotated edition will be published for students to read.

The book has not been banned in Germany.  However, the state of Bavaria controls the copyright, and it has not consented to any publication of the book in more than 65 years.  The copyright ends in 2015, and Bavaria has decided to publish a scholarly edition to preempt the field before Mein Kampf passes into the public domain — and also to “demystify” the book for Germans who haven’t been able to read it in their native language.

If you’ve never read Mein Kampf, don’t bother.  I had to read it for a college class, and it was dreadful — badly written, ranting, nutty, and boring.  Reading it was a long, hard slog.  Having read it, I wondered how in the world Hitler could have captured the imagination and loyalty of the German people in the years before World War II.  There certainly was nothing in the book that explained it.

Books can be extraordinarily powerful.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, may have been the most effective means of changing the views of Americans about slavery in the 19th century.  Fearing books and trying to suppress them, however, only enhances their power.  Far better to let hateful speech like Mein Kampf remain available, and respond to it in ways that demonstrate its appalling lunacy.

I’m convinced that those Germans who read Hitler’s diatribe anew will recognize it for what it was:  the rantings of a misguided madman.  Let them read it, and draw their own conclusions.

The Uncomfortable, Untenable Weirdness of Discussing A Candidate’s Self-Identified Minority Status

The race for U.S. Senate has taken a weird turn in Massachusetts.  It’s making me very uncomfortable, and I bet I’m not alone in my reaction.

The Democratic candidate is Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor.  At times in the past, she identified herself as a minority in a directory of law school professors, and Harvard identified her as native American when it responded to claims that its faculty was non-diverse.  Those matters have now been raised as a campaign issue — had she used her ancestry claim to gain an unfair advantage over other job applicants? — and Warren has been scrambling to substantiate her “family lore” of a native American ancestor.  Genealogists now have concluded that her great-great-great-grandmother, who is therefore responsible for 1/32nd of her genetic makeup, was listed on an Oklahoma marriage certificate as a Cherokee.

I realize that all’s fair in love and political campaigns.  Moreover, I can understand that if a candidate made a bogus claim about her background — by, say, falsely claiming to have served in the military or received a degree from a prestigious school — it would be fair game.  Warren’s story also might cause you to ask what reported diversity statistics really mean, and it might be a topic of conversation in the native American community, as one of the articles linked above suggests.

Still, this story is unsettling.  Whenever people start talking about someone’s “blood” it raises the specter of Nazi racial purity laws or the racial identity statutes enacted long ago in some southern states.  Those are awful, unforgivable chapters in human history, and it’s painful to think about them.

I’ve never thought about my great-great-great-grandmother — whoever she was — but if Warren’s pride in a distant ancestor’s native American heritage caused her to self-identify as native American, too, what difference should that make to a voter?  And if she listed herself as a native American for some other, less salutary reason, can’t we just allow her conscience to do its work without making the matter a political issue?  Can’t we just judge her quality as a candidate based on her positions on the issues, her experience, and other relevant qualities?

Lessons Of The Lunar Nazis

The hottest ticket at this year’s Berlin Film Festival is a self-proclaimed “B Movie” called Iron Sky.  Its consciously over-the-top plot features Nazis trying to conquer Earth from a swastika-shaped base on the far side of the moon.

I doubt Iron Sky will ever make it to our local multiplex cinema, but the movie’s popularity shows, once again, that people are endlessly intrigued by Nazis.  Books, movies, and TV shows involving Nazis always seem to find an audience.

The original Star Trek had two episodes involving Nazis — one in which a drug-deranged Dr. McCoy goes back in time and changes history so Germany wins World War II, and another where a famous historian tries to help a culture by modeling it on Nazi Germany, with predictably disastrous results.  Nazis make great bad guys (and often comic relief), as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Inglourious Basterds, among many others, have demonstrated.  Some years ago the book Fatherland, about a detective who uncovers a dark secret in a triumphant Nazi Germany, was a best-seller.  Alternative histories in which Germany prevails in World War II also are a staple of that genre.

Nazi Germany was one of the most brutal, bloody, awful regimes in the history of the world.  Why is it such a popular subject for fiction — to the point where it can even be the subject of humor?  Why does Nazi Germany seem to be a far more popular setting for fiction than, say, Imperial Japan?

Perhaps it is just because Nazi Germany, with its goose-stepping soldiers, stiff-armed salutes, and elaborate uniforms and ceremonies, already seems so fantastic that it is especially well-suited to whatever embellishment a creative mind could supply.  I also wonder, however, whether fictionalizing Nazi Germany is just a kind of cultural defense mechanism.  If you routinely depict Nazi Germany as a setting for outlandish activities, maybe it is easier to forget that a racist, bloodthirsty, soulless government actually existed, slaughtering Jews by the millions and dominating Europe, only 70 years ago — within the lifetimes of millions of still-living people.