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.

Creepy Playgrounds

The London Daily Mail has an interesting article about creepy sculptures that appear to haunt some of the playgrounds built during the Soviet era in Russia.  There’s no doubt that there is a profoundly disturbing, nightmarish quality about some of the figures that could haunt little kids and cause them to avoid the playgrounds altogether.

7055939An evil, grinning chimp with fangs?  A crying woman in a blue dress?  A goateed, wide-eyed doctor in a lab coat ready to plunge some unknown instrument into your skull?  A hollow-eyed, distraught boy kneeling on the ground?  A bizarre fight between an emaciated bull and a reptilian creature?  Who came with this stuff, the psychological warfare section of the KGB?

But maybe we’re being too hard on the Soviets.  Let’s face it, American playgrounds aren’t exactly free from disturbing stuff, either.  Any playground that has a jungle gym, an old-fashioned merry-go-ground, and “monkey bars” is bound to present its share of childhood horror.  And the decorations at some playgrounds are unsettling, too.  We used to live a block away from a park we called “Yogi Bear Park” because it had a teeter-totter where the fulcrum was a covered by a cheap plastic depiction of the head of Yogi Bear.  The adults recognized the figure as Smarter than the Average Bear, but to little kids it was an unknown, apparently grimacing figure wearing a bad hat and a tie.  What the parents saw as Yogi, the kids perceived as a weird, lurking presence.  Not surprisingly, the tykes tended to steer clear of old Yogi.

For that matter, childhood is filled with intentionally scary stuff that suggests that adults get a kick out of frightening youngsters.  “Fairy tales” aren’t happy stories about fairies, but horror shows of child-eating witches, child-eating wolves, and other evil creatures ready to devour any wayward kid.  Hey, kids!  How about a bedtime story?

We apparently delight in terrifying children.  The Russian playgrounds just bring it out into the open.

A Man And His Collection (Or At Least, Parts Of Two Of His Collections)

Neil Rector is an old friend who followed a different path from most of us.  Years ago, he made the decision to focus on collecting art.  It’s fair to say that he is an avid collector, and an extremely capable one as well.  Since he first dipped his toe into the world of collecting, he’s assembled six discrete collections of different types of art from different periods and places — and his collections have curators clamoring for pieces as they assemble new shows.

Two of Neil’s collections are of Soviet-era photography and Russian unofficial art, and parts of those collections — but only parts — have been assembled in a stupendous show at the Columbus Museum of Art called Red Horizon.  It’s clearly one of the best exhibitions at the CMA in years, and today Kish and I were part of a group that got to walk through the exhibition with Neil to hear his personal reflections on the pieces, which was very interesting.  The show itself is fascinating, giving the visitor a peek behind the Iron Curtain at art, and thoughts and perspectives, that were forbidden during the Soviet regime but nevertheless were realized — because the artistic impulse simply can’t be totally quashed, no matter how repressive a government might be.

I can’t begin to capture what Neil described this morning, so I can only urge you to visit this powerhouse exhibition and enjoy it. And you can also reflect on what being a savvy collector might mean.  In Neil’s case it means having that terrific hammer-and-sickle riff on a Soviet style Venus de Milo, below, hanging in your dining room, and also having yourself memorialized in that collection of portraits of Soviet and ancient Roman tyrants, above.  That’s Neil in the lower right, in his best Soviet-style guise.  He was added to the piece, he explained, because artists view collectors and patrons as tyrants, too.

Go see Red Horizon.  It’s at the CMA through September 24.

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.

Those Burly, Cheating Russians

In an ever-changing world, it’s nice to know that some things never change — like the Russians cheating at sports events.

The World Anti-Doping Agency has released a scathing, 323-page report that concludes that, in Russia, “acceptance of cheating at all levels is widespread.”  The report cites incidents in which a testing lab director ordered more than 1,000 samples destroyed in order to thwart the investigation and evidence that the Russian Federal Security Service interfered with testing, intimidated lab workers and even posed as lab engineers during the Sochi Olympics, which Russia hosted, to infiltrate and impede testing efforts.  The upshot is that Russia’s efforts allowed athletes who were suspected of cheating to continue to compete in international contests, including the Olympics.  The chair of the body that issued the report said:  “It’s worse than we thought.”

The chair also said that Russia’s state-sponsored cheating “may be the residue of the old Soviet Union system.”  If so, that’s some pretty long-lasting residue!  The Soviet Union ended more than 20 years ago.

Still, the reference to the Soviet Union brought back fond memories of the Olympics of the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, when it was the United States versus the Soviet bloc and Russian and East German athletes were widely suspected to be doping.  The East German women, in particular, were famous for their burly, broad-shouldered, extraordinarily mannish physiques.  Everybody figured they were cheating, but they never seemed to get caught, and the extent of the doping wasn’t exposed until later.

Now the Russians have been exposed as cheaters, and international sports entities are saying that Russian athletes may be banned from the Olympics unless there is reform, immediately.  The Russians respond that this is all a politically motivated witch hunt linked to Russia’s incursions into Ukraine.  (Seriously!)  It’s the classic Russian blame somebody else response.

This is all just sports, of course, but it does make you think:  how can we ever trust these guys?  If the Russians are flagrantly and systematically cheating at sports events, and Russian agents are interfering with testing to allow the cheating to continue, how can we ever credit their agreement to any kind of treaty or peace accord?

 

Moving Back From The Red Line, And Back In Time, Too

This morning Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. and Russia have reached agreement on resolution of the Syrian chemical weapons problem.  Under the agreement, Syria must turn over an accounting of its chemical weapons within a week, inspectors will arrive in Syria in November and begin to seize and destroy the weapons, and the destruction is to be completed by mid-2014.  The agreement will be “backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution that could allow for sanctions or other consequences if Syria fails to comply.”

With the agreement, the United States has backed away from President Obama’s “red line” that use of chemical weapons would produce immediate military consequences.  It’s been an awkward retreat, as I’ve pointed out in prior postings, but it recognizes reality — there simply is no international appetite for joint military action, and there is enormous opposition, both domestically and internationally, to the United States taking unilateral action.  I was opposed to the United States taking unilateral action, so I am glad that the Obama Administration ultimately came to its senses.  The use of chemical weapons in Syria is an international problem, not an American one, and the international community, collectively, should deal with it.

There are a lot of questions about this agreement, of course.  Our past experience with international weapons inspectors — in North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere — isn’t exactly cause for supreme confidence in their ability to handle the destructive ambitions of rogue states.  How in the world do international inspectors find and safely destroy chemical weapons stores in the midst of a raging civil war?  How does anyone trust the Assad regime, which denied having chemical weapons until a week ago, to honestly identify and produce all of its chemical weapons caches?   And we can’t lose sight of the fact that this agreement does nothing to end the suffering of the Syrian people who are trapped in the middle of a bloody fight among a regime that wants to hold onto power at all costs and a gaggle of “rebels” that undoubtedly include al Qaeda terrorists.

There’s another very interesting aspect to the agreement announced today.  It was negotiated by only two parties — the United States and Russia.  Syria was not part of the talks, nor were China, or France, or Great Britain, or other members of the UN Security Council, or the Arab League.  Apparently Russia is expected to deliver the agreement and cooperation of the Syrians, as if Syria is a kind of vassal state, and the U.S. is expected to bring the rest of the Security Council into line.  It reminded me of the bipartite, Cold War world I grew up in, where the U.S. and the Soviet Union led the two competing factions in the world and met occasionally at summit meetings to resolve international problems.  It’s odd to see this apparent return to those days.  I wonder how China and the other states in our increasingly diverse world feel about that?

When Churchill And Stalin Hit The Bottle

The BBC has an interesting story about a World War II summit meeting that tells us a bit about how the world has changed, and also, perhaps, about how it hasn’t.

The story took place in 1942, when Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, traveled to Moscow for a summit meeting with Joseph Stalin, the dictator who led the Soviet Union.  The two countries were new allies, brought together by their common foe, Nazi Germany.

The initial meetings between the leaders didn’t exactly go smoothly.  Churchill requested another meeting, which began at 7 p.m.  At 1 a.m. an under-secretary of the British Foreign Office was invited to join the proceedings and found Stalin, Churchill, and Russian Foreign Secretary Molotov sitting around the shredded remains of a suckling pig on a table covered with countless bottles of liquor.  By that time Churchill was just drinking wine and complaining of a headache, and Stalin made the bureaucrat drink a concoction that was “pretty savage.”  The meeting continued until 3 a.m., when the Brits stumbled back to their rooms, packed, and headed to the airport.

The drinking party was unconventional — although not unusual for the Soviets, whose reputation for long, vodka-saturated banquets continued for decades — but it did the trick.  Churchill and Stalin established a personal connection that helped the allies steer their way to victory over the Axis powers.

It’s hard to imagine our modern political leaders having drinking bouts and making bleary-eyed policy decisions at 2 a.m. after guzzling countless shots of booze.  We obviously wouldn’t want them to do so.  But the importance of making a personal connection remains as true today as it was 70 years ago during the dark days of a global war.  Summit meetings still make sense because we want our leaders to be able to take the measure of each other and establish relationships that can stand the stress when times get tough.