A few days ago my benevolently thoughtful mother-in-law brought me several volumes she rescued from the free book table at her retirement community. That treasure trove included “Great War Speeches of Sir Winston Churchill,” which I soon took to reading.
I didn’t expect to learn very much that I didn’t already know. I was wrong. I was, of course, instantly engaged by the beauty of the language. No surprise there. But what impressed me unexpectedly was the immediacy of Churchill’s tense narrative. The unfolding war culminating in the German invasion of France and the narrow escape at Dunkirk. The speeches so far are full of resolve in the face of uncertainty.
One is constantly reminded that this is a window into history, to a time when the outcome of the war was unknown, and the correctly-perceived perils that lay ahead had, as yet, no clear solution. The tension remains palpable more than 80 years on.
It was in the so-called Finest Hour speech, first heard in Parliament then again in a live radio address to the British people on 18 June 1940, that I came upon a startling gem. As the new Prime Minister, Churchill had just created a coalition government containing members of the opposition party. He made passing reference to the recent military disaster caused in part by the failure of the French High Command to withdraw at an advantageous point in the conflict. But, “I am not reciting these facts for the purpose of recrimination,” Churchill was quick to point out. “Of this I am quite sure that, if we open a quarrel between the past and present, we will find that we have lost the future.”
In other words, the nation had no time for the laying of blame, the pointing of fingers, the side issue of manufactured grievances calculated for political gain. There was a war to be fought, and Churchill was resolved to leave any assignment of responsibility to the judgement of future historians. Because “Without this concentrated power we cannot face what lies before us.”
To their credit the cabinet and the Parliament proceeded as a single individual. Naturally there were bumps along the way, but they were repaired and movement was forward, always forward. It had to be that way. The survival of the nation and civilisation rendered progress imperative.
Today we are faced with several worldwide crises that are so dire and so immediate and so urgently perilous that any one of them could ignite a Third World War. Never since the 1940s has unity been more necessary. Never before has so little been available.
It may sound paradoxically inconsistent for me to lay blame. But it takes two sides to make a unity. Churchill had the unflinching cooperation of the other side. We do not. Joe Biden has stood ready to work with those elements he frequently refers to as “my Republican friends,” but they have shown time and again that they are not ready to cooperate with him.
The game for Republicans — and it most emphatically is a game — is not the assertion of their passionately held beliefs but naked aggression in the service of greed. There exists no combination of words in the English language that Joe Biden could say that would satisfy them. No speech no matter how perfect, no sponsored legislation no matter how beneficial to all constituents of states red or blue is safe from bitter recrimination or hateful criticism.
The only thing Republicans need to concern themselves with is who is doing the speaking. If there is an “R” after their name then no matter how despicable or traitorous the speech they are excused. If a “D” then no matter how enlightened or beneficial the intent they are condemned.
Ordinary Republican Americans are largely unaware of this game because they get their news from sources where the hypocrisy is downplayed or never even mentioned. On the rare occasions that they are openly exposed to the hypocrisy they are blind to it thanks to years of the habit of indoctrination. The politics of dissonance has become the standard. To rank and file Republicans we are no longer fellow Americans, we are The Enemy, more despised than China and Russia, America’s true enemies.
This is the challenge we face, and there is no solution. The hatred is endemic, bitter and ancestral, and cannot be rooted out with reason or compromise. Attrition is the only option open to us. We must wait for the current practitioners of Republicanism to die and hope they are replaced by an educated generation. Republicans know this, and that is why they hate education and books.
We can significantly accelerate this process by voting Republicans out of power, dismantling the Republican Party and keeping a Democratic majority in the legislative and executive branches. We can reclaim the Supreme Court for a full generation by increasing its number to 11 or 13. Finally we can remove money from politics and make super PACS and lobbyists a thing of the past.
A tall order, you say? I was recently reminded of a tiny island that rose to an impossible occasion and held on to see an implacable enemy defeated. I’m sufficiently optimistic to think that if we are still around in a thousand years, future generations will look back on us and say, “This was their finest hour.” In fact I’m sure of it. Because if we’re not successful we won’t be around in fifty years. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.