As a former educator and historian, though I do not think the term “former” should ever apply in this context, I have become more and more amazed at our lack of historical knowledge and how it impacts us on a daily basis. All we have to do is examine the first eighteen years of the 21st century to realize that the errors our leaders committed, could have been prevented had we explored history, and in particular cultures of areas we became involved in. What is even more disconcerting is to read Bret Stephens opinion in the NYT as he points to a 2008 survey in Britain that states that 20% of teenagers thought Winston Churchill was a fictional character, and that 58% believed that Sherlock Holmes was a historical figure. Further, I understand that the same survey produced results that authenticated Eleanor Rigby as real! This is scary. Perhaps we should all choose a history book, sit back and read and try and create a barrier that prevents the ignorance that our society seems to suffer from. Computers, technology, and the internet are wondefull, but I would ask educational administrators to think about the role of teaching history and the contribution it might make to “make America great (not again, because we are great)!”
An Antidote to Idiocy in ‘Churchill’
In this season of giving, get (and give) Andrew Roberts’s brilliant new biography.
Opinion Columnist / New York Times
This year, the retired astronaut Scott Kelly posted a harmless tweet quoting Winston Churchill’s famous line, “In victory, magnanimity.” Left-wing Twitter went berserk, and Kelly felt obliged to grovel.
“Did not mean to offend by quoting Churchill,” he wrote. “My apologies. I will go and educate myself further on his atrocities, racist views which I do not support.”
We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. Think of Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain and the hard-core Brexiteers. Or of what used to be called the Republican establishment and Donald Trump.
We also live in an era in which the counterexamples are few and far between. “In defeat, defiance” is another great Churchillian maxim, and it’s hard to name a single political figure today who embodies it — as opposed to, say, “in defeat, early retirement to avoid a difficult primary.”
So maybe it’s time to acquaint (or reacquaint) ourselves with the original, and there’s no better way of doing it than to read the historian Andrew Roberts’s “Churchill: Walking With Destiny.” A review last month in The Times called it “the best single-volume biography of Churchill yet written,” but it’s more than that. It’s an antidote to the reigning conceits, self-deceptions, half-truths and clichés of our day.
For instance: Being born into “privilege” is ipso facto a privilege.
For Churchill — who suffered as a child under the remote glare of a contemptuous father and a self-indulgent mother; fought valiantly in four wars by the time he was 25; and earned his own living through prodigious literary efforts that ultimately earned him a Nobel Prize — the main privilege was the opportunity to bear up under the immense weight of inner expectation that came with being born to a historic name.
Or: To be a member of the establishment is to be a creature of it.
Churchill championed free trade to the consternation of Tory protectionists. He supported super-taxes on the rich and pensions for the old to the infuriation of his aristocratic peers. He called for rearmament before both world wars against the hopes and convictions of the pacifists and appeasers in power. His great, unfulfilled political ambition was to create a party of the sensible center. Being at the center of the establishment is what allowed him to be indifferent to — and better than — it.
Or: To be a champion of empire is to be a bigot.
In 1899, Churchill envisioned a future South Africa in which “Black is to be proclaimed the same as white … to be constituted his legal equal, to be armed with political rights.” He denounced the 1919 British massacre of Indian demonstrators at Amritsar as “a monstrous event.” He promoted social reform at home so that Britain could be a worthy leader of its dominions abroad. Churchill was a patriot, a paternalist, a product of his time — and, by those standards, a progressive.
Or: The moral judgments of the present are superior to those of the past.
One of the alleged crimes for which Churchill is now blamed is the perpetration of a “genocide” in India after a cyclone-caused famine in 1943. Evidence for this is that he used racially insensitive humor during the crisis. Except that Churchill did send whatever food he could spare, Japan was threatening India from Burma, the rest of world was at war, and difficult choices had to be made.
It is because Churchill made the judgments he did that his latter-day detractors live in a world free to make judgments about him.
Or: In politics, what counts are actions, not words.
“After those speeches, we wanted the Germans to come,” Roberts quotes one R.A.F. squadron leader as saying of Churchill’s speech of June 1940, following the deliverance at Dunkirk. “He makes them feel they are living their history,” a Canadian diplomat said of the effect of his words on the public. “It’s precisely the resolute and definite character of the British Government’s stance which has done so much to help the masses overcome their initial fright,” was the Russian ambassador’s conclusion.
“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” John F. Kennedy said (stealing a line from Edward Murrow) in awarding Churchill honorary United States citizenship in 1963. Of which leader now in office could that be said today — in any language?
Finally: Churchill, notes Roberts, was able to rouse Britain “because the battles and struggles of the Elizabethan and Napoleonic wars were then taught in schools, so the stories of Drake and Nelson were well known to his listeners.” That also cannot be said of us today. In Britain, a 2008 survey found that 20 percent of teenagers thought Churchill was a fictional character but 58 percent thought Sherlock Holmes was real.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We reconcile ourselves to the decadence of the present only if we choose to remain ignorant of the achievements of the past.
has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post. @BretStephensNYT • Facebook