Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Move over Einstein -- The Man of the Century is . . .

When Time Magazine picked Albert Einstein for The Man of the Century, they slightly misfired. Perhaps Einstein might be better suited for Man of the Twenty-first Century, as technology takes over to an even greater extent. Despite the innovations he brought to scientific thinking, it is quite likely that atomic energy would have been born without him (he did not believe it was even possible until a friend explained it to him) and there are just not that many technologies dependent on his theories (GPS being one which is impossible without accounting for relativity). Yeah, yeah, brilliant, great man, definitely in the top five and all that, but there is a better choice.

This is the most subjective of topics, and any pick will immediately cause a storm of criticism at the person picked and praise for the runner-ups. Time Magazine’s runner-ups happen to be Franklin Roosevelt and Gandhi, both which, are, of course, pretty good picks (dirty little secret – Elvis Presley was the pick of readers who actually voted, which advice the magazine thankfully ignored).

Maybe there shouldn’t be a winner and just an undesignated list of one hundred. But since there has to be one, Winston Churchill should have been the Man of the Century. No doubt, he had a checkered career, starting off as a war correspondent who made headlines after he escaped from a prisoner of war camp in South Africa, parleying it into a political career (after his father), was held responsible for a military disaster during WWI and cashiered, went to the front lines to lead a battalion, bounced back and forth between the Conservative and Labor parties, and led a fruitless call to arms against Germany in the 30s, in what are often called the Wilderness Years.

Yet, when called to leadership after the war was bungled from the beginning, he seemed to hold off the might of Germany with his words, and what they inspired, until he was victorious in the end, much thanks to help from all of Britain’s allies, including the good ole U.S.A. Still, he was voted out of office soon after the war, before coming back one more time to lead his nation.

And yes, he said many bad things about Gandhi, which hurt him then and now, and seemed more than a little hypocritical in all his words about freedom when Britain still controlled India and other colonies around the world. However, without defending Britain’s colonialism, his main concern seemed to be that religious war between Hindu’s and Muslims would occur if Britain left, and kill millions. He was sadly right.

Churchill’s hallmark from the beginning was his unparalleled way with words, both written and spoken. He wrote his own speeches, and one after the other was brilliant. Alexander Hamilton biographer, Ron Chernow, described his subject as a “human word machine”. It immediately brought to mind Churchill, who perhaps combined for the last time in history Hamilton’s unending imagination and spirited reasoning with Lincoln’s awesome ear for the inspiring phrase. Today’s political speeches, even the best of them, are poor and spindly relations even to Churchill’s most mediocre efforts.

I try in this blog not to write about things that have been done to death. In any tribute to Churchill, it’s hard to accomplish that feat. So, I will try and steer clear of classic Churchill, except for these two following pearls from WWII speeches, which must be some of the most stirring words ever written, and have given some solace to many a terrified soldier. It thrills even to type them:

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

and, greater still . . .

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the 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.

It is because of crackling speeches like these, that when 9/11 came, politicians and pundits wrote books about, and made reference to Churchill and the German Blitzkrieg over Britain in order to inspire the public. Not FDR, not Gandhi. Churchill. Whether you are watching William Wallace or Aragorn in the movies, trying to inspire their troops, or even George Bush in his speech following 9/11, they are all channeling Churchill, and falling short.

So much for the most brilliant fireworks. Dip into Churchill anywhere and you pull out gold. Reading his words now gives the strange feeling that he had a way to reel in the news from the future, predicting not only WWII, but the cold war, and the hemorrhage of blood and life upon Indian independence, and other disasters which he hoped to avert. Reading his speeches from the 30s, the threat he foresaw seems so obvious now, but was not transparent to others.

So, having said that, let’s start with one where he went arguably wrong, even if you solely blame the Arab world for all of the Middle East problems and Israel for none. Churchill was a great friend to the Jews and supported Zionism. He once tried to convince a Muslim delegation in Jerusalem of the benefits of a Jewish homeland to them:

[I]t is manifestly right that the scattered Jews should have a national center and a national home in which they might be reunited, and where else but in Palestine, with which the Jews for 3,000 years have been intimately and profoundly associated. We think it is good for the world, good for the Jews, and good for the British Empire, and it is also good for the Arabs dwelling in Palestine, and we intend it to be so. They shall not be supplanted nor suffer but they shall share in the benefits and the progress of Zionism.

I draw your attention to the second part of the Balfour Declaration emphasizing the sacredness of your civil and religious rights. I am sorry you regard it as valueless. It is vital to you, and you should hold and claim it firmly.

This one is about Iraq (Mesopotamia), and seems typically prophetic, particularly if you substitute the U.S. for Britain and India:

I cannot say in regard to Mesopotamia that there are primary, direct, strategic British interests involved. The defense of India can be better conducted from her own strategic frontier. Mesopotamia, is not, like Egypt, a place which in a strategic sense is of cardinal importance to our interests, and our policy in Mesopotamia is to reduce our commitments and to extricate ourselves from our burdens while at the same time honorably discharging our obligations and building up a strong and effective Arab government which will always be the friend of Britain and, I will add, the friend of France.”

Speaking of the Arab world, here’s another one that will seem modern and familiar:

“ A large number of Bin Saudi’s followers belong to the Ahab sect, a form of Mohammedanism which bears, roughly speaking, the same relation to orthodox Islam as the most militant form of Calvinism would have borne to Rome in the fiercest times of the religious wars. The Ahab’s profess a life of exceeding austerity, and what they practise themselves they rigorously enforce on others. They hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions and to make slaves of their wives and children. Women have been put to death in Wahabi villages for simply appearing in the streets. It is a penal offence to wear a silk garment. Men have been like killed for smoking a cigarette, and as for the crime of alcohol, the most energetic supporter of the temperance cause in this country falls far behind them. Austere, intolerant, well-armed, and bloodthirsty, in their own regions the Wahabis are a distinct factor
. . . . ”.

Probably words the Saudi Arabian government, officially Wahabi, will not be putting on its official website.

Still, another speech probably just reflects Churchill’s understanding of political parties, and why we can never seem to get it right. It is just as apropos today:

The great leader of the Protectionist party, whatever else you may or may not think about him, has at any rate left me in no doubt as what use he will make of his victory if he should win it. We know perfectly well what to expect – a party of great vested interests, banded together in a formidable confederation, corruption at home, aggression to cover it up abroad, the trickery of tariff juggles, the tyranny of a party machine; sentiment by the bucketful, patriotism by the imperial pint, the open hand at the public exchequer, the open door a the public-house, dear food for the million, cheap labor for the millionaire.

Churchill frequently disarmed opponents with a political sense of humor perhaps only matched by Lincoln. Speaking of a prohibitionist who had defeated him in an election, Churchill quipped that he “possessed all of the virtues I despise, and none of the sins I admire.” After being called a “robber” by detractors -- “The more exuberant Members of the party opposites have for some years, at elections at any rate, been accustomed to salute me by the expression ‘murderer’, and from that point of view, ‘robber’ is a sort of promotion. It shows that I am making some headway in their esteem.

Unfortunately, Churchill’s most famous one liner, purportedly said to Lady Astor, who claimed that if he were her husband she would poison him, to which he supposedly replied “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d let you,” is almost certainly apocryphal.

Even one of his more memorable insults to Gandhi was so well written, you could forgive him a little:

It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor. Such a spectacle can only increase the unrest in India.

Ok, dead on about Hitler, unfair to Gandhi. No one is perfect, and Churchill had more than his share of faults. Perhaps, at least during WWII, those faults came in handy.

Modern American conservatives might want to adopt this bit of Churchilliana as their own, given their view of liberals like the leaders of the House and Senate:

Historians have noticed, all down the centuries, one peculiarity of the English people which has cost them dear. We have always thrown away after a victory the greater part pf the advantages we gained in the struggle. The worst difficulties from which we suffer do not come from without. They come from within. They do not come from the cottages of the wage-earners. They come from a peculiar type of brainy people always found in our country, who, if they add something to the culture, take much from its strength.

Our difficulties come from the mood of unwarrantable self abasement into which we have been cast by a powerful section of our own intellectuals. They have come from the acceptance of defeatist doctrines by a large proportion of our politicians. But what have they to offer but a vague internationalism, a squalid materialism, and the promise of impossible utopias.

These must suffice for now. Quite often it is hard to read the words of long dead writers just because we are so accustomed to short breezy novels and even non-fiction. But whether you pick up Churchill’s multi-volume The Second World War or A History of the English-Speaking People, a book of his speeches, or any of the many other books he has written, it will be real hard to be bored if you have any liking for history. Not for nothing did he win the Nobel Prize for Literature but “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values".

Topping even the Noble Prize, in 1954, the Parliament and Queen Elizabeth II named him “The greatest living Briton” in 1954. It would be hard not to feel full of oneself when the world is trumpeting your superiority.

For those of you who are sure stirring words are not your cup of English tea, I can only suggest following the advice of the great Theodore Geisel, who got his start during WWII:

You do not like them.
So you say.
Try them! Try them!
And you may.
Try them and you may, I say.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:49 PM

    From Einstein to Dr. Suess with Churchill in the middle. Not bad.
    P.S. Certainly an arguable selection as Man of the Century


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .