Haunted by Churchill: Civic Nationalism and Churchill-Philia

Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, here addressing the British House of Commons in 1940.

Winston Churchill wasn’t a saint—he was anti-labor and pro-imperialism, and responsible for a famine in India and an ethnic cleansing in Kenya. But I don’t need to tell you this. Since the latest Churchill biopic, Darkest Hour, began earning accolades and awards in late 2017, plenty of columns have been written to remind us that Churchill is not worthy of our veneration.

These columns are worth your time if you are not familiar with Churchill biography. But for cultural critics to write solely about what gets left out of our present day American conversations about the British prime minister is to perform a kind of critical dodge. We should be asking: What is it that makes this moment ripe for a renascent Churchill-philia? What is it about the story that is being told about Churchill that seems to be resonating with American audiences and critics?

The answer tells us more about ourselves than does a simple dismissal of British imperialism. Putting aside Churchill the actual historical figure, just for a bit, and looking instead at Churchill-philia—the reverence for Churchill’s specter, a memory of him—shows the allure of civic nationalism in an age of allegedly novel threats to “liberal democracy.” The stories we appear to want to tell ourselves, in the age of Donald Trump, center around civic nationalism because we want to believe that liberalism is the solution to the problems of modernity and capitalism. On the surface, civic nationalism offers an alternative to racism, bigotry, and ethnocentrism, one with an appealing promise that we might be able to “come together” and “unite” over our differences as a “divided” nation.

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Darkest Hour wasn’t the only film about Churchill to come out in 2017. There was another film that failed to catch on at the box office and among critics, called Churchill. Presumably the film disappointed because it misrepresented Churchill, or at least the specter of Winston Churchill that we’re accustomed to. The titular protagonist of the movie is unsure of himself, depressed, and useless to the cause of the Allies, who are in the midst planning the invasion of Normandy. The film was a dull slog.

By contrast, Darkest Hour worked with audiences and critics because it demonstrates Churchill’s aptitude for fiery rhetoric. It showed Britain’s leader as uncompromising, but also as a man in tune with the people.

The film focuses on the months prior to and leading up to Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches” speech, in which he declares that Great Britain, having just evacuated its military in France to escape the occupying Nazi army, would not go to the bargaining table with Hitler. Though at the film’s start Churchill has replaced Neville Chamberlain, famous for his appeasement to Hitler over the fate of Eastern Europe, and is expected to take a more hardline course, he is surrounded by a war cabinet that advises him to open channels with Hitler, since thousands of British are already dying in France, and the Nazis were likely to begin an assault on the British island itself. As the film progresses towards the speech, Churchill—and those in the audience that don’t know the history—become increasingly unsure about whether or not fighting unconditionally against Hitler is the best option. Finally, Churchill’s inevitable resolve is put on display. He declares to the House of Commons, in the film’s final scene, that the British Empire will “never surrender,” even if its home island were to be conquered. “Victory!” he concludes, after which the final line of the film is uttered: “[Churchill]’s mobilized the English language, and sent it into battle.”

Darkest Hour is not just about Churchill’s oratory skills. The film’s most important, and most fictional scene, is that which cements its vision of civic nationalism. In the film’s third act, when Churchill is at his most unsure, he decides rather impulsively to take a ride on the Underground, London’s subway, about which he comments earlier in the film that he’d never experienced in person. In hopping on a train, the staid conservative is suddenly embedded with the masses, plunged into an authentic experience of populist Britishness. He asks those that surround him on the train, men and women from various walks of life, what they think he should do. And they tell him, unequivocally, to fight. They report that the British people will take whatever is thrown at them, that they will sacrifice if necessary, that they are one as a nation with a common purpose and identity.

Churchill is delighted that it is the will of the British hoi polloi to fight the Nazis unconditionally, and he begins to quote a poem by Thomas Macaulay, a war poem that includes the lines: “To every man upon this earth/death cometh soon or late/and how can man die better/than facing fearful odds.” That the 19th century Brit Macaulay was a firm believer of liberal imperialism may be significant to understanding Churchill. And yet most filmgoers, particularly American ones, are unlikely to recognize the source of this quote.

In the hours before he declares to Britain that they will fight Hitler to the death, Churchill hobnobs with diverse Britons in the Underground and trades lines of poetry with an African man. (Yes, the film was poorly lit.)

Much more important to audiences is that as Churchill begins to recite the poem, a young, well-dressed but presumably working-class, African man takes over. He recites the final lines back to Churchill. The trading of lines works to erase the distinctions between Churchill and the man; as an audience, we are to assume that matters like skin color, economic class, and political station melt away in this exchange, where the two characters of profoundly different backgrounds find a literary canon in common. The film makes no mention or allusion towards the man’s family background; it raises no hint as to what the colonial history might have likely been in order to find this character there in the London underground. The man signals his Britishness by being one with the crowd in agreeing to the country’s task at hand. This is the work of civic nationalism.

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Celebrated liberal historians and political thinkers in the United States have promoted civic nationalism as something we should welcome. In fact, some go as far to suggest that the U.S. is uniquely suited to it, in that its founding is based on a set of ideas rather than an existing national identity. These intellectuals don’t discount the overwhelming presence of racism, and the multiplicity of ideas throughout history about race and belonging that define “American” as “white.” But they maintain that civic nationalism offers an escape from this ethnic nationalism, a better future, an opportunity to see the American dream, though long deferred, finally realized. Darkest Hour presents us with civic nationalism rather than the ethnic nationalism of Macaulay, or Hitler. And this discourse works exceedingly well for American audiences accustomed to ideas about melting pots and a common American ideal premised on the idea that success is born from economic and individual freedom.

Civic nationalism in the context of this body of scholarship is necessarily liberal. It privileges a set of values that will unite the nation, but more specifically, it places its faith in a set of codes or laws that will govern the body politic. Philosopher Charles Taylor calls this privileging of codes “nomolatry,” or “code fetishism.” Liberalism operates on the premise that the most just society might be realized if every person is bound by the same rules—rules derived from the concept of rights that are individual and “natural.” Theorists of liberalism note that its codes privilege the “right” over the “good.” They favor universals and are agnostic to specific material conditions.

Liberal civic nationalism then, is a call for citizens to abide by the codes that govern a society, and the figures or leaders that appear to us to embody such codes. And these leaders are often very well spoken. There’s nothing inherently liberal or nationalistic about oratory, but in the case of liberal societies, there is something about the power of leaders to skillfully invoke the language of such codes that both strengthens their own profile, and shores up the status quo to which they are appealing. After all, if liberalism circumscribes what a president can do—we don’t want an autocrat for president, for heaven’s sake!—it theoretically frees us all up as individuals to do the right and rational thing, as long as our leaders tell us through soaring rhetoric what that right thing is. The spectral Churchill is the perfect balance. He works within the context of the established law, and yet his individual will is strong enough to impose or imprint his ideas on the populace, those ideas being the same ones that are reflected back to him from a liberal body politic.

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Christopher Vials’s history of antifascism in America, Haunted by Hitler, notes that there’s a difference between anti-Nazism and antifascism. And its in studying this difference that we might dispel the mystique of civic nationalism. Antifascism, as Vials tells it, is necessarily a critique of liberalism, and its tendency to turn a blind eye towards the inequalities and injustices of our modern world. Antifascists throughout history, but particularly at mid-century, recognized that fascism was bred from the alienation, dislocation, and exploitation characteristic of the modern world. It was a reaction to liberal universals.

Anti-Nazism, by contrast, relies on a depiction of evil that is historically rooted in an image of the ruling German party from 1933 to 1945, and yet strangely unmoored from historical specificities. In anti-Nazism, Nazis are bad because they are a kind of metaphysical maleficence. To present an example that Vials raises, the film Raiders of the Lost Ark is anti-Nazi but not antifascist because rugged liberal individualism is the solution to the Nazi threat, rather than its cause.

There are barely any Nazis in Darkest Hour. That we never even see them makes it all the more easier for this film to be anti-Nazi, that is, to present the Nazis as a kind of almost supernatural menace. The Nazis represent not just a military threat, the bringer of physical violence, but also an existential threat in the sense that the Nazis are repeatedly described as a threat to the British way of life. And this way of life, we presume, is that of the liberal individual.

I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that the United Kingdom was better off having been occupied by the Nazis. I only mean to show how the narrative of the 1940 Western front only works in our twenty-first century context to the extent that it normalizes the state of liberalism—and the liberal state. Liberal civic nationalism, because of its privileging of codes, is necessarily defensive of the status quo.

We’re awash in anti-Nazism today, at least metaphorically speaking. Wise thinkers have identified a “tyrannophobia” at the core of mainstream anti-Trump discourse. The overwhelming concern with the Trump administration is his apparent disregard for the “rule of law.” And in this context, that phrase works quite clearly as a signifier for liberal democracy and its codes. Antifascism, by contrast, would question those codes themselves, in the pursuit of justice.

Timothy Egan of the New York Times is just one example of a liberal who makes regular claims on the specter of Churchill in the pursuit of the rule of law. In May 2017, he chided European leaders for not being hard enough on terrorism. Invoking the battles of World War I a century ago, and then daring his audience to consider how the threat of Islamic terrorism is comparable, if not worse than the destruction European countries meted out to one another over competing claims of nationalism and imperialism, Egan begged Trump and the leaders of Europe to show “Churchillian will or insight.” More specifically, he asked Trump to make a good speech invoking “the survival and the success of liberty” just as John F. Kennedy had done in Berlin during the Cold War. Egan raises but then waves away the notion that the conditions of modern Europe are producing “dispossessed” people. He shifts to the real concern: “the autocrats of terror.” Egan is caught up in his own form of anti-Nazism, or tyrannophobia, to which Churchill-philia is perhaps the only natural response.

When Gary Oldman, a known conservative, accepted his Golden Globe for playing Churchill in Darkest Hour, he was lauded for a speech that praised Churchill and also seemed to tacitly criticize Trump. “Boy oh boy does [the world] need some changing,” he noted. We should ask what the limits of that change might be according to someone like Oldman, and according to the spectral version of Churchill that speaks to us through the actor. Oldman, after all, was bringing his audience together. He cast no fingers, alienated no one. In the pursuit of liberal civic comity, he gave a statement that at once was so bland to be meaningless, and yet was wrapped up in an assumption of common identity among those who were in the room, those who too believed in liberal codes and opposed oppressive, foreign, evil, forces.

This spectral version of Churchill is the same one that has been lauded by public figures as diverse as Bernie Sanders, who selected Churchill as a foreign leader he admired, and the Pulitzer Prize winning writer Thomas Ricks, who wrote a strange dual biography about the prime minister’s intellectual likeness to George Orwell. When Mike Huckabee viewed Darkest Hour and then tweeted about Donald Trump’s similarity with the prime minister, conservatives applauded the comparison while liberals defended Churchill by highlighting his oratory and his anti-Nazi credentials. That everyone can agree on the memory of Churchill, if not the man, is not a sign of his specter’s utility. Rather, it suggests a common desire to turn a blind eye towards the conflict, inequality, and injustice that nationalism, even the civic variety, works to obscure.

On the same night and in the same room as Oldman’s speech, upon accepting a special award, Oprah Winfrey gave a much lauded speech about racial and gender injustice. Winfrey too was careful not to point fingers at anyone who might have been part of the Hollywood community. Her speech pointed to a vision of justice beyond liberal individualism though. It was one that identified the multiple valences in which people identify, and are ascribed identities. For as much that is problematic about Winfrey—and there is much—Winfrey was neither calling upon Americans to forget their material struggles in the name of unity, nor did her speech make the assumption that the head of a liberal state was the person to lead the fight for social change. Americans didn’t pick up on this last point; presumably they figured that if Winston Churchill could deliver great speeches and save the world, so could a President Oprah Winfrey.

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Peter Beinart wrote recently that Donald Trump’s rhetoric is of ethnic nationalism, and not civic nationalism. I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. After the murder at Charlottesville, he declared in a speech that the country should “seek a new unity….We are one people with one home and one great flag.” He continued: “We are not defined by the color of our skin, [or] the figure on our paycheck….We are defined by our shared humanity, by our citizenship and this magnificent nation.” This desire to downplay cleavages—both racial, as well as economic—is a defining characteristic of liberal civic nationalism, which seeks not to redress inequalities, but rather to diminish their relevance to identity.

And after a mass shooting occurred in Las Vegas, Trump delivered a speech characterizing the murderer as “pure evil.” Like the speeches of Churchill, Trump’s rhetoric invoked an abstract metaphysical menace. “We call upon the bonds that unite us,” Trump declared, adding “our unity cannot be shattered by evil.” Far from a great orator or thinker, the president had nevertheless been clued into a common trope: that American audiences want to be comforted by paeans to national unity, and that they best process grief by assuming alien forces are behind their suffering. These appeals to unity are just at home in liberal civic nationalism as they are in ethnic nationalism. Trump might have well have been giving either of these speeches on the London underground in June 1940.

Civic nationalism can be wielded powerfully in the interests of the good. But more often than not it is wielded in the interests of the right, privileging the abstract codes of a society over its actual needs. So it’s worth questioning whether a liberal civic nationalist culture is desirable. At the very least, it’s worth asking what depictions of Churchill do for us in the twenty-first century, when they raise from the dead only the most banal and anodyne remnants of a story that deserves context and critical care. In the place of Churchill-philia, a practice that animates liberal civic nationalism, we might instead search out those based on cosmopolitan solidarity. The very idea would have haunted Churchill.

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