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Winston Churchill interviewed in January 1939.
January 10, 2014 9:16 PM   Subscribe

"The essential aspects of democracy are the freedom of the individual, within the framework of laws passed by Parliament, to order his life as he pleases, and the uniform enforcement of tribunals independent of the executive. The laws are based on Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, the Petition of Right and others. Without this foundation there can be no freedom or civilisation, anyone being at the mercy of officials and liable to be spied upon and betrayed even in his own home. As long as these rights are defended, the foundations of freedom are secure. I see no reason why democracies should not be able to defend themselves without sacrificing these fundamental values."
posted by paleyellowwithorange (21 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
But Churchill had it easy! He only had to deal with the Nazis, the most powerful military force up until that point in history, a county with more than half the Nobel Prize winners ever given - whereas we had to deal with almost twenty people with box cutters.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:25 PM on January 10 [15 favorites]


Feh. We have to deal with rising income inequality.
posted by notyou at 12:35 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


Notyou, what I think we're seeing is the way the market deals with a historical rise in income equality. It's just getting things back to normal now.I'm not even kidding.
posted by aesop at 3:35 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


"Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to carpet-bomb Dresden."
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:42 AM on January 11


"I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected." - Churchill, Memo to the War Office, 1919

The hidden corollary of democratic individualism in the early twentieth century seems to be the definition of some other bunch of people as inimical life -- those we declare to be innately, violently, and always opposed to We Civilized Individuals and therefore surrender their rights to be treated as human beings. Sometimes it's a response to actual hostile people or groups who present a true "existential" threat; more often, it's the convenience of power.
posted by kewb at 4:24 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


The hidden corollary of democratic individualism in the early twentieth century seems to be the definition of some other bunch of people as inimical life -- those we declare to be innately, violently, and always opposed to We Civilized Individuals and therefore surrender their rights to be treated as human beings.

Yes, fascists.

From Churchill:
"It may be that greater efficiency in secret military preparations can be achieved in a country with autocratic institutions than by the democratic system. But this advantage is not necessarily great, and it is far outweighed by the strength of a democratic country in a long war. In an autocracy, when the pinch comes, the blame is thrown upon the leader and the system breaks up. In a democratic country the people feel that they are respon­sible, and if they believe in their cause will hold out much longer than the population of Dictator States."

Until reading this, I did not realize there was real existential fear that a democratic system of government might be fundametally unable to organize and mobilize as effectively as a totalitarian one. Churchill was at once eloquent, prescient and reassuring here.
posted by superelastic at 4:34 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


That argument is still current among the antidemocratic far right in India, who say that a democracy is too inefficient to compete with China.
posted by Devonian at 4:53 AM on January 11


I see no reason why democracies should not be able to defend themselves without sacrificing these fundamental values.

But, it's much more efficient, and more quickly provides investor return, if you right-size the values.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:57 AM on January 11


Yes, fascists.

I discussed the idea that it's not always a convenience of power in the part of my post you decided to omit. On the historical evidence, I stand by the claim that this sort of "pro-democratic" defense of state power is more often about Empire. Were the people of India fighting as citizens of democratic system during the second World War? And what of Lehi's attempts to align with the fascist powers in hopes of dislodging the British from the Palestinian mandate?

Defeating Nazi Germany was a moral imperative, and they were infinitely worse than the Allied powers in nearly every respect. However, World War II was hardly a war against fascists so much as a war against the Axis in particular; I don't recall much of an effort to dislodge Franco, for example.

But that doesn't mean Churchill gets a pass. For all his fine rhetoric and strong wartime leadership, was perfectly happy reserving the right to self-determination when it clashed with what he understood as British interests. (There's a reason he didn't remain in power for very long after the war.) If he was hardly alone in that in his time, it might suggest that we think a bit harder about how far that rhetoric really extends.

More generally, there's something rather troubling about how these stirring defenses of individual liberty only seem to happen in the midst of precisely those emergencies in which the suspension of elements of individual liberty can be justified. It's also worth remembering just why so many had turned against liberal democracy as a form of government in the 1920s and 1930s; the failings of the liberal democratic republics in the prior decades were very much tied up with the sorts of nationalist, imperialist policies that Churchill had quite happily supported.
posted by kewb at 4:57 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


You held great executive positions in the last war.

Great executive positions. Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty in WW1 and was responsible for the disaster at Gallipoli. I could never really understand how Churchill was able to rehabilitate his reputation after that, but all his tough talk I guess convinced everyone he was still a go-to guy.

Only in a democracy can someone demonstrate such staggering incompetence and be re-elected.
posted by three blind mice at 5:17 AM on January 11


I could never really understand how Churchill was able to rehabilitate his reputation after [Gallipoli]

If being responsible for a disaster in the Great War precluded people from holding any further position of power, there would be practically nobody left to run the place.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 5:44 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


I could never really understand how Churchill was able to rehabilitate his reputation after [Gallipoli]

It's a matter of timing. The Gallipoli campaign came relatively early in the war. At the time, British people were still able to kid themselves that, in spite of the difficulties of their continental neighbours, British pluck and practical skill would still win the day. So when the Gallipoli invasion turned out to be an incompetent mess, the public was angry and hurt and political heads were demanded in payment. The Australians were angry too: not knowing how bad things would get at the Western Front, the conditions at Gallipoli struck them as beyond appalling. To this day, if you go to the Australian-run museum at Gallipoli, there's a not-so-subtle implication that the entire campaign was evil British commanders throwing away Australian lives because they didn't think the Australians counted (or something). This argument would, of course, carry more weight if there hadn't been Australian commanders doing exactly the same thing, or if the Brits hadn't been even more enthusiastic to waste British life, but anyway... that's another story.

Churchill, of course, had been relatively distant from the running of the campaign. His main role was to decide grand strategy and to help select the commanders would ultimately screw it up. But he was a Gallipoli booster and he was, ultimately, in charge. When the first disastrous campaign of the war shook the British public out of their slumber, Churchill had to take the fall.

But think about what came next: the Somme, Ypres, Paschendale, etc, etc...

By the end of the war, Gallipoli was no longer a shocking failure. It was a sunny, dry, relatively civilised failure with no poison gas and with famous, Romantic stories of poetry and heroism. Moreover, when historians started picking through the ruins in the interwar period, Churchill's name kept coming up as one of the most popular civilian leaders among the naval and military leadership. Sure, he was an overconfident young man... but wasn't that naivete in keeping with the tenor of the times? And he was also the most effective naval administrator the country had ever seen. A man of superb intellect, he had been minutely involved in every aspect of naval planning, and (along with Admiral Fisher) run an administration of vision and daring. And people liked him. He was funny and brash and exuded competence. Among the British elite, stories circulated of his brilliant administration of British intelligence, a secret factor in hastening victory in a thousand ways. Australians still had their suspicions, of course, but by the interwar period the Australians seemed far away and of little account. Churchill was more than just Gallipoli. He was also the pioneer of the British victory at sea.

tl;dr, what GhostintheMachine said. Gallipoli was a big deal at the time. After all that other crap, it seemed like much less of a big deal, and Churchill's other contributions were rediscovered.
posted by Dreadnought at 6:06 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


three blind mice : Only in a democracy can someone demonstrate such staggering incompetence and be re-elected.

My thoughts exactly.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 6:10 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


Slightly off-topic I suppose, but I saw a great bit of WWII analysis on BBC recently which discussed how Churchill very likely extended the length of WWII by 18 months and thereby played his part in the deaths of many thousands, including the wiping out of the Hungarian Jewish population (which took part in 1944).

Essentially the theory was this: at some pt after the US entered WWII, the key US and Soviet commanders had some kind of agreement that the quickest way to end the war was to take the shortest route to Berlin - that would be directly from the French West Coast and directly from the Western most pt of the Soviet Union.

But Churchill believed that attacking the "soft-underbelly" of the German occupation would be the best bet. Apparently this was a rehashing of a theory he'd had in WWI (which had resulted in Gallipoli). The "soft-underbelly" being Italy and Yugoslavia.

He got his way. Had he not, so the historian argued, the DDAY invasion could have happened much sooner, distracting the German forces from the Soviet fronts thereby allowing the Soviets more time to recoup and hopefully start attacking the German forces.

In other words, Churchill's pet vanity project, some spurious theory about "soft-underbelly" caused huge delay and much potentially unnecessary death and destruction. But played to his enormous ego.

In the UK, Churchill is seen as some untouchable figure. But, given this analysis, and the comments on this post about gas attacks, it's hard to justify such a view.
posted by rolandroland at 6:56 AM on January 11


"I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected." - Churchill, Memo to the War Office, 1919

This is exactly the strategy I use for protecting my side of the marital bed from encroachment.
posted by srboisvert at 7:04 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


Defeating Nazi Germany was a moral imperative, and they were infinitely worse than the Allied powers in nearly every respect.

Existence of the Soviets as a member of the Allies is a bit of turd in that statement. Worth remembering that the anti-comintern pact of 1936 included (besides Germany and Italy): Hungary, Finland, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark (!), Slovakia and Turkey, which does show where their concerns lay. Communism appears to have lacked appeal the closer one lived to it.

None of which precluded Germany and the Soviets from playing some pretty serious footsie throughout the entire 1939-1940 (pre-Barbarossa) period. Just a few modifications of prejudice and thoughtlessness and WW2 could easily have included a four nation Axis of Evil.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:52 AM on January 11


Existence of the Soviets as a member of the Allies is a bit of turd in that statement.

That and all that follows form it is quite (and for me, embarrassingly) correct.

Of course, this does more damage to Churchill's rhetoric; as it turned out, in a world war the democracies needed the help of a genocidal totalitarian state after all.
posted by kewb at 10:13 AM on January 11


"I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected." - Churchill, Memo to the War Office, 1919

The hidden corollary of democratic individualism in the early twentieth century seems to be the definition of some other bunch of people as inimical life -- those we declare to be innately, violently, and always opposed to We Civilized Individuals and therefore surrender their rights to be treated as human beings. Sometimes it's a response to actual hostile people or groups who present a true "existential" threat; more often, it's the convenience of power.


This is an absolutely perfect example of the power of spying in the context of the FPP. You have cherry picked a single quote from his entire life and used it to stab at the core of his other argument. It is an ad hominem attack of the most insidious - anything you have ever said can be used to make you look foolish or hypocritical.
posted by Fuka at 11:08 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


The memo about poison gas was first brought o public attention when it was published in an official biography of Churchill in 1976. I used it as an example of Churchill's well-documented, and hardly momentary or singular advocacy of empire, a lifelong advocacy that runs rather hard into the ideas of the FPP quote.

We might also look to his efforts to delegitimate Mohandas Gandhi, to whom he referred on separate occasions in Parliamentary speeches and essays as a traitor whose death he openly wished for; to his message to the Palestinian Royal Commission that he felt Native Americans and African-descended peoples had no right to complain because they had been subjugated and displaced by, and these are Churchill's words, "a stronger and higher grade race."

Or if the problem is the focus on Churchill's words and actions, would you like to look into the history of pretty much any democratic republic? How about the United States's involvement in Iran in the 1950s, or in Latin and South America? How about the record of the French Republic in Africa and Indochina?

The record of the liberal democracies is fairly clear to anyone with eyes and the stomach to actually look into the history. When leaders who engaged in and supported imperialism espouse the freedom of the individual from state control or the liberty of democratic peoples, it's well worth remembering how they functionally and rhetorically delimited membership in those categories. More to the point, we need to engage with liberal democracies as they actually existed and behaved, not merely as we might topically project them.
posted by kewb at 2:42 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


The hidden corollary of democratic individualism in the early twentieth century seems to be the definition of some other bunch of people as inimical life -- those we declare to be innately, violently, and always opposed to We Civilized Individuals and therefore surrender their rights to be treated as human beings.

But it's OK to do things to Those Other Individuals you'd never tolerate yourself, so long as you do it secretly. Keeping them secret make many wrong things right. This, itself, should be kept a secret:
Thus, on Utilitarian principles, it may be right to do and privately recommend, under certain circumstances, what it would not be right to advocate openly; it may be right to teach openly to one set of persons what it would be wrong to teach to others; it may be conceivably right to do, if it can be done with comparative secrecy, what it would be wrong to do in the face of the world; and even, if perfect secrecy can be reasonably expected, what it would be wrong to recommend by private advice or example. These conclusions are all of a paradoxical character: there is no doubt that the moral consciousness of a plain man broadly repudiates the general notion of an esoteric morality, differing from the one popularly taught; and it would be commonly agreed that an action which would be bad if done openly is not rendered good by secrecy. We may observe, however, that there are strong utilitarian reasons for maintaining generally this latter common opinion…. Thus the Utilitarian conclusion, carefully stated, would seem to be this; that the opinion that secrecy may render an action right which would not otherwise be so should itself be kept comparatively secret; and similarly it seems expedient that the doctrine that esoteric morality is expedient should itself be kept esoteric. … a Utilitarian may reasonably desire, on Utilitarian principles, that some of his conclusions should be rejected by mankind generally; or even that the vulgar should keep aloof from his system as a whole, in so far as the inevitable indefiniteness and complexity of its calculations render it likely to lead to bad results in their hands. --Sidgwick, 1907.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:03 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


Churchill was a fascist fuck. An intelligent, efficient, literate, urbane and witty fascist fuck, but a fascist nonetheless. He had very little respect for the hoi polloi, and indeed often articulated more sympathy and solidarity with the ruling classes of other colonial powers than he did for the greater citizenship of his own country.
He was in no way universally accepted by the population as a whole. The Ken Loach film "The Spirit of 45" documents the fact that he was booed in the hustings during the 45 election campaign. What is not widely reported is that he was broadly reviled in most mining communities even during the course of the war, due to his actions as Home Secretary during the Tonypandy Riots. In most mining towns, the Pathe newsreel war reports that were shown in the cinemas routinely received a chorus of boos whenever Churchill was featured.
I've read his autobiography and I have to admit that, despite myself, I do like his intelligence and wit, and especially his turn of phrase. But if you pause to think even a little about what you read, the lustre quickly fades. All of the grand pronouncements that Churchill is so widely known for are much diminished when you understand the context. When he talks about a democracy, he really means a democracy of a certain kind of person. When he talks of freedom, it's the freedom of the privileged. When he talks of rights, it's the rights of might.
For all of his intelligence and urbanity, and his obvious value as a symbol and an administrator in a wartime government (two roles which it is no mean feat to combine), the more I look into him, the more I see that the clay on this idol is not just the feet, but goes all the way up to the silver tongue.

If you want to see the effect in operation, look no further than Boris Johnson, who is like a tracing paper copy of Churchill - privilege and arrogance hiding behind a facade of amiability
posted by Jakey at 6:08 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


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