Darkest Hour: Nuanced Historical Flick or Meme-ish Schlock?

Darkest Hour is about the World War II events that took place in Great Britain from May 10 through June 4, 1940 — Neville Chamberlain’s resignation as prime minister, Winston Churchill’s ascension, France falling to Nazi Germany (including the siege at Calais), the miraculous evacuation of over 330,000 British troops at Dunkirk, all culminating in Churchill’s decision not to enter into peace talks with Hitler, which led to the Battle of Britain.

I enjoyed the movie. It was entertaining, well crafted, and beautifully acted, and I think the choice to focus on that single, eventful month was an excellent one. Gary Oldman is physically the exact opposite of Churchill, yet he absolutely disappears into the role. I also thought the movie was nicely and importantly nuanced until the end (where it devolves into a schlocky mess).

In particular, it highlighted Churchill’s spotty track record prior to his ascension, his politically precarious position, and the strategic, emotional, and moral complexity around decisions that will unavoidably cost lives. It offered a little taste of coalition politics, which I find especially fascinating these days as I wonder about the future of the two-party system in the U.S. I also felt more empathetic to the strongly differing viewpoints of the time, especially to Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax. It’s so much easier to judge when you have the benefit of hindsight.

I wouldn’t say the ending ruined the whole movie for me (a surprising sentiment, given that I knew what was going to happen), but I didn’t like it. It lost its nuance. First, there was an incredibly grotesque, entirely fictional scene where Churchill decides to take the subway to Westminster Station so that he can mix with the people. It’s a cheap, gimmicky device made even worse by the inclusion of the one person of color in the entire movie.

Then, all semblance of nuance disappeared, and it became a series of will-of-the-people, fight-until-the-end propaganda piece. Which, in some ways, was accurate. Churchill’s strengths were his way with words and his ability to inspire. Earlier in the film, they did touch on the difficult balancing act between looking disastrous reality in the face while also maintaining hope, which I appreciated.

I get why the movie ended the way it did. It would have been too complicated, for example, to try to explain that the Battle of Britain, while heroic and extraordinary, would likely have been futile had Japan not attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. not entered the war.

I’m okay with the ending. I just didn’t like it. And I especially hated the fact that the movie ended with this inspirational “Churchill” quote:

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

Here’s what the International Churchill Society has to say about this quote on a page entitled, “Quotes falsely attributed to Winston Churchill”:

We can find no attribution for either one of these and you will find that they are broadly attributed to Winston Churchill. They are found nowhere in his canon, however. An almost equal number of sources found online credit these sayings to Abraham Lincoln — but we have found none that provides any attribution in the Lincoln Archives.

Falsely sourcing quotes is a pet peeve of mine. I get why they might have created that idiotic subway scene. But why end the movie Internet meme style? It was lazy and unnecessary, and it summed up how the overall ending of this otherwise solid movie was for me.

Douglas Adams on True Transparency

From Douglas Adams’, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“But the plans were on display…”

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the display department.”

“With a flashlight.”

“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.”

Hat tip to Denny Vrandečić.

Mugabe, Democracy, and the Unbearable Intertwingularity of Structure and Culture

The November 17, 2017 issue of the Eurasia Group’s excellent Signal newsletter reminds us that the now deposed Robert Mugabe was not always a “cartoon dictator”:

Mugabe, a school teacher and freedom fighter, was jailed in Rhodesia in 1964, the same year Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa. But Mugabe’s country gained liberation before Mandela’s. In 1980, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and Mugabe became prime minister.

In the beginning, Zimbabwe was a developing world success story, the “bread basket” of Africa. Its economy was dynamic and diversified. Mugabe the teacher governed a nation with one of the continent’s highest literacy rates. He became president in 1987. But over time, the economy slowed, and his hold on his people began to slip. In response, his newly radicalized policies began to drive the country’s economy into the ground. The liberator then used violence to essentially crown himself king.

Running for re-election in 2008, he promised to abide by the people’s verdict. He finished the first round in second place, and announced that “only God” could remove him from power. Preposterous levels of inflation made cash less valuable than paper. Unemployment hovered above 90 percent. Millions fled the country. The king is now 93, and his subjects are fighting in the open over what comes next.

Past a certain number of people and issues, pure (i.e. direct) democracies do not scale (although technology potentially changes this). (This is true in all group contexts, not just societal.) So we create shortcuts, which — in the case of societies — usually looks like representative democracies. Shortcuts are efficient, but they (willingly) shift power away from the people, creating opportunities for abuse.

When it comes to power, if there are opportunities for abuse, someone will generally exploit them. To counter this, we create structural checks and balances. This results in new kinds of complexity, which can not only defeat the purpose of the shortcuts, but can also end up being more inefficient and less effective than the original structure you were trying to improve in the first place.

What often happens in this case is that people lose faith in the structures. We see this all the time in countries (including our very own right now). We see it all the time in organizations too.

Often, the criticism is merited. It’s critically important to acknowledge and try to fix structural flaws. But it’s also critically important to remember structure is not everything. Culture — our norms and beliefs — matters too. Shifting those norms and beliefs is really hard, but it’s not necessarily harder than changing structures.

Changing structures can shift culture, but it’s not the only way. The other way can seem messy and unpredictable, because it involves people, but sometimes it’s actually easier, and often, it’s better.

I wonder what would have happened in Zimbabwe if they had had a truth and reconciliation process in 1980 as South Africa did post-Apartheid. Similarly, what would this country have been like if we had had such a process following the Civil War?

In general, what would happen if countries took the time to align around a truly shared, collective vision? What if we consciously and intentionally invested in developing empathy in our citizenry?

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt via Wikimedia Commons

Will You Help Me Load Test Zoom and Google Docs?

I’m looking for volunteers to help me load test Zoom and Google Docs for 30-minutes this Thursday, October 26 at 1pm PT / 3pm CT / 4pm ET. Could you help?

I’m doing an interactive, participatory workshop via Zoom in a few weeks, and I have the lovely challenge of having over 80 people registered. In my design, I have people working individually in the same Google Doc (with lots of tables), then in pairs before coming back together as a full group.

I feel good about the overall design — I’ve done it with over 70 people face-to-face and with less than 20 online. However, I’ve never done it with this many people online, and I just want to test the mechanics of the breakouts and having a large number of people editing a Google Doc with lots of people at the same time.

I’m trying to get as many people as possible to do a lightweight simulation with me this Thursday. Could you spare 30 minutes to help? All I would need you to do would be to log into Zoom and the Google Doc, follow a few instructions, and give me feedback. It might not take the full 30 minutes, and it wouldn’t require your full attention.

The bonus: You’d meet lots of great folks from my community, several of whom have already volunteered to help. I will also document everything I learn and publicly share. If you’re interested in the design of the workshop itself, I’d be happy to discuss that with you also.

Please leave a comment below if you’d be willing to help, and please spread the word as well! My goal is to recruit at least 40 people. Many, many thanks!

George Washington’s Warning About Political Parties

From George Washington’s farewell address at the close of his second term:

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.