The day after the recent mayhem in Charlottesville, Virginia—mayhem in which white supremacists provoked violence, injury, and death in the name of their outdated version of American values—I had the privilege of choosing which film to watch at a very well-appointed theater in a very well-appointed locale during my vacation.
The choice came down to Detroit, which at first glance made sense given the news from the Old Dominion, or Dunkirk.
I chose Dunkirk. Something about fighting Nazis, I guess.
Christopher Nolan’s film is a war movie tricked out as a horror flick, and it is very effective in ratcheting up the terror inflicted by an unseen evil. Machine gun strafings explode from nowhere. Torpedo and aerial bombings result in concussions expressed as physical and aural shocks. It is a film that portrays the horror of technology—its ability to pierce the fragility of the human body, rendering our essential defenselessness in literal and terrifying terms. It is also an examination of the technology of the cinema circa 2017. The many visual dislocations and disorientations Nolan depicts are enhanced by a sound design that had the bottom of my seat rumbling as the hold of the ship on the screen trembled from assault. Special effects are more potent and less obvious than they would have been even ten years ago.
I want to see it again, but not because of Nolan’s technical mastery. That would mean little without the story at the heart of the film, a true one about the desperate British evacuation from France in 1940, told with an oddly stoic sentiment that requires little lading on the director’s part. The danger is real, the stakes are the highest, and the tension is earned throughout.
Regrouping afterward, I took up the news about Charlottesville where I had left off and it occurred to me that (while trying not to make too strained a metaphor) the United States is at something like a democratic Dunkirk. And one important tie between the historic Dunkirk and our current democratic one is the common denominator of appeasement.
Historians professional and amateur have long traced the impact of the Munich talks of 1938 in which the western European allies conceded far too much to a leader in Germany who bargained in bad faith. When Adolf Hitler unleashed his blitzkrieg through Poland in 1939 and Belgium and France in 1940, the consequences of appeasement seemed clear: the remnant of the Allied forces backed up against the English Channel, enduring the aerial predations of the Luftwaffe. “You can almost see it,” Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander intones wistfully in Dunkirk. He refers to Britain, and it appears there is no way to prevail against the attacks of the Germans and the indifference of the Channel.
The appeasement of Nazi Germany and the early phase of World War II took place in a course of a few short years. Appeasement of white supremacists in the United States has been a crucial element in social and political life since the founding of the republic. A far from exhaustive list: the protection of slavery in the Constitution to keep southern states in the fold; the three-fifths compromise that gave the agricultural, slave-owning South overrepresentation in the House of Representatives, handing the presidency to Thomas Jefferson in the deadlocked election of 1800; the Missouri Compromise assuring slaveholding states of equal representation and effective power in the Senate; the conjured conflict with Mexico that functioned as a slave territory land grab; the South’s threat to secede before the Compromise of 1850 appeased the slave power with a punitive federal fugitive slave code that implicated all Americans in capturing runaway property; the Supreme Court, packed with slaveholders from the get-go, declaring that at the founding, the black man had “no rights the white man was bound to respect” in the Dred Scott decision; the appeasement of fraudulent elections in Kansas Territory that led to a bloody prologue to the Civil War; and the withering of the revolutionary possibilities of Reconstruction after that war under an “I’m OK, you’re OK” white handshake that ensured Southern white home rule. By 1900 the white single party primary dominated Southern politics, with virtually no blacks and few poorer whites enfranchised.
As the twentieth century gained steam, long-tenured and rarely contested white supremacists remained in key congressional committee and leadership positions for decades, dictating Congress’s abdication of civil rights issues to the states. By the 1920s, even Indiana and Oregon politics were dominated by the reborn Ku Klux Klan. When the country faced the crises of the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s actions went just as far as white supremacy would allow and no farther. So most people of color were initially excluded from Social Security, New Deal work programs remained segregated, and relief funds inequitably disbursed. National health insurance became as impossible as federal intervention to stop lynching. As Ira Katznelson has shown, FDR needed American white supremacist support in order to fight the white supremacists in Germany, and years of appeasement meant that he got it.
Appeasement ensured that the federal government went along with anti-civil rights agitation and actively perpetuated inequality in administration of the G.I. Bill and federal home mortgage insurance after the war. Appeasement meant foot-dragging “with all deliberate speed” in school integration and intervention in violent white supremacist outrages until Bull Connor overplayed his hand with the TV cameras rolling in Birmingham.
But appeasement did not die with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. The long, inexorable march toward Charlottesville has been built with the help of an old tool: a grievance narrative similar to that propounded by National Socialists on their way to power in Germany. Then, the Nazis could point to Weimar’s selling out of the fatherland at Versailles, taking the blame for the Great War and suffering the indignity and impoverishment of ruinous reparations. Whatever else was wrong could be laid at the doorstep of the Jews. In the U.S. case, the federal government—with its “reverse discrimination,” its handouts to “welfare queens” and other supposed line-cutters, its tolerance of cultural and racial disorder via immigration—had stabbed white supremacy in the back.
With government itself as the disloyal enemy of what Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin in 2008 called “real Americans,” the stage for our own democratic Dunkirk had been set. We are hemmed in because the institutions of our republic have been openly attacked since Donald Trump’s announcement of his candidacy for president. Trump’s late-blooming political career had been built on an emblem of the rightist grievance narrative: the nation’s first black president could not possibly have been legitimate, any more than Black Lives Matter could have had legitimate complaint. So the nation’s most prominent birther would make America great again by challenging the credibility of the courts, by questioning the fairness and validity of elections, and by appointing a Supreme Court justice whose seat had been stolen by unethical and unconstitutional means. He would call reporting, editing and publishing according to professional journalistic standards “fake news,” its purveyors “enemies of the people.” And always, relentlessly, he too would find scapegoats: radical Islamic terrorists, Mexican rapists, inner city blacks sowing “carnage,” and never, ever would he take responsibility for his own ignorance—of facts, of history, of ethics, or for mistakes in his own judgment. As Republicans wondered at the strange beast their own toxic brew had spawned, they checked the political winds, did a look-see with donors, studied a poll or two, and appeased him and that for which he stood.
This is a man who wields twitter like a club, but he could not muster the outrage to push back against David Duke, who in Charlottesville openly dared Trump to deny the significance of white nationalists to his election.
(Speaking of which, I find it disturbingly ironic that Hitler was able to create the crisis at Dunkirk because of a non-aggression deal he had made with the Kremlin, freeing him to blitz the western Allies. That Trump may have financial, political and/or other treasonous dealings with the Kremlin and may have benefited by the Russians interfering in the U.S. election in his favor is something Special Counsel Robert Mueller will have to verify—if he is allowed to complete his work.)
The story of Dunkirk hinges not on a miracle, which the text at the beginning of the film suggests was needed on the French beach in 1940, but because of actions taken by ordinary British subjects, who understood the threat to their country and to freedom itself and risked their all to save their army. In our democratic Dunkirk of 2017, we would do well to remember that hoping for miracles will not suffice. Our equivalent to casting off and crossing the Channel is to acknowledge that the enemy here is not an unfortunately large minority of Americans who participate in, identify with, or defend the actions of the alt-right and its favorite President. It is to acknowledge the devastating effects of more than two centuries of appeasement of white supremacy in all its forms, appeasement that has led to something far from our finest hour. Shaming the shameless—including the current occupant of the White House, a man in no position to credibly condemn the obvious evil on display in Charlottesville—will not be enough. We need action and engagement on behalf of voting protections, redistricting reform, child and health care, equality in hiring, fair law enforcement and criminal justice procedures, and federal and state policy on climate change, support for scientific research, and so much more.
We need all the boats we can find.