“Dunkirk” and democracy
At a time when democracy is being questioned domestically and threatened globally, we get an inspiring reminder from the past: the current movie Dunkirk. The film is based on actual events that occurred in May and June, 1940, during WWII. Hitler had already conquered Austria. Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark and Norway, when he launched a massive surprise attack on Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France in May, 1940. His armored columns quickly swept through these countries, and trapped 400,000 British, French and Belgian troops in a French town facing the English Channel called Dunkirk.
What came to be called the Miracle of Dunkirk occurred because civilian boat owners in England voluntarily came to the rescue of the entrapped Allied troops. Civilians crewed hundreds of small boats of all types- fishing boats, tugboats, ferries, yachts and sailboats- across the English Channel to Dunkirk between May 28th and June 4th. They were able to evacuate 338,000 of the 400,000 trapped Allied troops to England.
Given the disastrous military situation, it would have been easy for the British to give up, to sue for peace, to allow democracy to be destroyed by fascism. Instead the British, under Churchill’s guidance, decided to fight on, alone, for thirteen months. This crucial historical turning point ultimately led to the defeat of fascism. Now, 77 years later, what can we learn from the Miracle of Dunkirk?
Alas, the defeat of fascism was not permanent: fascism has reemerged in the 21st Century. Both China, the world’s most populous country, and Russia, the biggest country, have shifted from communism to fascism. And arguably Jihadism can be thought of as a theocratic form of fascism. This reemergence threatens both global democracy and our own democracy, and most Americans are unaware of this threat. Most Americans take both the process and fruits of democracy for granted. Americans generally seem to assume that democracy has always existed and always will exist.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Democracy is a fragile governance system. It can be easily destroyed, for a very fundamental, evolutionary reason: Humans have always formed pyramidal dominance hierarchies, to govern extended families, clans, tribes and societies. In these pyramids there is an alpha individual at the top, and everyone else has a specific status/rank at one of the descending levels of the hierarchical pyramid. This is not a democratic, Knights of the Round Table, ‘we are all equal’, structure, but it is the natural structure that all groups, organizations, and national governments have gravitated to throughout history. So yes, democracy is fragile because it is unnatural, and always in danger of reverting back to a dominance hierarchy.
Therefore it is possible that an alpha individual (almost always a male) with extreme dictatorial ambition can gain power. Consequently there will never be a time when the world is ‘safe for democracy’, when everyone can just relax and enjoy the results of the hard work and sacrifices of previous generations. Instead each new generation must understand and nurture democracy. And, it is hard for us to nurture democracy because many Americans are woefully ignorant about how our own democracy works. We need a crash course in civics. Politicians and the news media need to use their public platforms to teach Americans about the brilliance of the Constitution, about how the Founding Fathers spread power among the three branches of the federal government, and about how power is further dispersed among local, state and the federal government.
The fundamental learning in a civics course is that democracy is not possible unless power is dispersed. However, the dispersal of power makes democracy a messy, frustrating governance system that is often ineffective and inefficient. This frustration can lead to the longing for a strongman, a dictatorial alpha who can presumably fix everything. This is the kind of dangerous magical thinking that needs to be countered by a national democracy reeducation campaign.