Sunday, February 08, 2015

The dark side of Winston Churchill’s legacy no one should forget

Ishaan Tharoor, WashPost

There's no Western statesmen — at least in the English-speaking world — more routinely lionized than Winston Churchill. Last Friday marked a half century since his funeral, an occasion that itself led to numerous commemorations and paeans to the British Bulldog, whose moral courage and patriotism helped steer his nation through World War II.

Churchill, after all, has been posthumously voted by his countrymen as the greatest Briton. The presence (and absence) of his bust in the White House was enough to create political scandal on both sides of the pond. The allure of his name is so strong that it launches a thousand quotations, many of which are apocryphal. At its core, Churchill's myth serves as a ready-made metaphor for boldness and leadership, no matter how vacuous the context in which said metaphor is deployed.

For example, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair earned comparisons to Churchill after dragging his country into the much-maligned 2003 Iraq war. So too Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose tough stance on Iran's nuclear ambitions has been cast by some in Churchill's heroic mold — the Israeli premier's uncompromising resolve a foil to the supposed "appeasement" tendencies of President Obama.

In the West, Churchill is a freedom fighter, the man who grimly withstood Nazism and helped save Western liberal democracy. It's a civilizational legacy that has been polished and placed on a mantle for decades. Churchill "launched the lifeboats," declared Time magazine, on the cover of its Jan. 2, 1950 issue that hailed the British leader as the "man of the half century."

But there's another side to Churchill's politics and career that should not be forgotten amid the endless parade of eulogies. To many outside the West, he remains a grotesque racist and a stubborn imperialist, forever on the wrong side of history.

Churchill's detractors point to his well-documented bigotry, articulated often with shocking callousness and contempt. "I hate Indians," he once trumpeted. "They are a beastly people with a beastly religion."

He referred to Palestinians as "barbaric hordes who ate little but camel dung." When quashing insurgents in Sudan in the earlier days of his imperial career, Churchill boasted of killing three "savages." Contemplating restive populations in northwest Asia, he infamously lamented the "squeamishness" of his colleagues, who were not in "favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes."

At this point, you may say, so what? Churchill's attitudes were hardly unique for the age in which he expounded them. All great men have flaws and contradictions — some of America's founding fathers, those paragons of liberty, were slave owners. One of Churchill's biographers, cited by my colleague Karla Adam, insists that his failings were ultimately "unimportant, all of them, compared to the centrality of the point of Winston Churchill, which is that he saved [Britain] from being invaded by the Nazis."

(More here.)

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