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By Bret Stephens
On June 18, 1940, Churchill delivered his celebrated “Finest Hour” speech. The British Army had been evacuated from Dunkirk. France, under Pétain, had decided to surrender. “Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war,” Churchill told the House of Commons.
“If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”
Two of those phrases — “broad, sunlit uplands” and “the abyss of a new Dark Age” — should ring in our ears as we approach the end of this hinge year in history.
Broad, sunlit uplands are the women of Iran tearing off their hijabs the way the people of Berlin once tore down their wall. And Ukrainian soldiers raising their flag over Irpin, Lyman, Kherson and other cities liberated from Russian barbarism. And Chinese protesters demanding — and gaining — an end to their regime’s cruel and crazy Covid lockdowns by holding up blank sheets of paper, where nothing needed to be written because everyone already knew what they meant.
Broad, sunlit uplands were Emmanuel Macron’s victories over the fascistic Marine Le Pen in France. They were the defeat of nearly every election denier in the United States who ran to oversee voting at the state level. They were the drubbing of most of Donald Trump’s handpicked candidates in battleground midterm elections, including in states such as Georgia where non-QAnon Republicans won handily.
Broad, sunlit uplands are a Covid fatality rate that, in America, no longer spikes a few weeks after case counts do. They are the demonstration that a lab-made fusion reaction can create more energy than it consumes. They are the lofting of a telescope that lets us peer far into the reaches of space and back to the beginning of time.
This isn’t just a laundry list of the year’s good news. It is a demonstration of the capacity of people across cultures and circumstances to demand, defend and define freedom; to defy those who would deny it; and to use freedom to broaden the boundaries of what we can know and do and imagine.
But it isn’t the only thing 2022 demonstrated. We continue to stare into the abyss of a new Dark Age, brought about not just by the malice of the enemies of freedom but also by the complacency and wishful thinking of its advocates.
The complacent include those who imagined we could leave Afghanistan to the Taliban and suffer no wider consequences. But the perception of American weakness travels fast and far. Vladimir Putin’s second invasion of Ukraine, on Feb. 24, happened about six months after that American fiasco. Recall that his first invasion of Ukraine, in February 2014, happened a few months after Barack Obama’s Syria debacle over his chemical weapons “red line.”
The complacent include those who thought that we could trade our way to a form of perpetual peace — whether by bringing China into the World Trade Organization or outsourcing Europe’s energy needs to Putin or imagining we could strengthen Iranian “moderates” with sanctions relief. Dictatorships are rarely weakened by being enriched. Lenin may not have said that “capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them,” but it’s remarkable how the point never seems to be learned by successive generations of capitalists.
The complacent include those supposedly sophisticated Republicans who never took a real stand against Trump — first on the grounds that he couldn’t win; then on the view that he could be a vehicle for conservative policy victories; then in the conviction that he would concede gracefully; then in the belief that impeachment after Jan. 6 was too extreme a remedy — only to see him infest the party with conspiracy theorists and lead it to its well-earned defeat.
The complacent are those who think that no vital American interest is at stake in a Ukrainian victory or in the outcome of the Iranian demonstrations. Or that China’s recent travails, along with Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine, might dissuade Xi Jinping from trying to seize Taiwan. Or that a corner has been turned on inflation. Or that the surging wave of migration across the southern border, sparked by a collapse in governance throughout much of Latin America, is some peculiar right-wing obsession rather than a genuine crisis that will incite a furious populist backlash if it isn’t competently managed.
As Britain was fighting for its life in 1940, much of America was still uncertain as to what, if anything, the moment demanded of it. Churchill laid out the choice: sunlit uplands, or the abyss. It remains our choice today.
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