When duty texts, remember that you have read-receipt on

The destiny of mankind is not decided by material computation. When great causes are on the move in the world, stirring all men’s souls, drawing them from their firesides, casting aside comfort, wealth and the pursuit of happiness in response to impulses at once awe-striking and irresistible, we learn that we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.

Winston Churchill, “The Old Lion” speech, June 16, 1941

Churchill was speaking these words from London, on a radio broadcast to America, as Britain was barely hanging on against the Nazi onslaught. The United States was not yet in the war, but it soon would be (as Churchill sincerely hoped).

To say it is hard to imagine any of the dominant men on the world stage saying any of these words right now is an understatement. Boris Johnson might try to do a buffoonish Oxbridge-asshole parody of the Great Man (in fact, I think that’s what he’s going for — tragedy, then farce). As the wave of reaction breaks across the Philippines, Brazil, Britain, India, and now, tragically, Bolivia, we find ourselves again in actually trying times, facing perils that could undo much of what good was done in the twentieth century (to say nothing of threatening human survival in general).

Donald Trump, of course, can’t speak of duty, except in a brazenly insincere pander to “the troops” and “our veterans,” because he has never felt any obligation to anyone in his life. He literally cannot compute the idea of selflessness, because everyone to him is either a winner or a sucker. As I’ve said before, it’s not that Trump doesn’t know things; it’s that he doesn’t know what it is to know things. And the same could be said for his moral universe as well; the only people who give up anything are the losers, like immigrants who need food, water, shelter, and healthcare. (Too bad!)

As ToM’s Jason Tebbe recently noted, Jimmy Carter was the last president to call for shared sacrifice, and all we remember about it is the word “malaise.” However, it seems likely that the world ahead of us is one that will call for rising to our better natures and facing truly frightening problems like climate change by recognizing our shared humanity — or else. “Socialism or barbarism.” We’re all on one big group text, and it sucks. But you have to text back.

A truly great platter of reads for you to digest along with the leftover turkey-and-cranberry sandwiches, chosen by our editors. Also, big news in the works for several of our editors and contributors. “Events move quickly, you see.”

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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