Recently there has been a furore over a scene, or more accurately lack of a scene, in the Neil Armstrong biopic ‘First Man’. Despite the American flag being shown on the surface of the moon, there is not (brace yourself here) a shot of the flag actually being planted into the lunar soil (I told you it was bad). Cue much gnashing of teeth on social media and spluttering indignation from several U.S. politicians. ‘…A terrible thing…’ bemoaned President Trump, whilst Senator Marco Rubio described the editing decision as ‘…total lunacy…’. It was an easy win for both men; they hoovered up votes on the right of their party, whilst offending a Hollywood which was overwhelmingly blue in the last election. Not being from that side of the pond, I decided to search for some controversy myself. I was unsuccessful.
Firstly, this is a piece of art. It wasn’t paid for by elected officials, nor by the public, but by Universal Pictures. As such, it is designed primarily to entertain rather than inform. Somewhere in the production process, a decision has been made to not film the flag-planting scene. Whether for financial or storytelling purposes, it was someone’s judgement that this film would best entertain without this particular aspect. If you don’t like it, go and film your own version with dustbins and snorkels on the beach. Just ensure that it’s not a windy day – the flag shouldn’t flutter, or so I’m told.
That Rubio felt the need to adopt a tone of such shrill nationalism is notable in itself. Is he afraid that the viewing public might not know that the Americans won the space race? That people might assume that the Swiss got there first? That because it was a Canadian in the lead role that astronauts will be shown playing ice hockey instead of golf in the sequel? Contrary to what President Trump suggested at the UN this week, not everything has to scream patriotism. Some achievements, for example flying a tin can 240,000 miles to a rock hurtling through space, landing on it, before returning safely to earth, speak for themselves. It takes a special kind of insecurity to still need to be reminded of America’s supremacy in space when their only rival at the time, the U.S.S.R., ceased to exist almost three decades ago.
What really rubs, though, is the appropriation of an achievement. As far as I am aware, Senator Rubio did not play any part in the Apollo programme. Rubio was not yet two years old when the lunar module Eagle touched down. He had not contributed to what was an astonishing technological achievement either through tax dollars or through his own ingenuity. I don’t feel proud of the cracking of the enigma code because I wasn’t sitting crunching numbers at Bletchley Park. Everyone who did participate, from the catering staff to Alan Turing himself, is entitled to feel a sense of pride because they can point to cause and effect. I did this, and something marvellous happened as a result. It’s someone else’s achievement, and for me to claim it cheapens it. It’s the same reason that I don’t feel wracked by guilt over the Highland clearances or the phone hacking scandal. Why would I? I was neither aware of them, nor participated in them to any extent. It strikes me that, to feel pride in being of the same nationality as someone, I must also feel shame for every blunder and scandal. So for every Isaac Newton I point to, I also have to shamefacedly show you a Harold Shipman. That’s a lot of weight on my shoulders.
Such lazy nationalism isn’t of course limited to the U.S. This week, Theresa May proposed a festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 2022. This will allow us Brits to celebrate the fact that we were all expelled from our mothers’ nether regions in the same administrative area whilst soothing any national pride wounded from the Brexit fallout. Remembering is important. History is important. Surely though, we can honour the achievements of the past without government intervention and without using them for political posturing.