By Nolan Weber
This is the first post of the revived PROSPECT Blog. While the first several articles will be authored by me, future pieces will be crafted by the other Editors on a rotating basis. Ultimately, the PROSPECT Blog will become a venue for the expression of opinion on international affairs by the Editors of the PROSPECT Journal.
The Millennial generation has, yet again, haphazardly groped at the pages of history to manifest some speciously cosmopolitan meta-culture. Regularly sewing knock-off irony from the Beat Generation with threads of popular culture just outside recent collective memory, we have witnessed the resurgence of the Members Only Jacket and sockless loafer wearing. However, the nature of the cultural meme I am addressing is a bit more serious.
Specifically, I’m referring to the proliferating permutations of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” slogan used by the British to maintain public morale during WWII. Whether people are aware of its meaning seems to be somewhat irrelevant. However, I have anecdotal experiences with this phrase that run the gamut of what one could potentially encounter. Indeed, I have been exposed to both thorough knowledge of the poster’s history and daft ignorance that paralyzed me with an existential break with reality—forcing me to take a contemplative moment to assess my generation’s cultural mark. No doubt, this resulted in an awkward remainder of conversation, but I digress.
Admittedly, my pretentions have caused me to be a little irked. I’m not going to throw a hissy fit over humanity doing what it naturally does. However, I am going to try and make a brief, convincing argument explaining why this phrase is not suited to be paraded about in the same vein as neon wayfarer glasses and pastel shorts.
Simply consider how it was originally incorporated into daily life: the most developed nation in the world was facing invasion by a mechanized war machine and needed a motto to maintain a tranquil national spirit. You did catch that, right? A developed nation was facing invasion. As a society, we are so unbelievably divorced from that idea our claims of invasion reference personal space encroached upon by a creepy guy standing too close to us in line. For 1939 Britain, it meant the mass production of the simplest weapon that could chuck as much deadly force in a general direction as possible: the Sten Mark II submachine gun.
With massive armory depletions and the Battle of Britain about to erupt, The British government had to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. This meant a propagandized usage of an endearing phrase on one end and the mass production of the Sten submachine gun on the other. Speaking to the emergency of the situation, it was a weapon that could be produced in five hours by adolescent machinists. No doubt, it was primitive by any mechanical standard of the day.
With all of forty-seven parts and an open-bolt design of the action, its construction was primordial. The gun was essentially composed of just a trigger that pulled a hook connected to a latch holding back a large spring. The spring would then drunkenly launch a chunk of metal forward to ham-fistedly slap at a cartridge primer that fired the bullet. Indeed, when I say slap, I mean slap–there was no firing pin in this weapon. In terms of gunsmithing technology, that is like having a car you have to crank to get started. To fire fully automatically, it just used the force of the discharged bullet to violently jostle the ponderous metal cylinder back to its starting point only to be sent forward again by a spring more suited for a bargain mattress than a weapon of war. Again, when compared to contemporary weaponry of its day, it was a Nokia brick among iPhones. However, no requisite knowledge of guns is necessary to appreciate what this says about history and its relation to today’s irreverent use of the “Keep Calm Carry On” phrase.
While it never happened, there was a very real possibility of teenagers having to take cover underneath a tattered “Keep Calm” poster, tasked with repelling wave after wave of invading Nazis using their government-issued Sten Mark II’s. Without this turning to a gripe, it’s my opinion that this phrase really should not be made the subject of some opportunistic leveraging of history as a fashion statement. I implore you to deeply consider the context in which this phrase was born: the British government was preparing to arm their able-bodied population with assault weapons to resist violent occupation. Indeed, survival of the last beacon of freedom in Western Europe during WWII may have come down to the British citizenry’s capacity to Keep Calm and Carry a Machine Gun.