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Even Oppenheimer isn’t spared from America’s race politics

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer. Credit: IMDb

July 24, 2023 - 2:35pm

It is an ironclad rule of the social network formerly known as Twitter that all things must generate discourse. It matters little how far-fetched it is, or how wrong-headed: Elon Musk’s Community Notes might work for containment but not for deterrence, and will only take you so far. Occasionally something comes along, a once-in-a-generation event, that fuses together a number of these “discourses” in just the right proportions. Tweets go viral, threads ensue, takes burn so hot that they erupt in a pillar of fire.  

We were graced with such an event last Friday, with the release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. Its concomitant discourse has everything you could ever ask for: World War Two, “are Jews white?”, the “tortured genius”, the omission of various ethnic-minority “voices”. And that’s before we even arrive at the greatest discourse of all, now quite retro: “the Bomb”.

Some of the reaction has been harmlessly silly, such as Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, complaining that the film failed to “inspire a generation of kids to be physicists”. But some of it is more troubling, throwing into the air certain ideas which ought to be roundly rebuked.

Chief among them is the increasingly widespread insistence on viewing the Second World War through the lens of contemporary American race politics. It is, for example, more than just an “artefact” of the American anti-Japanese racism of that era — of which, to be sure, there was a great deal — that one might “insist that the Japanese were all mindless automaton samurai who would’ve fought to the last baby holding a sharpened stick if invaded”. The experience of Okinawa in 1945 made clear that many Japanese soldiers and civilians would have fought, or would have been forced to fight, to the bitter end. Many chose suicide over surrender.

Even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is worth remembering, some army diehards attempted a coup d’état to keep on fighting, committing ritual suicide when they failed. Whether all this could have justified President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop Little Boy and Fat Man is a separate question, but one which can only seriously be considered on accepting the (in fact anti-racist) premise that not all cultures, throughout history, are identical.

It is similarly disquieting to see complaints about Oppenheimer being “yet another movie about tortured white male genius”. Oppenheimer’s “whiteness” did little to save his people in Europe from destruction. Nolan handles this deftly in the film, exploring how the physicist’s Jewishness weighed on his mind throughout his life. Indeed, one of the moral lessons of the film, and of the Manhattan Project as a whole, is the folly of antisemitism. The Nazis self-sabotaged by causing an exodus of talented Jewish scientists, and were mercifully reluctant to see the devastating potential of what they condemned as “Jüdische Physik”.

In a culture in which race is central, people feel a natural discomfort to cast a war between “whites” and “non-whites”, between America and Japan, as being simultaneously a war between good and evil. This is related to a widely-held cynicism about moral language in general. The Second World War remains the ultimate moral struggle; in our secular age Hitler, as Tom Holland observes, has “killed the Devil”. Some get a thrill out of subversion of any sort: of course they wish to topple this most sacred of cows. 

One of the contributors to the Oppenheimer discourse, Dr Nozomi Saito, is in a sense right to say that the Second World War “figure[s] in the US imaginary” as a “reductive narrative of good vs evil”, though not in the way she intends. The Second World War was a conflict between good and evil and, as living testimonies to the evils of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan gradually fade away, we should never cease to be thankful that the good side won.


Samuel Rubinstein is a History student at Trinity College, Cambridge.
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Matt M
MM
Matt M
9 months ago

I thought it was a great film. My only qualm in terms of race was the clumsy inclusion of black women sitting in a 1930s physics seminar and various black men in the background of gatherings that would have been entirely white. I can only assume that these people are inserted to meet the race quotas that are demanded to allow the film to be included in the Oscar nominations. It didn’t detract too much, just a little bit distracting – don’t let it put you off seeing the film.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

I do wonder what the consequences of all this rewriting of history will be. There are feminist historians, Marxist historians, no doubt anti-racist historians. Their premise (justification for bias) is that history was traditionally written to favour the powerful so, rather than try and separate fact from fiction, they feel free to write whatever they like without going through the onerous task of trying to genuinely understand the past through indepth research, no need to learn ancient languages. The greats are dismissed as pale, stale and male. It solves the problem of what to do with the glut of students without the required skills – create an army of the indoctrinated to spread the indoctrination: Those who both claim there is no such thing as truth whilst claiming everything they say is true without any sense of hypocrisy. Those who join just stop oil without cutting down on foreign holidays or swapping the oil guzzling 4×4 for a more energy efficient model.

Last edited 9 months ago by Aphrodite Rises
Glyn R
Glyn R
9 months ago

The consequences are the main goal.
‘In Gramsci’s own words, he viewed the task thus: “Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity. … In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches, and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.”’

Tony Price
Tony Price
8 months ago
Reply to  Glyn R

What exactly is wrong with pointing out that Christianity, or indeed any religion, is a belief based on, well, nothing; other than a desire to explain the world in the absence of scientific knowledge or to organise society as the oligarchy in charge at its inception wished?

Last edited 8 months ago by Tony Price
Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Price

Be careful how you judge things. Scientific knowledge doesn’t explain the world either. It merely proposes ideas about it that will possibly be replaced by others. Science doesn’t stop investigating. Often there are practical applications of scientific knowledge, but these are not proof of everlasting truth. Science also has no need for ethics, since they might get in the way of its pursuits. Christianity concerns itself with human interactions, as do all religions, and thus offers a different approach to the meaning of things–it’s not perfect, but has much to offer in everyday life.

Last edited 8 months ago by Martin Goodfellow
Kat L
KL
Kat L
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Price

The thing to consider is of it were all bs and the disciples knew it would they have had the fortitude to die gruesome deaths based on nothing? They knew and lived with him, if he actually hadn’t done anything why would they travel the world separately and be willing to be brutally killed? Delusions don’t last long when you are alone and risking torture,

Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Price

Be careful how you judge things. Scientific knowledge doesn’t explain the world either. It merely proposes ideas about it that will possibly be replaced by others. Science doesn’t stop investigating. Often there are practical applications of scientific knowledge, but these are not proof of everlasting truth. Science also has no need for ethics, since they might get in the way of its pursuits. Christianity concerns itself with human interactions, as do all religions, and thus offers a different approach to the meaning of things–it’s not perfect, but has much to offer in everyday life.

Last edited 8 months ago by Martin Goodfellow
Kat L
KL
Kat L
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Price

The thing to consider is of it were all bs and the disciples knew it would they have had the fortitude to die gruesome deaths based on nothing? They knew and lived with him, if he actually hadn’t done anything why would they travel the world separately and be willing to be brutally killed? Delusions don’t last long when you are alone and risking torture,

Tony Price
Tony Price
8 months ago
Reply to  Glyn R

What exactly is wrong with pointing out that Christianity, or indeed any religion, is a belief based on, well, nothing; other than a desire to explain the world in the absence of scientific knowledge or to organise society as the oligarchy in charge at its inception wished?

Last edited 8 months ago by Tony Price
Tony Price
TP
Tony Price
8 months ago

There are, of course, also right-wing historians! So there are historians of every political hue and bias, as there are people in society; feel free to highlight hypocrisy or malfeasance wherever you find it, but please don’t pretend it only emerges from one end of the political spectrum as you see it.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Price

True, but don’t pretend that one side isn’t ignored if not suppressed, while the other side is amplified to dominate the cultural discourse

Martin Johnson
MJ
Martin Johnson
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Price

True, but don’t pretend that one side isn’t ignored if not suppressed, while the other side is amplified to dominate the cultural discourse

Glyn R
MR
Glyn R
9 months ago

The consequences are the main goal.
‘In Gramsci’s own words, he viewed the task thus: “Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity. … In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches, and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.”’

Tony Price
Tony Price
8 months ago

There are, of course, also right-wing historians! So there are historians of every political hue and bias, as there are people in society; feel free to highlight hypocrisy or malfeasance wherever you find it, but please don’t pretend it only emerges from one end of the political spectrum as you see it.

steve greenidge
SG
steve greenidge
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

That’s a qualm? Well to ease your qualm, try reading up a bit.
Even if one was completely oblivious to African American contributions to the Manhattan Project, a simple Wiki search would show that.. no.. a 1930s physics seminar would not have been exclusively attended by whites. Almost 30 of the scientists and technicians on the project were black.
I highly doubt the project hired every single black scientist or technician in the country, therefore reasonable to assume there were even more blacks that would have been attending seminars in their field of study.
Maybe Mr. Nolan included them in the scenes to reflect the actuality of the times?

David Morley
DM
David Morley
9 months ago

Thanks for this. I think a lot of us simply assume that America at that time was so racist that there couldn’t possibly have been black physicists. And certainly not successful ones.

In this, as with feminism, we are caught between two competing narratives springing from the same ideology. America was so racist then that African Americans were excluded from success v America is so racist now that it has written successful African Americans out of history.

Many of us are understandably confused. Obviously the truth is more nuanced.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
8 months ago

You believe what you see on Wiki?

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
8 months ago

Clever of you to lump scientists and technicians together.
Luis Alvarez was a very important physicist on the project. A generation later, He and his son discovered that a meteor ended the Cretaceous— the Alvarezes are worthy of a film.

Matt M
MM
Matt M
8 months ago

If that is true Steve, I apologise and stand corrected. I am amazed that I have not heard more about these black female physics PHDs at Harvard and CalTech in the 1930s. I would have thought there would have been considerable interest in them. I cannot find any reference to them, do you have their names?

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago

Thanks for this. I think a lot of us simply assume that America at that time was so racist that there couldn’t possibly have been black physicists. And certainly not successful ones.

In this, as with feminism, we are caught between two competing narratives springing from the same ideology. America was so racist then that African Americans were excluded from success v America is so racist now that it has written successful African Americans out of history.

Many of us are understandably confused. Obviously the truth is more nuanced.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
8 months ago

You believe what you see on Wiki?

Martin Johnson
MJ
Martin Johnson
8 months ago

Clever of you to lump scientists and technicians together.
Luis Alvarez was a very important physicist on the project. A generation later, He and his son discovered that a meteor ended the Cretaceous— the Alvarezes are worthy of a film.

Matt M
MM
Matt M
8 months ago

If that is true Steve, I apologise and stand corrected. I am amazed that I have not heard more about these black female physics PHDs at Harvard and CalTech in the 1930s. I would have thought there would have been considerable interest in them. I cannot find any reference to them, do you have their names?

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

I do wonder what the consequences of all this rewriting of history will be. There are feminist historians, Marxist historians, no doubt anti-racist historians. Their premise (justification for bias) is that history was traditionally written to favour the powerful so, rather than try and separate fact from fiction, they feel free to write whatever they like without going through the onerous task of trying to genuinely understand the past through indepth research, no need to learn ancient languages. The greats are dismissed as pale, stale and male. It solves the problem of what to do with the glut of students without the required skills – create an army of the indoctrinated to spread the indoctrination: Those who both claim there is no such thing as truth whilst claiming everything they say is true without any sense of hypocrisy. Those who join just stop oil without cutting down on foreign holidays or swapping the oil guzzling 4×4 for a more energy efficient model.

Last edited 9 months ago by Aphrodite Rises
steve greenidge
SG
steve greenidge
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

That’s a qualm? Well to ease your qualm, try reading up a bit.
Even if one was completely oblivious to African American contributions to the Manhattan Project, a simple Wiki search would show that.. no.. a 1930s physics seminar would not have been exclusively attended by whites. Almost 30 of the scientists and technicians on the project were black.
I highly doubt the project hired every single black scientist or technician in the country, therefore reasonable to assume there were even more blacks that would have been attending seminars in their field of study.
Maybe Mr. Nolan included them in the scenes to reflect the actuality of the times?

Matt M
Matt M
9 months ago

I thought it was a great film. My only qualm in terms of race was the clumsy inclusion of black women sitting in a 1930s physics seminar and various black men in the background of gatherings that would have been entirely white. I can only assume that these people are inserted to meet the race quotas that are demanded to allow the film to be included in the Oscar nominations. It didn’t detract too much, just a little bit distracting – don’t let it put you off seeing the film.

Right-Wing Hippie
RH
Right-Wing Hippie
9 months ago

You would think–you would think–that if there was one historical event modern leftwing race agitators would not want their peoples to be associated with, it would be the invention and subsequent use of the atomic bomb. But that would be to underestimate the will to power (or, at least, to amoral prestige) which drives the modern race industry.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
9 months ago

As rightwing hippie do you listen to the Perfume Nationalist?

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
9 months ago

As rightwing hippie do you listen to the Perfume Nationalist?

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
9 months ago

You would think–you would think–that if there was one historical event modern leftwing race agitators would not want their peoples to be associated with, it would be the invention and subsequent use of the atomic bomb. But that would be to underestimate the will to power (or, at least, to amoral prestige) which drives the modern race industry.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
9 months ago

Haven’t the Japanese been reclassified as white as a consequence of being too successful?
It’s a solution I’m sure modern physicists approve: too much gravitational attraction and not enough observable mass in the universe? Invent dark matter. Privilege appears to be made out of the same stuff.

Andrew Dalton
AD
Andrew Dalton
9 months ago

Haven’t the Japanese been reclassified as white as a consequence of being too successful?
It’s a solution I’m sure modern physicists approve: too much gravitational attraction and not enough observable mass in the universe? Invent dark matter. Privilege appears to be made out of the same stuff.

Andrzej Wasniewski
Andrzej Wasniewski
8 months ago

How can anyone doubt that von Neumann, Teller, Ulam. Oppenheimer etc..were all transgendered black men?
The jury about Albert Einstein is still out.

Andrzej Wasniewski
AW
Andrzej Wasniewski
8 months ago

How can anyone doubt that von Neumann, Teller, Ulam. Oppenheimer etc..were all transgendered black men?
The jury about Albert Einstein is still out.

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
9 months ago

And here I was wondering why the film depicts so many black people and women freely milling about the elite military and academic settings in 1930’s and 40’s America. . .

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
9 months ago
Reply to  Paul Hendricks

Racism didn’t exist back then.

Aphrodite Rises
AR
Aphrodite Rises
9 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

And Africa was populated by nuclear physicists.

Glyn R
Glyn R
9 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Try telling that to the black American GIs of that period.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
9 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

And Africa was populated by nuclear physicists.

Glyn R
Glyn R
9 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Try telling that to the black American GIs of that period.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
9 months ago
Reply to  Paul Hendricks

Racism didn’t exist back then.

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
9 months ago

And here I was wondering why the film depicts so many black people and women freely milling about the elite military and academic settings in 1930’s and 40’s America. . .

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
9 months ago

I think the economics of movie making will likely stop too much wokism in the industry. There are lots of spaces in movies for non white and non traditional actors – but recent attempts to overdo it – either by inappropriate casting or preachy woke plots – have failed to make money. For example – they gay rom com ‘Bros’ failed for reasons that would be obvious to anyone who understands why we go to see movies in the first place.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
9 months ago

I think the economics of movie making will likely stop too much wokism in the industry. There are lots of spaces in movies for non white and non traditional actors – but recent attempts to overdo it – either by inappropriate casting or preachy woke plots – have failed to make money. For example – they gay rom com ‘Bros’ failed for reasons that would be obvious to anyone who understands why we go to see movies in the first place.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
9 months ago

It would be fascinating to observe this sort of ethnic narcissism in another group of people. The Germans, perhaps. Oh, wait …

Hugh Bryant
HB
Hugh Bryant
9 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Sorry, what are you talking about?

Hugh Bryant
HB
Hugh Bryant
9 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Sorry, what are you talking about?

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
9 months ago

It would be fascinating to observe this sort of ethnic narcissism in another group of people. The Germans, perhaps. Oh, wait …

RM Parker
RP
RM Parker
9 months ago

“…the greatest discourse of all, now quite retro: “the Bomb”.” – retro? We had better all hope so… though in the long run I cannot claim to be optimistic.

RM Parker
RM Parker
9 months ago

“…the greatest discourse of all, now quite retro: “the Bomb”.” – retro? We had better all hope so… though in the long run I cannot claim to be optimistic.

Anna Bramwell
AB
Anna Bramwell
8 months ago

I didnt realise there was a question whether Jews are white. Outside loony tunes who think the Middle East was populated by black people, and that Europeans only ever appeared in Europe.

Last edited 8 months ago by Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
8 months ago

I didnt realise there was a question whether Jews are white. Outside loony tunes who think the Middle East was populated by black people, and that Europeans only ever appeared in Europe.

Last edited 8 months ago by Anna Bramwell