The Language: Some Issues over “Issues”
“Issues over Issues” is reprinted with revisions from an essay in 2007.
“I confess myself to be a great admirer of tradition. The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward….The wider the span, the longer the continuity, the greater is the sense of duty in individual men and women, each contributing their brief life’s work to the preservation and progress of the land in which they live, the society of which they are members, and the world of which they are the servants.” —Winston S. Churchill, Royal College of Physicians, 2 March 1944
“The Cardinals’ bus from their hotel in midtown Manhattan was delayed by more than an hour as it made its way to the ballpark on Wednesday. A combination of bad weather, typical New York traffic and the plane crash all led to major issues for the bus.”
Major issues for the bus?
It is subtle, and it creeps into our discourse in the most innocent ways. But the campaign to replace what Churchill called old and good words is endless.
Issues versus problems
An example is the substitution of politically correct words for long-understood words in everyday language. My pet favorite is the word “issues,” now substituted for the word “problems.” The idea is that we must not be “judgmental” (another popular favorite) about our troubles, because our troubles may be right. After all, a mugger with a knife is only expressing his own predilections. This extends even to inanimate objects. In the sports report above, not only people but now even buses have “issues.”
No. “Issues” are subjects on which there is disagreement. What the bus (or, more correctly, its driver) had were “problems.” This word-substitution is subconsciously catching, because we all want to use hip forms of speech. If editors don’t watch out, even we fall for it. I recently had to stop myself from saying that I had “issues” with the fanatics who are trying to kill us. What I have, of course, are “problems,” if not “violent objections.”
One might expect anyone who studies the life of Winston Churchill to tilt toward traditional language, and one would be right. I don’t care what you think about the war in Ukraine, economic policy, immigration, religion, global warming, or Messrs. Biden, Sunak or Trudeau. All those are legitimate, er, “issues,” over which reasonable people may disagree.
An “issue” (in the legitimate meaning of the word) came up at a scholarly panel over the “percentages” agreement. That was the “spheres of influence” in eastern Europe, agreed between Churchill and Stalin at the “Tolstoy” conference in October 1944. That, it was being said at the time, proved that Churchill and Britain were no different than Stalin and Russia. Both sides had identical objectives, i.e., their own national interests.
There are those who would have us believe that the Western democracies are no better than Nazis, Soviets, or Islamofascists. We heard the line quite recently at Cairo, when a High Personage suggested that the displacement of Palestinians after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war was morally equivalent to the Holocaust.
“Us” versus “Them”
Leave aside that Churchill saw the “Tolstoy” agreement as a temporary expedient which might save Greece from communization (as indeed it did). Did Churchill’s behavior prove that “we” were the same as “them”?
No. The “national interests” of Britain in Greece included objectives like getting the ouzo concession for Harrods and Greek support of British policies after the war. The “national interests” of Russia in Poland were simply everything that Poland had. Everything Poland produced, everything it aspired to do and be, was subject to Soviet approval. To my knowledge, nothing Greece did after the war was done at the behest of London. But everything Poland did after the war was directed by Moscow. That was the difference between “us” and “them.” Small wonder that the western democracies today find their most enthusiastic friends among the former Warsaw Pact.
What Churchill meant by “Christian civilisation”
Churchill sometimes referred to “Christian civilisation” (a phrase I have seen edited out of some transcripts). By this, Churchill did not mean to exclude Jews or Buddhists or Muslims. He meant those words in a much broader sense. Just as, to Churchill, the word “man” meant “mankind.” His allusions to Christianity referred to its universal ethics: the Ten Commandments (a “judgmental” set of rules now expunged from certain public places), the Sermon on the Mount, charity, forgiveness, courage. As he put it in January 1941:
It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the whole world and the hopes of a broadening civilization founded upon Christian ethics depend upon the relation between the British Empire or Commonwealth of Nations and the United States. The identity of purpose and persistence of resolve prevailing throughout the English-speaking world will, more than any other single fact, determine the way of life which will be open to the generations and perhaps to the centuries which follow our own.
A shade of difference
So let us reiterate what should not need to be reiterated. The democracies which fought and won World War II have also produced the most prosperity and liberated the most people in history. Some of them committed themselves militarily on behalf of Muslim populations from Bosnia to Afghanistan. On the whole, those efforts paid off. They allowed people to say what they think without fear of being stuck up against a wall. I include the Soviets among the allies who won the war. I exclude them from the aforementioned group, because they enslaved at least as many as they helped liberate.
A modest proposal: avoid PC filters to describe Churchill’s thoughts and deeds, however antique they may sound today. Also: when democracies fight, it’s not equivalent to what fanatics did to us in New York, Washington, London or Madrid. “We” are not the same as “them.” No “issues” there.
Just wanted to get that off my chest.
3 thoughts on “The Language: Some Issues over “Issues””
What you write should be obvious to everybody.
But it is not. So, thanks for putting it so well. Plus: Churchill is my hero. (From a Frenchman.)
Thank you. Subscribe to the blog and more will come. As someone also born in 1941, we need to stick together.
Thank-you for a truly wonderful dissertation based on fact that everyone needs to hear and strive to aspire to for world sanity. As someone born in 1941 I love to hear more.