The Language: Some Issues Over “Issues”

The Language: Some Issues Over “Issues”

Reprint­ed with revi­sions from Finest Hour 133, Win­ter 2006-07

“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 Shea Sta­di­um 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 the val­ues and mores of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion is cease­less.

An exam­ple is the sub­sti­tu­tion of “polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect” words for long-under­stood words in our 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 ded­i­cat­ed to the life and times of Win­ston Churchill to tilt toward tra­di­tion­al lan­guage, and one would be right. I don’t care what you think about the war in Afghanistan, eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy, immi­gra­tion, reli­gion, glob­al warm­ing, or Messrs. Oba­ma, Harp­er and Brown. All those are legit­i­mate, er, “issues,” over which rea­son­able peo­ple may dis­agree.

The 1944 "Percentages Agreement," with Stalin's big blue tick at upper left corner. (Churchill Archives Centre Cambridge)
The 1944 "Per­cent­ages Agree­ment," with Stalin's big blue tick at upper left cor­ner. (Churchill Archives Cen­tre Cam­bridge)

An “issue” (in the legit­i­mate mean­ing of the word) came up at a Churchill Cen­tre schol­ar­ly pan­el when it was argued that the “per­cent­ages” agree­ment (propos­ing spheres of influ­ences in east­ern Europe) between Churchill and Stal­in at Moscow—the “Tol­stoy” con­fer­ence in Octo­ber 1944—proved that Churchill and Britain were no dif­fer­ent than Stal­in and Russia—that both sides had iden­ti­cal objec­tives, i.e., their own nation­al inter­ests.

This is a com­mon argu­ment of 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, from an unex­pect­ed source, the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, who sug­gest­ed that the Holo­caust was moral­ly equiv­a­lent to the dis­place­ment of Pales­tini­ans after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Say what?

Leave aside that Churchill saw the Moscow agree­ment as a tem­po­rary expe­di­ent which might end up sav­ing 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 (option­al) of British poli­cies after the war; where­as the “nation­al inter­ests” of Rus­sia in Poland, for exam­ple, was quite sim­ply every­thing that Poland had. Every­thing Poland pro­duced, every­thing it aspired to do and be, was sub­ject to Sovi­et pref­er­ence. To my knowl­edge, noth­ing Greece did after the war was done at the behest of Lon­don, while 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.

When Churchill in war speech­es referred to “Chris­t­ian civil­i­sa­tion” (a phrase I have actu­al­ly seen edit­ed out of some tran­scripts) he 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.

So let me reit­er­ate what one should think need not be reit­er­at­ed. The West­ern democ­ra­cies who fought and won World War II and the Cold War—Britain, Cana­da, Amer­i­ca, Aus­tralia, New Zealand—have pro­duced the most pros­per­i­ty and lib­er­at­ed the largest num­ber of peo­ple in the his­to­ry of the world. More recent­ly the Unit­ed States com­mit­ted itself mil­i­tar­i­ly six times on behalf of Mus­lim pop­u­la­tions in Soma­lia, the Balka­ns and the Mid­dle East. These efforts allowed unprece­dent­ed mass­es to say what they think with­out fear of being stuck up against a wall by brown­shirts car­ry­ing rifles. I include the Rus­sians among the allies who won the war, but exclude them from the afore­men­tioned group, because they enslaved at least as many peo­ple before and after the war as they helped lib­er­ate dur­ing it.

Seri­ous writ­ers should try to avoid sub­sti­tut­ing “issues” for “prob­lems.” We should avoid PC fil­ters in describ­ing Churchillian thoughts and deeds, how­ev­er antique they may sound today. We should not accept the notion that when democ­ra­cies fight, how­ev­er inept­ly, it’s equiv­a­lent to what the fanat­ics did to us in New York or Wash­ing­ton or Lon­don or Madrid. We should not believe that “we” are the same as “them.” We should not believe that Churchill’s fail­ures and faults, how­ev­er notable, even begin to com­pare with the lev­el of his suc­cess­es and qual­i­ties. No “issues” on that one!

Just want­ed to get that off my chest.

3 thoughts on “The Language: Some Issues Over “Issues”

  1. First, thanks for using the word “issue” cor­rect­ly and not in the Newspeak sense.

    Every nation has nation­al inter­ests. The point is that advanc­ing them by sub­ju­gat­ing anoth­er nation is wrong; ask a Pole about the old Sovi­ets. There IS a dif­fer­ence between “them” and “us.”

  2. I have “issue” with your argu­ment that Churchill and Britain were NOT the same as Stal­in and Rus­sia. You argue that the nation­al inter­ests of both coun­tries in Greece and Poland dif­fer tremen­dous­ly: Rus­sia – cen­tralised con­trol of Poland, dic­tat­ing its present and future from Moscow. Britain – ask­ing for sup­port for British pol­i­cy after the war, and ouzo con­ces­sion for Har­rods.

    BUT – you are just describ­ing the dif­fer­ences between the ide­olo­gies between the two coun­tries. Stal­in was a dic­ta­tor of a Marx­ist-Lenin­ist state, intent on cen­tralised con­trol of its pop­u­la­tion and belief in a state man­aged econ­o­my. That is pre­cise­ly how they oper­at­ed, and Poland was no excep­tion. Churchill’s Britain, based on a lib­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic ide­ol­o­gy was of course not going to active­ly ‘force’ the Greek deci­sion­mak­ers into pol­i­cy that would favor the British. (Although the troops sent in after the 1944 con­fer­ence to fight the Com­mu­nist fac­tion in Greece, was essen­tial­ly push­ing the coun­try towards keep­ing a demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment).

    Argu­ments made over the dif­fer­ence of nation­al inter­est are ide­o­log­i­cal, and there­fore the orig­i­nal ques­tion of whether they were the same in essence is arguably yes. Both were dom­i­nat­ed by self-inter­est, the intent of both Churchill and Stal­in being sim­i­lar in both instances. Both want­ed influ­ence in each coun­try, and their own ide­ol­o­gy to be stamped on it, for both eco­nom­ic and secu­ri­ty rea­son­ing. Just their ide­olo­gies went about and imple­ment­ed their objec­tives dif­fer­ent­ly.

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