The English language, AWOL

Posted: Aug 07, 2006 12:01 AM
The English language, AWOL

Where is Winston Churchill now that we need him? Where is a leader with a voice that roars with passion, purrs with reassuring eloquence, thunders with power, a voice that Edward R. Murrow said "mobilized the English language and sent it into battle"? Who among us could rally his countrymen with "nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat"?

There are few left among us who have thrilled to a voice with such power and energy. Many lesser men spin words in defense of ideas, but Churchillian appeals to sacrifice for what's right have been deconstructed, splintered and manipulated into images that rarely persuade or inspire anybody. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but such images are as distorted as a Picasso cubist portrait in broken fragments -- a nose here, an eye there, a mouth upside down.

Voices are raised to call the West to battle against Islamist fascism, to step up to the war to win the minds and hearts of free people in defense of Western civilization, only we aren't supposed to call it that. Gertrude Himmelfarb mourns in her book, "The Moral Imagination," that "Western civilization" is not a term in good repute today: "Most academics use it, if at all, ensconced in quotation marks, as if to distance themselves from it, to deny its reality or impugn it as ethnocentric, colonialist, even racist."

How could the free world (to employ another term out of fashion), once so emboldened by the words of Churchill, fall on such craven times? To be sure, Churchill was alone with his voice in the wilderness for a long time. When Neville Chamberlain returned from his parley with Herr Hitler in Munich, declaring that he had struck a "peace for our time," many of the intellectuals Churchill called "thoughtless dilettantes" and "purblind worldlings" hailed his appeasement as a triumph of statecraft. Churchill, who had been insistent about the Nazi threat, knew better, that Chamberlain's diplomacy was "a disaster of the first magnitude." But both his Tory party and his own constituents were embarrassed by his criticism of Chamberlain, and dismissed him as a "privileged eccentric."

Churchill made a habit of prescience, and had to wait for the rest of the world to catch up. In 1946, the prime minister whose oratory had bucked up the morale of the Allies through World War II was once more in the wilderness, having been thrown out of office for Clement Atlee by an ungrateful public weary of the sacrifices of war. He traveled to tiny Westminster College in Missouri, the home state of Harry Truman, where he described an Iron Curtain descending upon Europe "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic." Although leftists and many liberals both here and in Great Britain rejected the image as too hostile to the Soviet Union, it captured the imagination of the public (smarter, as usual, than the intellectuals), and set off the needed debate over how to deal with the Cold War.

"But how many know that [Churchill] also warned the world of the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism?" asked his namesake grandson Winston in a speech in Australia. The young Churchill confesses that he didn't know that, either, until he began compiling a book about his grandfather's speeches. He discovered that on June 14, 1921, after a Cairo conference in which Churchill presided over the meeting that re-shaped the Middle East -- including the creation of modern Iraq -- he warned the House of Commons that the violently radical Wahhabi Muslims, then confined to Saudi Arabia, were a dangerously lethal strain of what was then called Mohammedanism, and would require watching.

But who cared? "The consequence," says his grandson, "has been that the Wahhabis have been able to export their exceptionally intolerant brand of Islamic fundamentalism from Mauritania and Morocco on Africa's Atlantic shores, through more than two dozen countries including Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, to as far afield as the Philippines and East Timor in the Pacific."

The young Winston worries that the West is dozing off again. He can't imagine anything more deadly for civilization than the message he hears on Capitol Hill, from congressmen who want to cut and run from Iraq. "Is [America] going soft?" he asks. "The reality is that Iraq today is the epicenter of the Islamic militants' assault on the West."

He recalls the speech his grandfather delivered on becoming prime minister in May 1940 as a message for our own times: "You ask: What is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is Victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror. However long or hard the road may be, for without Victory there is no survival."

Is anybody listening?