By Donella Meadows
–October 17, 1991–
The central question last week was, for awhile: why did the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee dismiss so lightly a charge of sexual harrassment? Then the question shifted to: who is Anita Hill? Then the question-manipulating machine of Washington recovered from its surprise and reclaimed the power to frame the question.
The real question, they said, is: who leaked the information about Anita Hill to the press? And: does Anita Hill know she is lying, or is she demented? And: what evil conspirators are putting ideas into the head of Anita Hill? The pro-Thomas forces used a supposed fact-finding hearing to repeat these question over and over, so that their questions would become our questions.
It is an insidious process, this seizing the question. And it is astoundingly effective. It was effective from the beginning to the end of the Thomas nomination. If our leaders had cared about the nation and the Constitution, their question would have been: of the most distinguished jurors of our land, who is experienced, intelligent, wise, and compassionate enough to stand guard over the rights of Americans? Instead they asked, to themselves: where can we find a conservative black man young enough to lock the Supreme Court into a far-right bias for decades to come? Then they denied that that was the question.
The confirmation process reduced the question to one silly enough for a TV game show: can Clarence Thomas avoid revealing his position on abortion, which everyone knows anyway? Then came Anita Hill, and the opinion polls turned the question into a popularity contest: who are you for? Who emoted most convincingly? Who won?
The polls would have come back with different answers if the question had been: should Clarence Thomas become a Justice of the Supreme Court, if that means abortion will become illegal in America? Or: should he be confirmed, given that his legal experience makes him the least qualified of anyone nominated to the court since the 1950s?
Those were central questions. Why weren’t they central in the public discussion?
Running in parallel with the Thomas nomination are hearings on whether Robert Gates should become the head of the CIA. There the question, we are told, is: was Gates aware, when he was deputy director, that the CIA was embroiled in illegal, unconstitutional activities? Unawareness, it seems, is the main quality one has to demonstrate in order to attain high government office.
The question should be: why should Robert Gates be considered qualified to run the CIA, whether or not he knew about the Iran-Contra skulduggery? If he was aware, he is a criminal. If he was not aware, he is incompetent. From a huge nation of capable people, why choose him?
The power to pose the question is the power to choose the frame through which we see the affairs of the nation. It determines what information we let in and what we block out. To let the question be determined by cynical, partisan forces is to send the nation into strange and dangerous directions.
For example, the question should never have been: should taxes be raised? There is only one answer to that — no — unless it is followed by other questions: FOR WHAT? For schools? For highways? For exorbitantly priced and unnecessary weapons? For the subsidy of crooked banks? And WHOSE TAXES? Those of the rich? The middle class and poor? Our children, who will inherit our debts?
The question has never been: owls or logging jobs? It is: shall the logging stop now when 10 percent of our forest is left, or a few years from now, when none is left?
The question is not: how much will it cost to avoid global climate change? It is: how much will it cost to SUFFER global climate change, and who says, and how do they know, and to what interest groups are they beholden?
The discussion-turners, the context-shapers ask questions about war in terms of American lives, not all lives. They ask how to prop up foreign governments from Kuwait to El Salvador to China without asking what kind of governments. They like questions that point far away from the place of ultimate responsibility. Why does John Sununu act like a bully, rather than: why does George Bush tolerate a Chief of Staff who acts like a bully? The ability to ask questions that deflect attention away from responsibility is what made Ronald Reagan a teflon president and George Bush a president who is hardly there at all.
People who are angered or honestly perplexed, people who want to have a serious discussion about the problems of this nation, are confounded by the nonstop activity of the question-shapers. “That’s not the question,” we are told. “This is the question.” Not justice, but the Pledge of Allegiance. Not the national budget, but the glorious Gulf War. Not the plight of the poor, but the capital gains tax. The questions are shaped daily and energetically, so they will stop uncomfortable thoughts, stifle democratic debate, and disguise accountability.
It’s easy to understand why they do it. The skill with which they do it is amazing. What I don’t understand is why we — especially we of the press — let them get away with it. Why don’t we reclaim the power to ask our own questions — and demand answers?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991