Getting to the Question

Who is worse, Mark Foley for trying to seduce underage pages, or Bill Clinton dallying with a willing intern?

In my book, it is Mark Foley. He seems to have broken the law—not only that, he may have broken laws that he helped write. Bill Clinton had a consensual relationship with someone who was working for him—someone a hell of a lot younger, but over the age of consent. The former is public business because of the legal ramifications. The latter is no one’s business but Clinton’s, Lewinsky’s, and their families’. Sure, Clinton broke law too, when he lied under oath—but that is a different matter entirely.

[UPDATE If Foley broke any laws, they appear not to deal directly with the age of consent. In Washington, DC, apparently, the age of consent is 16–and the pages in question all seem to have been at least 16 years old. If Foley did break laws, and they came later, in lying about the event, then it is possible that there’s more of a comparison with Bill Clinton than the question above suggests. But that’s my point below: the comparisons need to be fair and careful, not containing their results in the set-up.]

But that’s not what I want to look at. What I want to discuss is how questions are framed, left and right.

When I asked my question in the first paragraph, I clearly had an answer in mind, one I wanted to guide people to. I could have asked the question many different ways, depending on the answer I wanted to get.

For example:

Who is worse, Foley, who never touched a single page, or Clinton, who had his hands all over Lewinsky?

Who is worse, a congressman who sends a few off-color emails or a president who puts aside his responsibilities to the nation in favor of a tawdry sexual escapade?

In none of these cases, including my own at the top, is the question really fair. In fact, no question is really being asked at all, for the answer is assumed in the question.

In fact, all three questions are dishonest.

Mark Foley resigned from Congress after emails he sent to young pages were made public. Bill Clinton did not resign from the presidency after his affair with Monica Lewinsky was made public. Are there parallels between the two situations? If so, what are they? If not, what are the differences between the two incidents?

That would be an honest way of sparking debate about the relation, if any, between the incidents.

We liberals—especially liberal teachers—have always tried our best to frame questions in this last fashion. Over the past forty years, however, people on the right (I won’t call them “conservatives”—I have too much respect for real conservatives to place them in this category) have learned to frame questions not for debate, but so that the answer they want (which they want the others to see as the only answer possible) is inherent in the question. This is an old trick, going back at least to Aristotle. In its most obvious form, it is called “begging the question.” The right has gotten so good at it over the years though, that such a simple description no longer seems adequate. They don’t just beg the question; they’ve gotten so good at obscuring their motives that it sometimes seems to take more time than it is worth digging through the verbiage to find exactly what they are doing—and what they are hiding. This, of course, sidetracks their opponents, often leaving the basic point the right is making unchallenged. Mixed up in it, often, is a type of circular reasoning that is completely insulated from attack—almost as completely as it is insulated from the real world.

The right has developed this sort of dishonest framing because it doesn’t believe in debate. It only believes in winning. David Horowitz wrote an essay that Karl Rove loves, “The Art of Political War.” One does not go to war seeking compromise or to understand one’s enemy. One goes to war to defeat the other.

The right’s new and basic stance of seeing war and politics as analogous has even led to the death of compromise, once the greatest part of our governmental deliberations.

Once compromise is eliminated as a goal, and the opposition is seen as nothing more than an enemy, anything goes. The Bush administration shows this constantly. Naïve people, from Joe Lieberman to John McCain, have tried to compromise with it. Each one has lost, for the administration sees nothing wrong with lying to them—to people who even for a minute are outside the fold.

The result has been the near destruction of a constitutional system that had worked effectively for over two hundred years. “Signing statements” have undercut both law and compromise, and even the so-called “compromises” signed into law have really been victories for the administration, increasing its power to act without regard either to Congress or to law.

There is little we can do about this for the moment, aside from trying as hard as we can to create a Congress that will stand up to the administration. But we can start refusing to accept the questions asked by the right, following the example of Bill Clinton, who rightfully exploded when asked a question by Chris Wallace that included in it assumptions that, ultimately, begged the question.

We can. re-frame the questions, as long as we are always alert, always looking at the question before we start thinking about an answer.

“You Democrats will excuse Bill Clinton, but you attack poor Mark Foley.”

Well, let’s look at that: What is similar about the two situations? They both deal with sex. OK, granted. Are there any other similarities? No? Then let’s deal simply with sex and nothing else. Did Clinton break any laws in his relationship with Monica Lewinsky? No. You say he did break laws? Well, that wasn’t in the relationship, was it? Let’s stick to the topic: Clinton did not break any laws in his direct dealings with Lewinsky. Did Foley break any laws? Probably. We can both agree with that, though he has not been charged and convicted in a court of law.

If there is no similarity between the two situations besides sex, then wouldn’t we be justified to be upset about the one where law was broken and not about the one where law was not broken? We could argue about the morality of each, but our concern right now is simply with law. There is a clear difference between the two cases—and no contradiction when we get upset about the one and not the other.