Stop Asking Those Questions

How does someone credibly answer the question: “Have you quit beating your spouse?” It’s the classic example of a question being the problem.

    It’s a setup. The issue is in the question itself, before there’s an answer.

    Such questions are part of the milieu of all cultures. They’re just there. They’ve been so often and continuously repeated that people waste energy answering them, without thinking about questioning the question.

    In a political climate such as ours, using the high level of expertise in public relations and propaganda that we’ve perfected has been crucial to the political/economic/military/religious right-wing for the last 40-some years in order to frame issues so that we’re comfortable with questions that in themselves promote a right-wing agenda. It’s been a successful and self-conscious long-term movement.

    It has included the vast investment by conservatives in think tanks within and outside universities, the creation of conservative scholars, and the implementation of a right-wing media machine infrastructure. The most well-known call for this was the famous 1971 Powell memo that Lewis Powell wrote to the head of the Chamber of Commerce just before becoming a Nixon-appointed supreme court justice.

    Notice how successful the “corrections” to rising liberalism, Powell called for have been:

  • “establishing a staff of highly qualified scholars in the social sciences who do believe in the system. It should include several of national reputation whose authorship would be widely respected — even when disagreed with.”
  • securing for the Chamber  "a particular rapport with the increasingly influential graduate schools of business.”
  • “an overall program” to urge “the need for faculty balance upon university administrators and boards of trustees.”
  • “a fairly steady flow of scholarly articles presented to a broad spectrum of magazines and periodicals — ranging from the popular magazines (Life, Look, Reader’s Digest, etc.) to the more intellectual ones (Atlantic, Harper’s, Saturday Review, New York, etc.) and to the various professional journals.”  “more direct political action, while awaiting the gradual change in public opinion to be effected through education and information. Business must learn the lesson...that political power is necessary; that such power must be assidously [sic] cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.”

    Conservatives who couldn’t work together, took this on 40 years ago. And now here we are with the Koch brothers often in the news continuing this cultural takeover.

    We now have public defunding of universities and the correlated rise of conservative granters taking up the slack – four times as much is spent on research by the right as by they left. And while granters on the left are giving money to precise, closely-defined activities - often charitable to pick up the slack left by conservative success in decreasing government funding - the right-wing pushes ahead with broad grants to continue to grow its dominance over the political and cultural conversation.

    The conservatives learned how to use the religious right-wing to their advantage by commandeering public debate and ramping up what to the political conservatives were peripheral social issues. As one politician told me: “many people only want to know whether someone is against gun-control and anti-abortion; they don’t pay attention to anything else.”

    Questions that we’re supposed to ask which embed the right-wing agenda and reinforce it every time we honor the question include:

How can we get tax relief?  This effectively affirms the idea that taxes are a burden that should be lifted. In actuality taxes are the dues paid to live in a civilized society that provides defense, safety, and common welfare, and American tax burdens are quite low. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  said: “I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.”

How can we fix social security?  This affirms the myth that social security is broken and needs a “fix” beyond raising the cap on taxed wages to the equivalent level they were when the program began.

How can we stop recipients from defrauding Medicaid/Medicare? This question promotes the belief that those who defraud these programs are the poor receiving their benefits and therefore we need drug-testing or some other controls on applicants. The reality is that the relatively small amount of cheating that happens is actually by the businesses that provide the services to recipients.

How can we curb out-of-control entitlements? This effectively affirms the right-wing excuse to cut these programs by refusing to call them the insurance programs that they are. And conservatives have made the term “entitlement” sound as if these aren’t insurance payouts to which contributors are “entitled.” Social security insurance, Medicare insurance, unemployment insurance, and others are programs to which we and businesses have contributed as a part of compensation packages promised workers.

What are we going to do about all these underfunded pension plans? Pension plans are also not handouts but postponed compensation coupled with promises that employers have made to workers who’ve agreed to these compensation practices and who’ve therefore created profits for their employers. When a public or private employer says they can’t afford to pay pensions, the employer has either misappropriated or mishandled the money involved, has engaged in theft, and should be prosecuted.

Is homosexuality a choice? Answering this question actually legitimizes the discussion involved. But the answer to the question doesn’t matter. There are more important questions, such as why this question matters and why it matters to anyone else when two consenting adults love someone.

    Some have responded with another question: Is your heterosexuality a choice? If we choose to so respond, we should be ready to demand that their answer be personal. The person might respond “yes,” so are we ready to push the discussion into the uncomfortable personal area where the actual issues are: When did you make the choice? So you could be sexually and romantically attracted to your own gender? Are you sure about your own sexuality?

    Questions that affirm false premises like these shouldn’t be answered. Instead our response should be to replace them with new questions directed right at the questioners.


Robert N. Minor, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, is author of When Religion Is an Addiction; Scared Straight; and Gay & Healthy in a Sick Society. Contact him at

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