Beware the Forbidden Question


The late political philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901—1985) used to caution his students always to look for the forbidden question (die verbotene Frage) when analyzing the anti-rational ideologue. Voegelin devoted a very nice little book to the subject, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, in which he thoroughly exposed Marx as an "intellectual swindler."

Well, Marx is dead, but Marxism is not. In fact, it persists in some surprising places. Today we will focus on two recent occasions, one in the White House, and one in the Department of Defense.

The White House recently lashed out at house Speaker Nancy Pelosi. On Good Morning America" last Friday, with regard to President Bush’s "surge" in Iraq, Mrs. Pelosi charged that “[t]he president knows that because the troops are in harm’s way that we [the Democrat-led Congress] won’t cut off the resources. That’s why he’s moving so quickly to put them in harm’s way.”

The White House reacted in classical reactionary fashion. First of all, instead of Tony Snow, it sent out a low-level flunkie, one Dana Perino, to respond (note to Nancy: you are an inconsequential worm). Second of all, to maximize the magnitude of the put-down, it sent a girl (Tony’s love note to Nancy: we want a catfight, not a conversation). And the glib Dana (may I call you "Dana," Dana?), while manifesting all the symbolism of the put-down (girl, flunkie), maladroitly said more than she meant to say:

“Questioning the president’s motivations and suggesting that he for some political reason is rushing troops into harm’s way is not appropriate, it is not correct and it is unfortunate.”

Ponder that for a moment: the first forbidden question rule is, "Thou shalt not question the president’s motivations." Given the obvious (and lamentable) observation that the president has offered the nation no rational explanation of his latest bellicose urge, any high-school logic student would naturally (and logically) turn to the irrational possibilities. But Dana has laid down the law: such questions are "not appropriate," she asserts, without explaining why or offering a rational argument for "Dana’s Law."

After the put-down, Dana briefly rebuts (well, she wishes she had) Mrs. Pelosi. After all, Nancy (may I call you Nancy?) actually suggested a syllogism, the conclusion of which might well have motivated (uh, there’s that forbidden word again) the president:

Major Premise: The Congress will not cut off the resources of any troops that are in harm’s way.

Minor Premise: The American troops are not yet in harm’s way — OOPS — Dick, better get’em there fast for the surge! Ah, NOW they are!

Conclusion: Ergo, the Congress will not cut off the resources for the already-surging troops.

Dana replies with a trenchant, compelling argument: "It is not correct."


Hooray! "Dana, you’re doin’ a heck of a job!

Dana, er…. uh, Dana — do you have more on that?

"How can you, how can you, ask me again?" (Actually, that’s a line from a great Bob Dylan song, "Boots of Spanish Leather," that Dana was obviously using as a classical reference. You know, like the Founding Fathers, when they kept referring to those dead Greek guys in the Federalist).

No, Dana does not answer the question. Instead, she indulges in a little slapstick routine she learned from Tom Daschle, who always shared his feelings with reporters, not feeling up to any rational explanations.

"It’s unfortunate."

Ah, the Little Miss Oprah of the White House Press Room. Let us all ruminate on the unfortunate character of — asking the forbidden question.

For Karl Marx, there were certain questions that good socialists should not ask. It appears that Dana likes that. After all, aren’t all reporters socialists?

Or perhaps, Dana doesn’t know the answer. Perhaps she doesn’t want to touch the question with a ten-foot pole. Perhaps telling the truth would send her back to spokesperson school.

Now THAT would be unfortunate.

Dana’s misdirection is exquisite. For all we know, it is the fact that Nancy is Speaker of the House that Dana finds "unfortunate" (but that fact, Dana, it is sadly not "incorrect"). Dana is so busy wallowing in her disdain, oozing with feeling, denial, and propriety, that the last thing she wants to do is to respond intelligently, articulately, or rationally. So she reaches deep into her quiver and comes up with her sharpest dart:

Pelosi’s query is "poisonous."

Hmmm. Is Dana rejecting any rational query that assumes the rules of logic? Can she possibly be asserting that it is poisonous to allege that Bush is doing anything for "political reasons" Is it "poisonous" to allege that a politician is acting for "political reasons"? Is it "poisonous" to ask him to speak rationally?

Ah yes. If Dana answered honestly, it would surely kill her career. So she turns her own barbs on Mrs. Pelosi (ah, but Nancy’s skin is not thin), and calls her (in effect) a viper.

"Poisonous." You know, like that little black adder that was slithering up towards Liz Taylor’s pulsing jugular in "Cleopatra."

Unlike Dana, I want to make myself perfectly clear. In referring to poison, Dana is not asserting that Nancy wants to kill her, or Tony, or George, or anything. Far from it. She wants them all to keep on living in a dream world of feelings, assertions, and ideological fever swamps. To ask a rational question implying that nation’s highest-ranking politician is acting politically is by definition to poison the conversation in the crib.

While we wait for the obituary, we’ll have to leave Dana to address briefly another forbidden question. It involves U.S. Army First Lieutenant Ehren Watada. He is in trouble with the Department of Defense because he has refused to report for duty in Iraq. His reason is simple: he believes the war is illegal. According to various press reports, last Tuesday, Military Court Judge Lt. Col. John Head ruled that Watada has no right to question the legality of the Iraq war or to refuse to serve in Iraq because the war is illegal.

According to the reports, Colonel Head ruled that "Watada was not entitled to a hearing on the legality of the Iraq war and had no right to defend his actions by arguing that they were motivated by his opposition to an illegal war. Those are political questions that a military court has no authority to consider," he said.

This brings to mind the Iran Contra hearings, when Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, my next-door neighbor at the time, addressed this comment to Lt. Colonel Oliver North, who was testifying before the Committee:

“The uniform code [of Military Justice] makes it abundantly clear that it must be the lawful orders of a superior officer. In fact it says, ‘Members of the military have an obligation to disobey unlawful orders.’ This principle was considered so important that we — we, the government of the United States — proposed that it be internationally applied in the Nuremberg trials.”

According to Inouye’s explanation, if Watada thought the Iraq War was illegal, he would have violated his oath had he obeyed orders to report to duty in Iraq. But the military judge will not permit Lieutenant Watada even to address the forbidden question, "is the Iraq War legal?" Even though he is being prosecuted precisely for having asked it.

The question is so forbidden that the mere fact that Watada had dared to ask the question — outside the courtroom, and in public — motivated Colonel Head to rule that Watada might be guilty of yet another offense, "contemptuous speech by an officer directed at the president." The jury would have to decide Watada’s guilt or innocence, Military Judge Head said, but Watada would not be allowed to defend himself before the jury.

That would no doubt be "poisonous."

Lieutenant Watada, meet Dana Perino. Dana works for the White House. That’s where important politicians get to live. And guess what? Well, you heard Colonel Head say that the war’s legality and Watada’s opposition to it "are political questions that a military court has no authority to consider." Well, politicians can’t ask those political questions either. If they do, it’s "unfortunate" — kind of like 3,100 Americans or tens of thousands of Iraqis dying is unfortunate, you know what I mean? And it’s "inappropriate." After all, the Great Decider has spoken, right? And, if you press the issue, it’s also "incorrect."

Of course the war is legal. After all, it’s so legal that even politicians are prohibited from questioning it rationally, because of Dana’s Law — let’s call it the "Perino principle." During Bush’s War — a war which could last for generations — all political questions are forbidden questions — whether they come from rank-and-file military officers or the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Discussion is forbidden. Address political questions to politicians, and you’re "poisonous."

Events do not bode well for Lieutenant Watada, or for our country. For every Lieutenant Watada, there are thousands of Colonel Heads and Dana Perinos. Since the very birth of rational discussion, powerful enemies of logic have tried to avoid it at all costs — violently, even tyrannically.

At the very birth of rational discussion, Socrates learned all about lying, power-hungry politicians by asking them innocent questions. But his innocent questions were forbidden questions, in the view of the immoral Athenians to whom Socrates addressed them. When he refused to relent, the great politicians of Athens put Socrates on trial. The compliant court condemned him, and ordered him to take the Hemlock.

Now that’s poisonous.