Asking the Right Questions

February 28, 2013 • Posted in Blog

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has done us all a favor by writing her book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 2009).  Early in her chapter, “Don’t Tolerate Lies,” the author references a quote of Blaise Pascal:
We hate the truth, and people hide it from us; we want to
be flattered, and people flatter us; we like being deceived,
and we are deceived.*
Given this situation, Professor McEntyre offers some help to us, that we might be better able to discern what is true when we read the news. How are we to know who is to be trusted? These are her five major categories of inquiry (somewhat abbreviated here):
1)  Who are the sponsors, and what are their vested interests?
2)  Who is framing the questions? (This would include observing which questions are NOT being asked.)
3)  Are there detectable partisan biases in the language used . . . Euphemisms? Slogans?
4)  What authorities are appealed to?  What are their credentials and allegiances?
5)  How much information is sufficient to allow me to take a position?  To support or resist a policy that has implications for other human beings?
(Caring for Words, p. 61.)

These five questions can be used to good effect in evaluating two articles published this month.  The first comes from The Washington Post, and is an opinion piece (1 Feb) written by E. J. Dionne, Jr., entitled, “From Obama, an olive branch to the Catholic Church on contraception coverage.” The second (published 5 Feb) is actually a reply to the first, written in The National Review Online by James C. Capretta, entitled, “Another Non-Accommodation.” 

1)  The Washington Post and National Review Online are news outlets which exist to inform as well as to make a profit. Their political views could not be called consonant.

2)  The authors are (presumably) framing the questions:
E. J. Dionne, Jr., is Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, an author, an opinion writer for the Washington Post, and a government professor at Georgetown University.
James C. Capretta is a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an author, and frequent commentator on public policy and economics.  He has previously served in Congress as a senior analyst for healthcare and social security issues (ten years), and as a budget examiner at OMB (three years).

3)  Was the concept of mandatory contraceptive coverage a clash “set off” by the Obama administration, but “never wanted” by Obama (as Dionne claims in the Feb 1 opinion), or a “wedge” issue invented by the Obama political team in order to garner votes from “young unmarried women” (per Capretta)? 

These are examples of answers to the first three questions posed by McEntyre; the remaining questions are left to the reader to apply.

The other book I have been reading for the past several weeks details in part a trial of some churchmen in January, 1920.  One of the charges levied against them was “their incessant, impudent dispatching of petitions . . . for relief from . . . violations of the law which guaranteed freedom of conscience.”**  For these and other misdeeds, they were  imprisoned or shot.  The author writes further,

With the exception of a very limited number of parliamentary democracies, during a very limited number of decades, the history of nations is entirely a history of revolutions and seizures of power.  And whoever succeeds in making a more successful and more enduring revolution is from that moment on graced with the bright robes of Justice, and his every past and future step is legalized and memorialized in odes, whereas every past and future step of his unsuccessful enemies is criminal and subject to arraignment and a legal penalty.***

This second book was written by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, and is called The Gulag Archipelago.  It is also a book worth reading, especially now.  Whether ours is a democracy that will withstand this test between the administration and the church, or a nation where all who disagree with the administration will be subject to legal penalties remains to be seen.  Some of the responsibility lies with us:  Are we asking the right questions of our news sources?  Are we communicating with our elected representatives?  Are we holding our leaders publicly accountable?  Do we expect someone else to shoulder the responsibility, or are we willing to contribute to the common good? 

How can one make a difference? 
1)  Read Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s book. 
2)  Read the articles referenced above, and others on the subject.
3)  This week, call or send e-mails to your elected representatives, telling them what you think about this issue:
— Should all employers have to provide coverage for contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs? 
— Should conscience protections for persons in the health care field be added to “must-pass” legislation? 
4)  Talk about this issue with your family members, your neighbors.
5)  Choose your own words wisely and well.  Be careful to “care for words in a culture of lies.”

* Pascal, Blaise.  Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York:  Penguin Classics, reissue edition, 1995), p. 326.
** Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I.  The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956:  An Experiment in Literary Investigation I-II; translated by Thomas P. Whitney (New York:  Harper & Row, 1973 and 1974) p. 323.
*** Ibid., p. 355.


D. Joy Riley, M.D., M.A.

© 2013