Thursday, September 21, 2006

The great unanswered question (or, Who has my toothbrush?)

William F. Buckley writes this week that "The great unanswered question in modern political thought is: Who speaks for Muhammad?"

Speaking as a guest at my college two decades ago, Buckley urged us students to be precise in our use of language. And so I pose the question, is his question really the great unanswered question, or just one of them? Let's see what others have written on the matter:
  • Time magazine (Dec. 15, 1941) on Pearl Harbor: "Over the U.S. and its history there was a great unanswered question: What would the people, the 132,000,000, say in the face of the mightiest event of their time?"
  • The Wired Librarian (Jul. 1983): "One great unanswered question still lingers: Who has my toothbrush?"
  • The publisher of Choosing War (Mar. 2001): "Fredrik Logevall examines the last great unanswered question on the [Vietnam] war: Could the tragedy have been averted?"
  • Jeffrey Herbst in Foreign Affairs (May/Jun. 2001): "[W]e still do not have a good answer to the most basic question: Why? Why did tens of thousands (if not more) of Hutu citizens join with their government to kill their Tutsi neighbors, their Tutsi wives, and fellow Hutu thought to be Tutsi collaborators? .... Mahmood Mamdani has written When Victims Become Killers in order to address this great unanswered question."
  • William M. Lunch in the Oregon Stater (Dec. 2004): "The great unanswered question is whether 2004 was a 'realigning election,' one in which new political divisions became evident that will last for a generation."
  • The New York Times (Jan. 17, 2005) on the UN oil-for-food audits: "The great unanswered question is who dropped the ball and why."
  • Physicist Freeman Dyson (2006): "The great unanswered question is, whether we can regulate domesticated biotechnology so that it can be applied freely to animals and vegetables but not to microbes and humans."
  • David Pogue in The New York Times (May 4, 2006): "Why this, of course, is the great unanswered question: Does the Ultra Mobile PC exist because regular laptops are too bulky?"
  • Dominic Casciani for BBC News (Jun. 14, 2006) on illegal immigrants in the UK: "What ministers now do about these people is the great unanswered question...."
  • John Rentoul (Aug. 24, 2006): "It is still the great unanswered question of British politics. No, not 'When will Tony Blair go?', but 'What will the voters make of Gordon Brown?'"
Perhaps Mr. Buckley should have chosen somewhat more precise language: "A great unanswered question in modern political thought is: Who speaks for Muhammad?"