The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, May 18, 2009

Kissing the Blarney Stone

Obama Proved Himself One of the “Fighting Irish” in More Ways Than One

Even President Obama’s harshest critics admit he gives a good speech. The Irish believe God or Nature has given such individuals the “gift of gab.” Legend has it that one way to receive the gift is if a person kisses the Blarney Stone, a block of bluestone built into the battlements of Blarney Castle, located in Cork Ireland. The kiss is physically difficult to perform, with some contenders required to hang by their ankles to reach the slab.

“Blarney” has since become slang for clever, flattering, or coaxing speech, meant to persuade.

The President’s critics view him as full of blarney. Indeed, many feel that saying pretty words is all he does well. They fear he lacks the inner strength to make hard choices – a quality that signifies the hallmark of leadership for most. Obama had a chance to show the toughness of his inner core on Sunday when he addressed the graduating class at Notre Dame. He did exactly that but not in a way that his critics, and perhaps his admirers, were expecting.

From the moment Notre Dame extended an invitation to Obama, conservative Catholics and various Pro-Life organizations seized upon the occasion as an opportunity to highlight their stance. Why, they asked, would a university steeped in the traditions of a religion that prohibits abortion to its followers as mortal sin invite as speaker any person, regardless of rank and prestige, who favors abortion remaining legal?

The debate and protests that occurred inside and just outside Notre Dame’s campus, though limited in scope, were sufficiently fervent to grab national attention. Everyone wondered whether Obama would tackle the issue forcefully or attempt to avoid it when he addressed the graduates.

When the first hecklers began booing, Obama admonished the crowd not to drown dissenters out, informing them, “We're not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes.” The prepared remarks that followed constituted a speech as strong as it was eloquent. Yet the case made by Obama, while vintage Obama, had little to do with the arguments commonly advanced by either camp in the abortion debate.

“We must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity – diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of belief. In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family . . . When we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe – that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.”

Obama had not come to Notre Dame to defend abortion, save to acknowledge its legality as a given. In fact, he spent most of his time expressing his understanding and empathy for those sincerely appalled and outraged by the procedure. In the end, he conceded the ongoing controversy could never be resolved to the complete satisfaction of all.

“I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it . . . the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.”

Not only was Obama using pretty words to address this most polarizing and discordant of social issues – he was advocating pretty words as the best solution to deal with it. It seemed absurd at face value.

Yet Obama was talking about more than pretty, coaxing words. He was even going beyond a call for basic civility in public discourse. Instead, he was talking about the inner courage required to achieve “Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.”

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne labeled Obama’s speech as “Conciliatory Fighting Words.” He went on to conclude, “By facing their arguments head-on and by demonstrating his attentiveness to Catholic concerns, Obama strengthened moderate and liberal forces inside the church itself. He also struck a forceful blow against those who would keep the nation mired in culture-war politics without end.”

In Dionne’s mind, that meant the President beat the anti-abortion activists determined to turn his visit into some divisive and ugly. This is probably correct but those favoring a woman’s right to choose must understand the sword Obama brandished at Notre Dame cuts both ways.

“In this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you've been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey . . . But remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt . . . And this doubt should not push us away our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue [learning and growing].”

Those are words just as applicable, with a few key changes, to the acolytes of empiricism as they are to those of faith. If there is any sin to which both sides have fallen in this controversy, it is surely the sin of pride. Both fall short of the goals of the respective standards to which they each aspire. Both cling with certainty to their respective positions where no certainty exists. The President outlined the doubt associated with moral certainty but it exists as regards empirical certainty as well.

After all, science is supposed to approach all theories, even established ones, with a sense of skepticism; otherwise progress and even greater understanding eventually become impossible. Positions based upon what the facts suggest or where the facts point or where the facts all trend are arguably better ways to deal with the unknown than comforting supernatural tales but they are not the same as facts. Being convinced of something to one’s own satisfaction is not the same thing as the existence of irrefutable proof.

Consider the President’s proposed solutions to the abortion fight –

“Let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let's reduce unintended pregnancies. Let's make adoption more available. Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women. Those are things we can do.”

I know these seemingly reasonable proposals include things that many Pro-Life proponents cannot bring themselves to agree with and it likely contains things that some Pro-Choice proponents find equally unpalatable. Just as some religious extremists view anything other than total opposition to abortion as immorality and murder, so some progressives have viewed anything other than unrestricted abortion as anti-feminist/anti-woman as well as anti-science/anti-intellectual.

A recent Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans now view themselves as Pro-Life rather than Pro-Choice, the first time this has occurred since Gallup began asking the question in 1995. It coincides with other polls taken by the Pew Research Center and CNN/Opinion Research Corporation that show the abortion debate becoming closer than ever.

The shift recorded by Gallup has been both very rapid and very recent. “Ironically, Obama's radical abortion policies and nominees may have helped make America more pro-life,” claims the conservative advocacy group Concerned Women for America. The fact that the shift is due mainly to a ten percent change among Republicans and right-leaning Independents does support this conclusion.

Yet Obama’s abortion policies are actually far from radical. What is more, seventy-five percent of those surveyed still favor few to no restrictions on abortion’s legality. Obama recognizes this, saying, “We know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory.”

Perhaps Obama’s election is the source of the shift but the catalyst is his nuanced position on this issue as well as his tolerance for dissenting opinions. Perhaps many people who find abortion distasteful but favor keeping it legal have found being a progressive is not at odds with respecting a culture of life in Obama’s esteem for diversity. Perhaps they are following their own conscience on the matter rather than responding to the guilt trips laid upon them by extremists in both camps. The fact that the shift also represents a ten percent change across Christian affiliations supports this conclusion.

Those disparaging Obama’s call for common ground as idealistic and naïve and calling for hard decisions and hard positions in its place ought to try what he is suggesting before dismissing it as “empty words” and the “easy way out.” Anyone who has actually traveled to Ireland and tried to kiss the Blarney Stone knows there is real physical risk involved – a severe case of vertigo has dissuaded more than one pilgrim in their efforts.

That is the case here as well. Obama’s sincerity may have defeated anti-abortion activists on Sunday but his willingness to concede the validity of some of their concerns and objections may cause those favoring choice and science to wince tomorrow. Our ability to meet his call to humble ourselves, temper our certainty, and be wary of too much intellectual superiority may determine whether we wind up among the gifted and the blessed or wind up left hanging by our ankles.

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