Monday, May 25, 2009

Anthem: The Obama Speech, Pt. 1

So I'm a big fat liar. I said there would only be three more Obama/ND posts. That was before I realized how long the speech he gave was. So I'll be splitting that up because I think it is very important to examine what he said. I also think I have a pretty good handle on why he said most of it, so bear with me.

Anyways, here goes, with the more fluff parts excised:

You (Jenkins) are doing an extraordinary job as president of this extraordinary institution. Your continued and courageous and contagious commitment to honest, thoughtful dialogue is an inspiration to us all.

Returning the suck-up right off the bat. And making sure that the appropriate buzzword, namely “dialogue,” gets put immediately at the forefront.

Your generation must decide how to save God's creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it. Your generation must seek peace at a time when there are those who will stop at nothing to do us harm, and when weapons in the hands of a few can destroy the many. And 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.

For some reason, I immediately thought of Pelosi’s comments about her visit with the Pope and the Vatican response to those comments. Regardless, we see here Obama introduce diversity in order to continuing to lay the groundwork for what will be his major theme, which he arrives at way faster than I thought he would.

Moreover, no one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone. Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and greater understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history.

Everyone's red flags should have gone up right here. He has just stated, without qualification, that Christianity is not up to its stated task. We might as well shelve the idea of evangelizing the world. Christ’s Church is just one other religion among many in this “one human family.” I’m not sure how this can be regarded as anything other than offensive.

Unfortunately, finding that common ground, recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a "single garment of destiny," is not easy. And part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man : our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin.

There is a very subtle shift coming. Right now, common ground is associated with “recognizing that our fates are tied up.” It’s going to be something completely different in a few paragraphs. What’s really funny about this part is that Obama is willing to take all of those respective fates and tie them up in a secular solution dominated by the very imperfect men that he is criticizing. This naturally means rejecting the authority of a supernatural institution, whether the Church or some other relation with the Almighty, as the guiding principle.

We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see here in this country and around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times.

I think we all can agree on this, at least.

We know these things; and hopefully one of the benefits of the wonderful education that you've received here at Notre Dame is that you've had time to consider these wrongs in the world; perhaps recognized impulses in yourself that you want to leave behind. You've grown determined, each in your own way, to right them. And yet, one of the vexing things for those of us interested in promoting greater understanding and cooperation among people is the discovery that even bringing together persons of good will, bringing together men and women of principle and purpose _ even accomplishing that can be difficult.

“Bringing together” for what?

Also, note the president’s self-identification with the “us” who are “interested in promoting greater understanding and cooperation.” I don’t know how Obama did as a lawyer, but his manipulation of language is brilliant.

The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. Those who speak out against stem cell research may be rooted in an admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son's or daughter's hardships can be relieved.

No mention at all over the possibility that perhaps one of these parties might actually be wrong in their convictions. This will be critical in the coming bits, as much of Obama’s speech hinges on the idea that there are only a select number of issues that we can make moral determinations about. Climate change is evil, for example. Using people as spare parts is just something that we’ll have to disagree on.

The question, then, the question then is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without, as Father John said, demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?

"Common efforts” for what?

The demonizing bit is pretty hilarious considering what we’ve heard from this man’s spiritual mentor. Yeah, yeah, I know. He never heard any of that stuff.

But please be aware of the continued subjectivization of morality here. Things are only “considered” as right, while others may hold equally strong convictions. What does having a strong conviction have to do with whether something is good or bad? I’m sure there are loads of jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan who have strong convictions about the United States. Does that mean that we just need to bring everybody home and start dialoguing to get us some common ground to work with?

Or is it possible that some practices and/or parties are so reprehensible that common ground on other issues becomes irrelevant? I don’t recall Dr. King ever just agreeing to disagree with segregation so that he could focus on finding common ground.

And of course, nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion.

Speak of the devil . . .

To condense the next bit, Obama mentions a letter he got during his Senate campaign in which a pro-life physician expressed reservations about voting for him due to comments on the campaign web site pledging that he would “fight right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose.” The physician wrote, "I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words."

After I read the doctor's letter, I wrote back to him and I thanked him. And I didn't change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my Web site. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that _ 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.

And there’s the shift. Notice that common ground is no longer about some version of solidarity. It’s now about emphasizing issues of common concern, while de-emphasizing disagreements, no matter what their substance. And again, we see the president’s ability with verbal flourishes. Those with open hearts and minds are the ones seeking common ground. Of course, this means that if you aren’t seeking common ground, you don’t have an open heart/mind. You bad person, you.

That's when we begin to say, "Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions."

When have “we” not been saying this? Pardon my lingo here, but if anyone other than Obama had made such an empty-headed statement as this, he would have been immediately labeled a douche-bag.

I'm going to leave it there for now. It's really something to watch this guy work.

More to come . . .

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