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Saruman at Notre Dame

President Obama's masterful speech was widely applauded -- but what did he actually say?
Thaddeus J. Kozinski | 21 May 2009
"Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell. For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them, and when it spake to another they smiled, as men do who see through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it. For many the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. But none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will, so long as its master had control of it." ~ “The Speech of Saruman,” J.R.R.Tolkien, The Two Towers 

Towards the middle of his May 17th commencement address at Notre Dame, President Barack Obama asked the following questions:

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 demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?

Essential and vital questions, these, and the concise and straightforward manner with which he proposed them reveals Obama’s rhetorical brilliance. But Obama did more than propose thought-provoking questions to his Catholic audience; he provided definite answers to these, at least for those in the audience not entirely spellbound. Obama’s answers, along with the philosophical and theological principles they presuppose, were deftly hidden behind his rhetorically honed, magical words; and when they are exposed to the light, they reveal a different incantation than the one that appeared upon the exquisitely polished linguistic surface.

In the middle of the address, Obama recounts the story of a Christian doctor who informed him that he would not be voting for him for President in the upcoming election, due not to Obama’s pro-choice position, but to the uncivil, ideological language in which this position was expressed on his website. Obama then told the audience how he immediately changed the wording, expressing his hope that “we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all.” This anecdote, I think, provides an interpretive key to understanding not only the essential point of Obama’s Notre Dame address, but also his entire political project as expressed in his many addresses, writings, and acts since President.

Reconciling the irreconcilable

The anecdote is a microcosm of Obama’s macro-political vision: a multitude of people with irreconcilable religious and moral convictions living together in peace and reconciliation. “Irreconcilable” is not my word, mind you, it’s Obama’s. From the Notre Dame address:

Understand — I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it — indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory — 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.

Of course, by definition there can be no “reconciliation” between irreconcilable views, but Obama means something entirely different here. In light of the doctor story, what it means to “reconcile the beliefs of each with the good of all,” is not to change or encourage others to change views on an issue, but simply to change the way the view is articulated, so as not to “caricature” any opposing view.

The doctor’s “humble” request for rhetorical civility, and Obama’s ready acquiescence to it, is the model for such reconciliation. “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion,” Obama quotes the doctor as saying, “only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.”

A question arises, here, though: Why would someone who believes abortion to be the deliberate murder of a fully human and innocent person, as the pro-life doctor does, not ask everyone they meet, let alone a President with the most power to see it criminalized, to oppose abortion! That is, why would someone with such a “passionate conviction” judge the “fair-mindedness” of pro-murder language more important than truth, than speaking in such a way as most effectively to stop the killing? We are talking, after all, about a life and death issue here, not one’s view on the estate tax.

Can values be aligned without changing them?

In the speech, Obama urged all Americans to “align our deepest values and commitments to the demands of a new age,” that is, not to change our values and commitments, whether secularist or religious, but merely align them. What this alignment entails must have something to do with the exchange between the doctor and Obama, our models of American virtue.

Allow me to change the anecdote a bit to help discover the connection. The year is 1834, and the issue is slavery, not abortion. There is a law that allows a slave to be killed by its master for any reason whatsoever, and thus thousands of innocent slaves are killed every year. The “pro-life” doctor opposes this law, but his senator advocates it. The doctor, after mystically hearing Obama’s future Notre Dame speech in a prophetic dream, is mesmerized by Obama’s “fair-mindedness,” and recognizes that the “demands of the new age” require that he and every other opponent of the murder of slaves refrain from asking pro-slave-murder persons to change their views, but ask only that they improve their rhetoric. The senator has the same dream, which causes him to recognize that his highest obligation is being fair-minded when he supports the murder of slaves so as not to “caricature” any opposing views.

I think the point is made: if being rhetorically civil were the extent of the required “alignment” for the 19th century America citizen, we would still have legalized slavery, not to mention the genocide of tens of thousands of African-Americans. Needless to say, there would be no President Obama. Suppose the situation were a President proposing a mass genocide of “less-than-human” Jews. “Okay,” assures the President to the doctor, “I’ll be fair-minded and say that they are quite human while we kill them.” One gets the point.

Irony, faith and doubt

I said at the outset that the questions in Obama’s speech at Notre Dame could be mined not only for Obama’s answers, but also for the theological and philosophical principles his answers presuppose. More space would permit me to treat these in some depth; for now, allow me to shed light on what I consider to be the central philosophical/theological reason that Obama would advocate a social and political ideal favoring conversational fairness over truth, and use as his main example what the majority of Americans consider to be a life and death issue. Here is the master key, as it were, that unlocks Obama’s speech:

But remember too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt... This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame.

I propose this more philosophically and theologically transparent translation:

Whatever “values” and “commitments” we may hold to be true, those that stem from or involve in any way our “faith” must be held with a certain amount of irresolvable doubt—for the “truth” in these sorts of matters can never be known. And this is why we should seek above all to continue, not ever resolve, the “moral and spiritual debate,” whose quite attainable goal is not the truth of any political matter, no matter how life-threatening, but “fair-mindedness.”

I think this interpretation, or something like it, is best able to make sense of why a pro-life Christian doctor revealing his tolerance of the mass-murder of baby-humans in the womb is held up by the President of the United States as a model of civic virtue to a group of graduating Catholic college students. Needless to say, such a relativistic notion of faith and truth is completely irreconcilable with any genuinely religious worldview, and according to Obama, that means over 90 percent of the American people.

What “fair-minded” voices, then, would be permitted to speak in this sort of “vigorous debate”? Would those who refuse to accept its relativistic presuppositions, and who say so plainly, be “caricaturing” their opponents? The kind of debate Obama’s “faith” would “compel” us to undertake is a mockery of debate, for it denigrates the point of any debate, the discovery of truth, and therefore it denigrates the human beings who participate in it, for our greatest desire is to know, love, and act upon the truth.

But with truth eclipsed by “fair-minded” rhetoric as the political summum bonum, what is to prevent the strongest and must ruthless – but, of course, rhetorically “fair-minded”—from exerting power over the weaker? Sure, the pro-life doctors would be speaking quite nicely with all the pro-abortion abortion doctors, while the baby humans are slaughtered in their wombs.

Pace the president of Notre Dame, I, fair-mindedly, or perhaps not, decline to participate in Obama’s “renewal” of political life, in solidarity with all the baby humans killed in the past and who will be killed in the future due to the amoral cultural, spiritual, and political climate only exacerbated by Obama’s cleverly cloaked relativism, wherein the weakest and most defenseless are given a, not-so-fair-minded, silent treatment. Obama asks us not to caricature other American citizens—fine—but let us ask, nay, demand that he not allow them to be murdered.

Dr Thaddeus J. Kozinski is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Wyoming Catholic College, in Lander, Wyoming

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