Monday, April 13, 2009

Notre Dame: The Nyquil Theory


For the last couple of weeks there's been a lot of furor over the fact that Barack Obama has been invited to speak at Notre Dame's graduation. In fact, over 200 thousand people signed a petition asking the school to dis-invite him. Numerous bishops have attacked the decision, as well, while others, including the superior of the Holy Cross order that founded Notre Dame, have called on Obama to use this moment to speak on the issue and reconsider his point of view.

If you go to our blog you can see plenty of dialogue about the whole situation. Here are a couple of my thoughts...

1) The issues of life -- which includes not only abortion but things like care for the elderly and euthenasia, war and the death penalty -- form a significant set of fault lines in Western culture, particularly American culture. And none of us do anything constructive to deal with these tensions by trying to suppress the conversation. It's a power move, rather than a rationale one, and offers nothing of substance to address the underlying questions and concerns about such things as when life begins and its value at various times.

For me, it's sort of like taking Nyquil. Nyquil is great when you're laying in bed with the flu and cannot get to sleep. It suppresses the symptoms, and bingo, sleep like a baby. But the next morning you feel like garbage again, because Nyquil only suppresses symptoms. Alone, it doesn't attack the underlying cause of my illness. If I want to make progress on that front, I have to be patient. (And perhaps consider other approaches, too.)

I think it is very, very likely that President Obama agreed to the invitation precisely because he saw that the only way for all of us to move forward is for us to try and forge some sort of common ground. And rest assured, no matter how one side or the other is demonized, there is common ground to be found.

2) Inviting someone to speak need not be a validation of their point of view. And one way of making that clear, which a number of people seem to be suggesting, is to give honorary degrees to every major invited speaker. Boston College Law School grappled with just this issue last spring, in fact, after the school invited the Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, who had spoken in favor of torture, as its graduation speaker. Originally he was set to receive the school's highest award, the Founder's Medal. But after a number of alumni, faculty and students spoke out against this, the school backpedaled. (And thank goodness they did, as his speech largely justified the approach of the Bush Administration, and suggested that a refusal to support torture constituted being "timid" and "risk-averse".)

3) There's something terribly, terribly inhospitable in telling an invited guest that they're not welcome. It's hard to see how this strategy can actually be somehow morally acceptable, in fact, when it seems so incredibly rude. We would never accept this behavior from our children. So how can we possibly accept it as appropriate behavior for adults?

I admire the bishops and others for their willingness to continue to speak out on this issue when much of the culture largely ignores their point of view. And I think some of their emotion comes out of a very clear (and accurate) sense that the American cultural perceptions of "life" have potentially disastrous consequences that are themselves being "spun" away.

At the same time, the stridency of some is neither becoming nor helpful. No one listens long to someone screaming at them. And really, should they?

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