18 May 2009

Obama's Teaching Tour

Here's a transcript of the President's commencement address at Notre Dame. I suppose the receipt of an honorary doctorate is literally a teaching occasion, and Obama did this sort of thing for a living for a while. My hunch is that he welcomed the controversy sparked by his appearance, since it put the spotlight on another big speech. The big idea of this one was his appeal for "fair-minded words" even when people's positions are irreconcilable. He offered his own conduct as an example, explaining that he changed the language of his pro-choice position after someone complained that it was unfair of him to characterize the anti-abortion position solely in terms of denying women freedom of choice. That was decent of him, I suppose, but I don't know if reciprocity is possible. I'm not sure if "fair-minded words" are possible when your essential belief is that abortion is murder. Can you call it anything but that if that's what you believe, and can calling it murder do anything but anger the other side?

In any event, Obama's talk demonstrated why "pro-life" has the majority at the moment, because his emphasis, like the Clintons in the 1990s, was on making abortions less common. You can't really expect him to argue for more abortions, but my point is that the "pro-choice" side is hobbled by a now-inevitable reticence founded on the fact that abortion isn't really desirable in its own right. Pro-choice activists want to avoid looking like advocates of "abortion on demand." No one in the mainstream seems to make a strong case for the irreducible sovereignty of women over their own bodies, perhaps because doing so might make one look like a feminist extremist or "feminzai." The liberal position now seems to be that abortion is deplorable, but women shouldn't be punished for it. I still say that the way to block anti-abortion laws should Roe v. Wade be overturned is to raise the stakes to an unacceptable level by introducing deal-breaking amendments to any legislation that would require punishment of mothers who abort. As things stand, pro-lifers act as if mothers who abort are only dupes of the evil eugenicists of the family-planning movement. Their preference is to punish doctors rather than mothers. This may reflect a constrained sense of female autonomy that might be exposed to their discredit in a real debate. But there is no real debate at the moment, and maybe Roe must fall before we can have one. That would be the time for fair-minded words, and it would be interesting to see who can say them.

I may be a crabby secularist, but I feel entitled to complain about the President bringing up original sin in his speech. He was careful to contain it in a comment about what the "Christian tradition" believes, but too many people use original sin as an explanation of man's imperfectibility to excuse an unwillingness to attempt to at least improve man. Man is imperfect because he is mortal, not because he has a curse on him. Believing that man is cursed leads people to assume that many projects are doomed to fail that may not be. It also discourages people from using the political instruments at their disposal to improve their lives. It encourages them to take the Christian option of saving themselves rather than concerning themselves with the well-being of all. It seems to me that just as we can do without the utopian perfectionism that made many Marxists irrational, we can do without the superstitious pessimism that makes many Americans equally irrational. So that's when I would have heckled the President, maybe just to surprise people. Consider this a mild form of virtual heckling instead.


Anonymous said...

Or, better yet, force a compromise. Tell the right-wingers that if they wish to outlaw a woman's right to abortion, they will have to accept teaching sex education, including the use of birth control and contraceptives, to students and they will have to accept the sale of contraceptive options in their communities. If they are unwilling to compromise, let them know in no uncertain terms, Roe vs. Wade will stand in perpetuity.

Anonymous said...

Also, point out that since their stance against abortion is that it is murder and murder is immoral, then they need to review their policy on gun ownership, since the ONLY purpose/use a gun has is to kill. So if they can't accept a woman's right to "murder" a fetus, they also are not allowed the right to "murder" in defense of their property.