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By Jose Antonio Rodriguez
“The Tea Party acted like terrorists in threatening to blow up the economy,” said Vice President Joe Biden, according to Politico, during a two-hour meeting with angry House Democrats. In a CBS interview, the Vice President denied using the “terrorism word”. Kendra Barkoff, Biden’s spokesperson, added further clarification: “The word was used by several members of Congress. The vice president does not believe it’s an appropriate term in political discourse.” The closed-door caucus meeting took place amidst the scramble to pass a deal to raise the debt limit before the August 2nd deadline, a deal that some Democrats called a “Satan sandwich”.
The perpetually thin-skinned Sarah Palin, the former Governor of Alaska and John McCain’s Vice Presidential running mate during the 2008 election, immediately took offense to the comment. “To be called a terrorist because of our beliefs from the vice president, it’s quite appalling, it’s quite vile,” she said during a Fox News interview. Of course, she herself is quite famous for casually throwing around the “terrorism word”. During the 2008 election, Palin famously accused then-Senator Barack Obama of “pallin’ around” with terrorists, a reference to the fact that Obama sat onChicagoeducation boards with a former member of the Weather Underground named Bill Ayers. Indeed, Palin resurrected those allegations, saying, “He didn’t have a problem palling around with Bill Ayers back in the day when he kicked off his political career in Bill Ayers’ apartment… You know, shaking hands with Chavez and saying he doesn’t need any preconditions with dictators… wanting to read U.S. Miranda rights to alleged, suspected foreign terrorists.” She added that, if she and her ilk were actually terrorists, “heck, shoot, President Obama would be wanting to pal around with us, wouldn’t he?”
It should be added that Paul O’Neil, a Treasury Secretary for President George W. Bush, made remarks similar to the ones that House Democrats made during the meeting with Vice President Biden: “[The] people who are threatening not to pass the debt ceiling are our version of al Qaeda terrorists. Really — they’re really putting our whole society at risk by threatening to round up 50 percent of the members of the Congress, who are loony, who would put our credit at risk.”
But how far off the mark are Paul O’Neil and the angry Democrats? Not that far.
The U.S. Department of Defense defines terrorism as: “The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” The TEA Party backed freshmen in the House, elected in 2010, have threatened to shut down the government and throw it into default. More recently, they have shut down the Federal Aviation Agency, resulting in the furlough of 74,000 people, the halting of about 200 construction jobs, and causing the federal government to lose out on roughly $30 million a day in revenue. In every instance, these TEA Party backed members of the House have held the American people hostage, threatening to inflict economic violence if their narrow political, ideological demands are not met. Their efforts have supporters in conservative corners and from the Facebook page of the former Mayor of Wasilla. “Don’t retreat,” Sarah Palin routinely reminds her supporters. “Reload.” Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, had this to say about the tactics of the House Republicans: “If you hold one-half of one-third of the reins of power in Washington, and are willing to use and maintain that kind of discipline even if you will bring the entire temple down around your own head, there is a pretty good chance that you are going to get your way.”
This is not the first time our government has been threatened by right-wing zealots, however.
In the elections of 1994, Republicans took control of the House and Senate. Led by Newt Gingrich and motivated by his “Contract with America”—or, as Democrats termed it, the Contract on America—right-wing ideologues in Congress sought to reshape the government by gutting programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Agency, and programs for the poor, such as Head Start, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. The Contract withAmerica also outlined an ambitious agenda, which included legislation for a balanced budget amendment and term limits. Gingrich, the new Speaker of the House, even threatened to not raise the debt ceiling. These right-wing freshmen were operating on two assumptions: (1) that the American people had provided them with an historic mandate to carry out their agenda and (2) that President Bill Clinton would cave in to their demands. After all, the American people just overwhelmingly swept the Republicans into power for the first time in over forty years. On the second point, they believed that President Clinton was politically weakened by scandals, which were manufactured by ultra-conservative Clinton-haters and fueled by a pliant media; they also believed that he was without convictions of any kind and lacked moral fortitude. By the end of 1995, they would be proved wrong on both fronts.
On the night of November 13, 1995, hours away from an impending government shut down, Republican leaders of Congress met with President Clinton in order to craft a last minute budget deal. Just a few days earlier, the Republican controlled Congress sent the President a budget that inflicted draconian cuts to entitlements and programs that millions of Americans depended upon. They also sent him a bill to raise the debt ceiling for another thirty days. The President, much to the surprise of the Republican leadership, vetoed both bills. During the tense, last minute negotiations in the White House, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Speaker Gingrich made conciliatory statements, while the zealous Dick Armey (now the leader of the TEA Party group Freedomworks) verbally attacked the President. Armey accused the President of fear-mongering, saying that he “could hardly get” his mother-in-law “into a nursing home, you guys have scared her so much.” President Clinton, who still nursed resentment over Armey’s claim that Hillary Clinton was a Marxist, lashed out at Armey: “I don’t know about your mother-in-law, but let me tell you, there are a lot of older women who are going to do pretty darn bad under your budget.” The President was feeling his blood boil. “So don’t expect any pity from me.” Armey, in a moment of petulance, retorted that the Republicans would shut down the government and effectively endClinton’s presidency. “If you want to pass your budget,” the President said with a glance to Bob Dole, who was planning to run for the presidency in 1996, “you will have to put somebody else in this chair!” As if to signal that the meeting was now over, the President declared that he didn’t “care if I go to five percent in the polls. I am not going to sign your budget. It is wrong. It is wrong for the country.”
At midnight, the government shut down began. Nearly 800,000 federal employees were furloughed and the lives of millions of Americans were inconvenienced. In order to prevent default, Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin borrowed $61 billion from retirement funds and employed some financial gimmicks, a move that elicited cries for his impeachment from Republicans who preferred that the country be thrown into default. Briefly, the government shut down ended, and it appeared that there would be a budget deal. But the Republican lead Congress continued to send the President bills that unnecessarily inflicted economic pain on the most vulnerable Americans. So, it was not to be, and the government was shut down for a second time. The American people were angry. The poll numbers for Republicans (and Gingrich in particular) plummeted, while the President’s poll numbers skyrocketed. In some polls, his numbers were almost 70% among likely voters over the age of 50. The American people rejected the extremism of the right-wing ideologues and supported President Clinton’s defense of programs that helped millions of Americans keep their heads above water. They rewarded him for not caving in to the demands of over-zealous Republicans, who were holding the American people and the economy hostage. In early January 1996, a contrite Gingrich apologized toClinton, saying, “We made a mistake. We thought you would cave.” On January 6, the government was back in business.
It is difficult not to look back over the last year and see that President Obama has, time and time again, been rolled by House Republicans, lead by Speaker of the House John Boehner. He has caved in to the demands of the TEA-orists, who have threatened to wreak economic violence if their demands are not met. In the wake of the recent debt limit deal, Speaker Boehner has boasted that he got 98% of what he wanted. Emboldened, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hinted that his party would continue the tactics that have allowed them to cut spending and risk government default. “I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting. Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this— it’s a hostage that’s worth ransoming.” The deal allows the debt ceiling to be raised until early 2013, but it cuts nearly a trillion dollars in discretionary spending over the next ten years and creates a bipartisan committee, which will be tasked with cutting an additional 1.5 trillion dollars. The TEA Partiers have thrown sanity into the wind. Though they brought the nation to the brink of economic devastation, many refused to vote for the deal that provided them with virtually everything they wanted and virtually nothing that the President wanted. These are people who will not take yes for an answer.
Not everyone is thrilled about the deal. Obviously, Democrats are enraged. Some progressive groups, such as MoveOn.org and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, are threatening to withhold support for the President’s 2012 campaign. Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, has described the debt deal as an economic “disaster”, warning that it will make our deficit problem worse and “takeAmericaa long way down the road to banana-republic status.” Lawrence Summers, a former economic advisor to President Obama, said that there is a “one in three chance” that there will be a double-dip recession. Standard & Poor, a major credit rating agency, has also responded to the debt deal by downgradingAmerica’s top credit rating. In a statement following the downgrade, S&P cited a dysfunctional political system and a failure to produce a credible, balanced plan. “The majority of Republicans in Congress,” a representative from S&P said, “continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act.” The American people, according to recent polls, also strongly dislike the deal. According to a CNN poll, 52% of Americans disapprove of the debt deal. The poll also found that three out of four Americans would describe elected officials as “spoiled children”. A New York Times/CBS News poll, for example, has Congress’s approval rating at a dismal 14%. Speaker Boehner’s disapproval rating is at 57%, ten points higher than the President’s. Public approval of the TEA Party is at a mere 20%. There are signs of hope for the White House in the polls, however. According to the latter poll, the American people trust President Obama over the Republicans with economic issues. They also blame Republicans for the crisis, believing that they refused to compromise. Despite all the drama, President Obama still stands with a 48% approval rating.
At some point, President Obama is going to have to take a stand and draw a line in the sand. During the debt ceiling negotiations, he warned Rep. Eric Cantor: “Don’t call my bluff.” Yet, when they called his bluff, President Obama caved. In 1995, President Clinton demonstrated that he had conviction and moral fortitude. He held firm, risking his political career, and refused to be rolled by the right-wing zealots who were trying to gut government programs and remake the country in their image. When the dust settled, President Clinton not only succeeded in his 1996 election, but his fiscal discipline resulted in a balanced budget and a projected surplus in the trillions of dollars. Today, President Obama faces an equally fanatical and nihilistic group of TEA Party backed Republican freshmen who are willing to blow up the economy. Unfortunately, the TEA-orists have learned that they can get their way if they take hostages. This is a fundamental fight for the future of our country. President Obama needs to decide if he has the conviction to risk his poll numbers and his Presidency in order to preserve our way of life and win the future.
As July approaches, so too does the beginning of a withdrawal from Afghanistan. This has sparked some measure of debate in this country. Unfortunately, much of the debate around the future of our involvement in Afghanistan and the region is ill-informed. The most annoying debate is whether or not we should abandon counter-insurgency and embrace counter-terrorism. Allow me to simplify the effects of both strategies: The latter will result in prolonged war, while the former will bring about a negotiated settlement. But listening to the pundits, politicians, or reading the newspaper (or blog) writers, one would come away with the idea that counter-insurgency has failed and that counter-terrorism is the best strategy as we go forward. If we are to leave Afghanistan with some semblance of security, then we must continue the counter-insurgency strategy that has been in place for a year-and-a-half. Failing to do so will result in prolonged conflict.
Conventional wisdom says that the killing of Osama bin Laden has boosted the argument for pursuing a counter-terrorism strategy. The detailed account of helicopters swooping down on a compound, with armed commandos rappelling down onto unsuspecting terrorists, has captured the imagination of Americans everywhere. It seemed so effective; indeed, bin Laden has a bullet in his head and chest to attest to the effectiveness of SEAL Team 6. Unfortunately, this is not exactly how counter-terrorism works. And if it did, it would require much more energy and money.
Vice President Joe Biden is the White House’s biggest advocate of counter-terrorism. During the White House’s long internal discussion over what to do in Afghanistan, he pushed for a counter-terrorism strategy. In his view, a smaller footprint would yield better results, particularly if U.S. military forces went after Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. The larger footprint required by counter-insurgency would only create more terrorists, he argued. Biden also described counter-insurgency as nation-building. Throughout the internal debate, Biden sought to undermine the arguments of General David Petraeus and General Stanley McChrystal, the military brass. In the end, the President did not fully embrace the counter-terrorism strategy. He agreed to the strategy proposed by the military: counter-insurgency.
The military, during the internal debate, argued that the Taliban was effectively winning the war. The momentum was on their side. But, in their view, the Taliban had an ally in Hamid Karzai. Karzai was corrupt and did not have the trust of the Afghans. A lack of security was also driving factor in allowing the Taliban insurgency to flourish. The only way to improve security and governance, they argued, was to add more troops on the ground and adopt a counter-insurgency strategy. They hoped for 40,000 more troops, but the President only approved 30,000 troops. Believing that the military was trying to box him in, the President dictated five pages of memorandum that were meant to straightjacket the military. He feared that they were pushing him into the trap of mission creep.
Counter-terrorism sounds good on paper, which is why there were some vigorous supporters of CT in the White House. But the debate inside the White House (which is going on now in the public square) ignored the fact that insurgency is different from terrorism, and therefore require different approaches. This misunderstanding can be attributed to the Bush administration’s failure to accurately explain the post-9/11 challenge. By invading Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States created a power vacuum, which was the perfect environment for an insurgency. Salafist and takfiri Islamic militants were seeking to overthrow the governments established by the U.S. through the use of terrorism as a tactic. The Bush administration mislabeled the insurgents as “terrorists,” and that became the term everyone used to describe the enemies we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are major differences between the two, which should inform our military strategy in Afghanistan.
When talking about terrorists, it is imperative to note that these are generally acts of violence that are committed by individuals with radical goals. They and their goals are not representative of their social group. They use terrorism as a means to shock both the public and government into accepting the demands of the terrorists. These are criminal acts of violence. Counter-terrorism is a form of law enforcement, whereby the terrorists are captured (or killed) and brought to justice. This is what recently happened to Osama bin Laden.
Insurgents are different in most respects, though terrorism is a popular tactic among insurgents. But here is the deeper issue: insurgents are representative of their social group, and their goals or grievances are widely shared within that social group. In other words, the insurgents are representative of deeply rooted problems in society. The way to counter an insurgency is through a whole-of-government approach that marginalizes the grievances through a compromise or reform. The Arab Spring is an example of a non-violent insurgency.
Now we come to the crux of the matter.
There is no way to kill our way out of Afghanistan or the region. We cannot simply capture or detain our way out either. These are the methods of counter-terrorism. Furthermore, the region is crippled by deeply rooted problems that have allowed militant Islamic fundamentalists to gain influence and threaten the stability of governments in the region. These are not simply terrorists that we can seek out and arrest or kill, as counter-terrorism would have us do. The way to defeat these insurgents is through a counter-insurgency strategy that protects the public, increases government responsiveness and transparency, and addresses the deeply rooted grievances of the public. This will undoubtedly require some sort of compromise with the Taliban. All of this will require time and patience, something the public lacks, which is why they are now hoping to pursue a CT strategy. If we are serious about getting out and leaving behind a secure Afghanistan that we will not have to re-invade some time in the future (I’m not talking about winning, mind you), then a COIN strategy is our only hope.
But I hate to leave the impression that we should do a purely COIN strategy. Certainly, that should be our guiding strategy in Afghanistan. However, there is a need for CT. We are doing that in some areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan right now with our have drones policing the skies. And obviously we just took out Osama bin Laden using CT. A hybrid strategy is useful. But this talk about ending COIN and adopting a purely CT approach is not only silly, it is irresponsible.
As General David Petraeus has said many times, we cannot win this war. There will never be a time when we can have a ticker-tape parade and see al Qaeda and the Taliban sign a document to end the war. We may never live in a world that is free of either organization. So, the goal is to ensure that the people of the region are satisfied with their government, have hope for their future, and feel secure… at least enough so that we can leave and the Afghan government can continue what we started. The Arab Spring is showing us that the people in this region are taking it upon themselves to bring about change. Let’s hope they succeed so that we do not have to pursue a COIN or CT strategy.
And just because it made me smile…
First of all, for those who are unaware, I am a practicing Catholic. Now…
Conservative Catholics have lost their minds. They have confused their faith with their extreme right-wing ideology. These wayward souls have even gone so far as to align themselves with right-wing Christian groups who hate the Catholic Church, have likened the Pope to the anti-christ, and regard the Church as inherently evil. Have these Catholic Conservatives no shame? Do they not realize that they have made a pact with people who hate them and are only using them for political gain?
The reason I write this today is because President Barack Obama gave the commencement address at Notre Dame, where he was also given an honorary degree. Conservative Catholics, along with their right-wing Christian/Republican friends, have gone mad over this development. Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee Chairman, said it was “inappropriate” for Notre Dame to give Obama an honorary degree. Other U.S.Catholic leaders have rebuked Notre Dame for its invitation of President Barack Obama and intend to boycott his visit to the University. The president of the Catholic League, Bill Donahue, was quite vocal in his opposition to the President’s presence at Notre Dame, saying, “To give him an honorary degree would be like Howard University giving David Duke a degree in racial politics.” Donahue, keep in mind, is a flaming Republican, who rarely speaks out against the shortcomings of Conservative politicians. Only 55 American Bishops (roughly 20%) have complained about Obam’s address, as have some Cardinals including James Francis Stafford. He has gone so far as to say that Obama has “an agenda and vision that are aggressive, disruptive and apocalyptic.” Strong words, but do they reflect reality?
The protests against the President’s address at Notre Dame included Alan Keyes, and other Republican figures. As many as 39 people have been arrested because of the address, including Norma McCorvey, better known as “Roe,” the plaintiff in the Roe v. Wade case that made abortion legal. She has since become a pro-life activist. Protesters, including Keyes, were pushing strollers containing dolls covered in fake blood. Among those who were arrested was a Priest, who complained aloud, “Notre Dame is arresting a priest. Why are you arresting a priest for trying to stop the killing of a baby? You’ve got it all backward.” Well, apparently trespassing is illegal, and that was why he was arrested, along with Keyes. Many of the critics of the decision to invite the President have also called for the resignation of Notre Dame’s President Rev. John I. Jenkins, gathering some 360,000 online signatures. Though the protests and criticisms have been strong, Jenkins has been quiet and resolved. He did, however, put out a statement: In a statement well before the ceremony, Jenkins wrote that the invitation: This “does not mean we support all of his positions … [on] abortion and embryonic stem cell research.”
In what appears to be a somewhat silent break with American Catholic officials, the Vatican has been mum on the controversy. In late April, for instance, the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, essentially chastised the American Catholic leadership for exaggerated “forceful concerns”. The document, though pointing out differences with President Obama, seems to be reaching out to the new President: “On ethical questions, too — which from the time of the electoral campaign have been the subject of strong worries by the Catholic bishops — Obama does not seem to have confirmed the radical innovations that he had discussed.” In other words, he is not the radical they worried about initially. Indeed, the Vatican seems more interested in building stronger ties to Jewish and Muslim communites, as well as encouraging progress on peace in the middle-east. Since Obama’s election, the Vatican has shown signs that they are quite impressed and enthusiastic about the new President, and their silence on this issue is yet another sign that the Vatican is looking forward to working with this administration on a range of issues including, Global Climate Change, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, combating poverty, encouraging fairer economic policies for poor families, health care, a living wage, working with women who are pregnant in order to help them choose life over abortion, and a whole host of other issues.
In short, the Vatican and the Obama administration have far more issues in common than issues that divide them.
The same is true of Catholic American laity. 67% of Catholics approve of the way he is running the country, according to a Pew Poll. Pew also found that half of American Catholics supported Notre Dame’s invitation of Obama, while only 28% opposed the invitation. 22% had no opinion. Just as a reminder, it is also important to remember that Obama won 54% of the Catholic vote in November’s election. Again, it is the small, albeit vocal, group of Conservative Catholics who confuse their allegiance to the GOP with their faith that are opposed to Obama’s commencement address.
As President Barack Obama took the stage and began his speech before the 12,000 people, there were some boos, which were interrupted and quieted by the graduating class and commencement audience. One heckler was likewise heckled until silenced. Before he spoke, Rev. Jenkins praised the President for his ability to speak with people who disagree with him, unlike those “who [stop] talking to those who disagree with him.” This was a not-so subtle jab at those who opposed Obama’s address. As the President spoke, he was supported with cheers, loud applause, and standing ovations. Many students had the words “Viva Obama” written on their caps. Critics wondered what Obama could possibly say, assuming, I suppose, that being pro-choice would only confound him whilst among a pro-life audience. Instead, as the President often does, he reached out to the critics, offering an opportunity for “fair minded” discussions about abortion. Striking a different tone than those zealots who would shut him up, he also highlighted their similarities: “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 child to term.” He recognized that “no matter how much we want to fudge it … the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable,” but he urged that people stop “reducing those with differing views to caricature. Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words. It’s a way of life that always has been the Notre Dame tradition.” “I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away,” the president said. “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.” His speech was quite inspiring, and it demonstrates the President’s commitment to bridging the gap between “enemies” with communication. He’s a uniter, not a divider.
But it was not only the President asking for “fair-minded” discussions, the Valedictorian, Brennan Bollman, (in an interview with the Huffington Post) said that “this issue has not divided the campus by any means,” because the President is bringing “everyone to the table.” In response to those Catholics who have seen red over the President’s address, Bollman responded: “We know exactly what it is to be Catholic because we are inviting President Obama to speak to us.” She even went as far as to say that President Obama has “given [respect] to human life through many of his policies,” adding that many of his policies reflected Catholic values: “President Obama takes a lot of pro-life positions. I don’t think that he is strongly pro-abortion.”
Catholics, like myself, are proud of the President’s speech. We’ll see how the Conservatives will respond.
Below is the full text of the address:
Well, first of all, congratulations, Class of 2009. Congratulations to all the parents, the cousins — the aunts, the uncles — all the people who helped to bring you to the point that you are here today. Thank you so much to Father Jenkins for that extraordinary introduction, even though you said what I want to say much more elegantly. You 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.
Good afternoon. To Father Hesburgh, to Notre Dame trustees, to faculty, to family: I am honored to be here today. And I am grateful to all of you for allowing me to be a part of your graduation.
And I also want to thank you for the honorary degree that I received. I know it has not been without controversy. I dont know if youre aware of this, but these honorary degrees are apparently pretty hard to come by. So far I’m only 1 for 2 as President. Father Hesburgh is 150 for 150. I guess that’s better. So, Father Ted, after the ceremony, maybe you can give me some pointers to boost my average.
I also want to congratulate the Class of 2009 for all your accomplishments. And since this is Notre Dame …
(Speech is interrupted by anti-abortion protesters.)
We’re fine, everybody. We’re following Brennans adage that we dont do things easily. We’re not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes.
Now, since this is Notre Dame I think we should talk not only about your accomplishments in the classroom, but also in the competitive arena. No, dont worry, I’m not going to talk about that. We all know about this university’s proud and storied football team, but I also hear that Notre Dame holds the largest outdoor 5-on-5 basketball tournament in the world — Bookstore Basketball.
Now this excites me. I want to congratulate the winners of this year’s tournament, a team by the name of “Hallelujah Holla Back.” Congratulations. Well done. Though I have to say, I am personally disappointed that the “Barack OBallers” did not pull it out this year. So next year, if you need a 6-2 forward with a decent jumper, you know where I live.
Every one of you should be proud of what you have achieved at this institution. One hundred and sixty-three classes of Notre Dame graduates have sat where you sit today. Some were here during years that simply rolled into the next without much notice or fanfare — periods of relative peace and prosperity that required little by way of sacrifice or struggle.
You, however, are not getting off that easy. You have a different deal. Your class has come of age at a moment of great consequence for our nation and for the world — a rare inflection point in history where the size and scope of the challenges before us require that we remake our world to renew its promise; that we align our deepest values and commitments to the demands of a new age. It’s a privilege and a responsibility afforded to few generations — and a task that youre now called to fulfill.
This generation, your generation is the one that must find a path back to prosperity and decide how we respond to a global economy that left millions behind even before the most recent crisis hit — an economy where greed and short-term thinking were too often rewarded at the expense of fairness, and diligence, and an honest day’s work.
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.
In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family. And it’s this last challenge that Id like to talk about today, despite the fact that Father John stole all my best lines. For the major threats we face in the 21st century — whether it’s global recession or violent extremism; the spread of nuclear weapons or pandemic disease — these things do not discriminate. They do not recognize borders. They do not see color. They do not target specific ethnic groups.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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?
And of course, nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion.
As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign, one that I describe in a book I wrote called “The Audacity of Hope.” A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an e-mail from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the Illinois primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life — but that was not what was preventing him potentially from voting for me.
What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my Web site — an entry that said I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor said he had assumed I was a reasonable person, he supported my policy initiatives to help the poor and to lift up our educational system, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.” 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.
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.”
So 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.
Now, understand — understand, Class of 2009, 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 — 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.
Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words. It’s a way of life that has always been the Notre Dame tradition. Father Hesburgh has long spoken of this institution as both a lighthouse and a crossroads. A lighthouse that stands apart, shining with the wisdom of the Catholic tradition, while the crossroads is where “differences of culture and religion and conviction can coexist with friendship, civility, hospitality, and especially love.” And I want to join him and Father John in saying how inspired I am by the maturity and responsibility with which this class has approached the debate surrounding today’s ceremony. You are an example of what Notre Dame is about.
This tradition of cooperation and understanding is one that I learned in my own life many years ago — also with the help of the Catholic Church.
You see, I was not raised in a particularly religious household, but my mother instilled in me a sense of service and empathy that eventually led me to become a community organizer after I graduated college. And a group of Catholic churches in Chicago helped fund an organization known as the Developing Communities Project, and we worked to lift up South Side neighborhoods that had been devastated when the local steel plant closed.
And it was quite an eclectic crew — Catholic and Protestant churches, Jewish and African American organizers, working-class black, white, and Hispanic residents — all of us with different experiences, all of us with different beliefs. But all of us learned to work side by side because all of us saw in these neighborhoods other human beings who needed our help — to find jobs and improve schools. We were bound together in the service of others.
And something else happened during the time I spent in these neighborhoods — perhaps because the church folks I worked with were so welcoming and understanding; perhaps because they invited me to their services and sang with me from their hymnals; perhaps because I was really broke and they fed me. Perhaps because I witnessed all of the good works their faith inspired them to perform, I found myself drawn not just to the work with the church; I was drawn to be in the church. It was through this service that I was brought to Christ.
And at the time, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was the Archbishop of Chicago. For those of you too young to have known him or known of him, he was a kind and good and wise man. A saintly man. I can still remember him speaking at one of the first organizing meetings I attended on the South Side. He stood as both a lighthouse and a crossroads — unafraid to speak his mind on moral issues ranging from poverty and AIDS and abortion to the death penalty and nuclear war. And yet, he was congenial and gentle in his persuasion, always trying to bring people together, always trying to find common ground. Just before he died, a reporter asked Cardinal Bernardin about this approach to his ministry. And he said, “You can’t really get on with preaching the Gospel until you’ve touched hearts and minds.”
My heart and mind were touched by him. They were touched by the words and deeds of the men and women I worked alongside in parishes across Chicago. And Id like to think that we touched the hearts and minds of the neighborhood families whose lives we helped change. For this, I believe, is our highest calling.
Now, you, Class of 2009, are about to enter the next phase of your life at a time of great uncertainty. You’ll be called to help restore a free market that’s also fair to all who are willing to work. You’ll be called to seek new sources of energy that can save our planet; to give future generations the same chance that you had to receive an extraordinary education. And whether as a person drawn to public service, or simply someone who insists on being an active citizen, you will be exposed to more opinions and ideas broadcast through more means of communication than ever existed before. You’ll hear talking heads scream on cable, and you’ll read blogs that claim definitive knowledge, and you will watch politicians pretend they know what they’re talking about. Occasionally, you may have the great fortune of actually seeing important issues debated by people who do know what they’re talking about — by well-intentioned people with brilliant minds and mastery of the facts. In fact, I suspect that some of you will be among those brightest stars.
And 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. In other words, stand as a lighthouse.
But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads. Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen. It’s beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.
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 the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds.
For if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It’s no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the Golden Rule — the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. The call to serve. To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.
So many of you at Notre Dame — by the last count, upwards of 80 percent — have lived this law of love through the service you’ve performed at schools and hospitals; international relief agencies and local charities. Brennan is just one example of what your class has accomplished. That’s incredibly impressive, a powerful testament to this institution.
Now you must carry the tradition forward. Make it a way of life. Because when you serve, it doesn’t just improve your community, it makes you a part of your community. It breaks down walls. It fosters cooperation. And when that happens — when people set aside their differences, even for a moment, to work in common effort toward a common goal; when they struggle together, and sacrifice together, and learn from one another — then all things are possible.
After all, I stand here today, as President and as an African American, on the 55th anniversary of the day that the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Now, Brown was of course the first major step in dismantling the “separate but equal” doctrine, but it would take a number of years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God’s children. There were freedom rides and lunch counters and Billy clubs, and there was also a Civil Rights Commission appointed by President Eisenhower. It was the 12 resolutions recommended by this commission that would ultimately become law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
There were six members of this commission. It included five whites and one African American; Democrats and Republicans; two Southern governors, the dean of a Southern law school, a Midwestern university president, and your own Father Ted Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame. So they worked for two years, and at times, President Eisenhower had to intervene personally since no hotel or restaurant in the South would serve the black and white members of the commission together. And finally, when they reached an impasse in Louisiana, Father Ted flew them all to Notre Dame’s retreat in Land OLakes, Wisconsin — where they eventually overcame their differences and hammered out a final deal.
And years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on Earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered they were all fishermen. And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake. They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history.
I will not pretend that the challenges we face will be easy, or that the answers will come quickly, or that all our differences and divisions will fade happily away — because life is not that simple. It never has been. But as you leave here today, remember the lessons of Cardinal Bernardin, of Father Hesburgh, of movements for change both large and small. Remember that each of us, endowed with the dignity possessed by all children of God, has the grace to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we all seek the same love of family, the same fulfillment of a life well lived. Remember that in the end, in some way we are all fishermen.
If nothing else, that knowledge should give us faith that through our collective labor, and God’s providence, and our willingness to shoulder each other’s burdens, America will continue on its precious journey towards that more perfect union. Congratulations, Class of 2009. May God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.
Well, tonight was the second Presidential debate. This debate comes amid an increasing nasty campaign. Interestingly, Cindy McCain went as far as to say that Barack Obama has run the nastiest campaign ever. Strong words.
I personally found the debate to be pretty boring. They both failed to provide anything new or interesting; the debate rules also stifled what could have been a rousing debate. Even Tom Brokaw added to the inanity of the spectacle. Instead, I thought that the debate was essentially a repeat of the first, only the candidates were able to stretch their legs and walk around. I guess that allowed us to see the difference in their age, but it really did not add to the substance of the debate.
Barack Obama won the debate. Narrowly. Clearly, this format was well suited for John McCain, yet he did not win the debate, which he desperately needed to do. His answers were erratic and lacked coherence; McCain could barely contain his contempt for Obama; and he was quite nasty in some of his condescending side comments (particularly when he referred to Obama as “that one”). At the end of the debate, he would not shake Obama’s hand (nor did Cindy McCain shake the hand of Michelle Obama) and he quickly exited the stage because he could not stand to be in the presence of Barack Obama. McCain needed to win this debate to change the dynamics of the race and to give his campaign a shot in the arm. Instead, the race has not changed at all by this debate, which is bad news for McCain.
But this is also good news for Barack Obama. Though Obama seemed a bit uncomfortable in this format and tended to come across as defensive (or whiny), his comments were very focused. He seemed to be empathetic to the suffering of the American public, which he has struggled with throughout the campaign. His most successful tactic, however, was his repeated attempts to connect McCain to Bush. This goes to the heart of the question of McCain’s judgement and his ability to produce any change.
In the end, John McCain came across as someone who spent a lot of time before the debate preparing his remarks regarding the economy. He did a surprising good job in that discussion, but Obama was still better at connecting with the middle-class. Unfortunately, for McCain, he seemed unable to appear strong on foreign policy, which is his strength. Obama bested him in that, as well. McCain was simply repeating the attacks that he had been leveling at Obama over the past few months, but Obama was brilliant in his ability to deflect those attacks and turn them on McCain.
The most memorable moments for me came from Obama. Firstly, Obama fought back against McCain’s assertion that Obama was naive or didn’t understand foreign policy by saying: “Well, you know, Sen. McCain, in the last debate and today, again, suggested that I don’t understand. It’s true. There are some things I don’t understand. I don’t understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us. That was Sen. McCain’s judgment and it was the wrong judgment. When Sen. McCain was cheerleading the president to go into Iraq, he suggested it was going to be quick and easy, we’d be greeted as liberators. That was the wrong judgment, and it’s been costly to us.”
The second moment came when Obama cited his mother’s experience, in the final months of her struggle against cancer, fighting the insurance companies that wanted to deny her service. That, to me, not only demonstrated that he personally understands the frustration we all feel about the state of our health care system, but it also showed that he was making a sharp contrast between his plan and McCain’s plan.
John McCain left no impression upon my mind about his performance tonight. Instead, I come away feeling like he was mean and condescending. Sure, he was great at connecting with people in the room who were already leaning towards him, and he did well at coming across as being at ease, but he failed to express his views. Instead, he spent the entire time attacking Obama, instead of building up his own policies.
In the final analysis, Obama won the debate, narrowly, but it does not change the dynamics of the race, which spells trouble for McCain, but is great news for Obama.