Monday, May 18, 2009

Idiot Watch: Mary Ann Glendon

With his commencement speech at Notre Dame yesterday, President Obama will — we hope — have put an end to these many weeks of absurd posturing by Catholic conservatives over Obama's record on "life issues." The "pro-life" lobby has poured it on with such relish and gusto, you'd have thought the President was Justice Blackmun himself (or Jane Roe) — when in point of fact, he's endeavored to stake out the middle ground on life issues, to the extent there is any to be found.

One aspect of the tomfoolery around South Bend way that struck a chord with me is Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon's refusal to accept Notre Dame's prestigious Laetare Medal this year — because she couldn't bring herself to share the stage with Barack Obama, Baby-Killer.

Mary Ann Glendon is an Idiot, and I'm taking the liberty of capitalizing the I.
For full disclosure's sake I should note, before I continue, that I had Professor Glendon for Property in my first year of law school, and she gave me a B. I wasn't thrilled with the grade, but it never detracted from my abiding affinity and respect for her, which I would consider to be the same measure of affinity and respect I would have for any of my law-school professor, before they went and did something backward, absurd, and unqualifiedly stupid. So please don't believe this post marks an attempt to avenge, eight years later, that uninspiring grade — any of you who have talked foreign policy knows that I believe in a proportional response to aggression, such that I would never respond to that B with the F I'm giving Glendon today.

On to the Idiocy now. The open letter Professor Glendon wrote to Notre Dame refusing her Medal last month described President Obama as "a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church's position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice." The letter doesn't supply any of the details to support this indictment of the President. As I can think of no other respect in which anyone can remotely characterize him as the war-criminal dictator described in the letter, I can only assume Glendon is talking about "life issues." President Obama is a well-known advocate of a woman's right to choose, and he supports capital punishment as well. These positions contradict teachings of the Catholic Church, and it's these issues that tend to incite activists — although, one would hope, not a law professor — to the sort of inflammatory rhetoric we see here.

Let's study that rhetoric. Prominent? Barack Obama has never tried to highlight or exploit either of these issues politically. For the most part, he's entirely ducked acting on or discussing them. Nothing in Obama's candidacy or Presidency to date describes a man committed to promoting abortion or fast-tracking executions. Uncompromising? This is an outright laugher. Obama's expressed position on abortion is that he thinks the ideological logjam can and should be broken by taking policy steps to reduce the number of abortions. And yes, Obama opened up federal funding to stem-cell research, but it's likely quite a large number of lives will be saved, as a result of that decision. For that matter, Obama recognizes the importance of interposing "strict guidelines" to govern this field of study.

One wonders what the word "compromise" means, to someone like Mary Ann Glendon. As I remember the word, a compromise calls for concessions from both sides, and that's exactly what Obama has sought to accomplish on these most divisive issues. He's hardly a hard-headed ideologue on these points, and while I understand the urgent absolutism that might make anti-abortion advocates inclined not to give an inch on the question of the lives of the unborn, it's a bit of a logical stretch to describe Obama's position as uncompromising, simply because he doesn't endorse their view.

It's worth revisiting, too, the point Mithridates made in an earlier roundup: that Barack Obama stood alone among the handful of serious aspirants for the Presidency in his opposition to the Iraq War. Lives were lost as a result of that decision — a decision that the Church opposed — but apparently no credit is due to Obama for this, as he is not completely in lock-step with Glendon and the bishops on the other "life" issues. The Church is at least consistent in its life doctrine, even if so many of its conservative adherents would gladly hang, shock, waterboard, and bomb their fellow man, if it could translate to a marginal increase in their own "security."

But more important — to my mind, anyway — than Professor Glendon's obvious posturing, willful inconsistency, and unsupported (and unsupportable) rhetoric is the fact that Mary Ann Glendon should know that the first and most important mission of a university, Catholic or not, is to foster and promote a free exchange of ideas. Putting aside the sheer absurdity of her attempt to cast the President as a willful and determined challenger to Church orthodoxy on issues that have to this point all but escaped his Administration's notice — particularly as he is as close to a moderate on these issues as there can be — it's supremely irksome that a law professor (a law professor!) should turn on Notre Dame for inviting Obama to speak. If differences of opinion cannot be tolerated at a university, then where?

Glendon finesses this issue just a little by writing that the University's intention to confer an honorary degree on President Obama contravened the request of U.S. bishops that Catholic institutions "should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles." Glendon writes that this request "in no way seeks to control or interfere with an institution's freedom to invite or engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes," and she is sorely troubled that a "Catholic university should disrespect it." It logically follows from this passage that Glendon would have accepted her Medal, had the University only invited the President to speak and stopped short of awarding him the honorary degree. But really, though: would Glendon have abandoned her very public, self-serving gesture of sacrifice, if only Notre Dame had withheld a degree from the President?

I doubt it. Mary Ann Glendon is a bright woman, so bright that she knows to seek nuance when it might serve her, and to abandon it in favor of blithely cast generalizations when it doesn't. The ostensible addressee of her open letter, Father Jenkins, the President of Notre Dame, surely saw through the manipulative and self-serving representations she made in her letter, just as I did. But of course we know that the letter wasn't really meant for Father Jenkins: it was directed to the frothing horde of Obama-haters — the kind, just like her, who will happily exaggerate his differences with the Church, overlook the many areas in which his views are consonant with official Church doctrine, and judge him so harshly, four months into his Presidency, that they can't even stomach the notion of appearing on a stage with him. This was never about religion; it was about politics. And in either case, a distinguished scholar like Mary Ann Glendon should be able to tolerate the presence of — and indeed the grant of honors to — a man who disagrees with some of her deeply-held opinions. That goes double when that man is your President.

You ought to be better than this, Professor Glendon.


Mithridates said...

What I find absurd (well, among many other things) is that this woman happily works at an institution that honors those who oppose the Church far more strongly and destroys embryos in pursuit of scientific research. Too pure to share a stage with Obama at Notre Dame, but willing to compromise far more on daily basis for prestige and fortune?

WhiteCollar Redneck said...

On the plus side, it's been nice for me to see a headline reading "NOTRE SHAME" in the New York Post without any mention of the Irish football squad.

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