Barack Obama is a Radical Centrist, preaching and teaching dialogue, finding common ground, and listening and speaking “fair-minded words” with an open heart and an open mind. These themes appear in all of his speeches on controversial issues, which are about the only issues he speaks about. Controversy is everywhere, paralyzing us, provoking verbal hostilities and worse, wasting our time, energies and resources and producing ineffective solutions that seem to only get us into deeper troubles.
Here are some excerpts from two of his recent speeches.
From his May 17 speech at Notre Dame in which he focused on abortion:
About dealing with conflict:
“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.”
About finding common ground:
“So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term.”
From his June 4 Cairo speech to Muslims around the world:
“Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.”
“…all of us share common aspirations – to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.”
In the Cairo speech he talked in succession about six issues: Violent extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, nuclear weapons, democracy, women’s rights, and economic development. Covering so much territory, on such immensely difficult challenges, it of course did not include specifics or solutions. But it did what it needed to do: To set the tone, by conveying respect, and laying out goals and crucial principles which hopefully most Muslims share with the American people and others all over the World.
There were many critics of this speech, including those on the left who feel that Barack’s language about women’s rights, democracy, etc. was too “tepid”, or worse, that by not soundly condemning specific countries and leaders (including many present) for their abominable practices, beliefs, and human rights violations, that Obama was in effect betraying the cause and giving indications that he and the U.S. government will look the other way, not interfere.
And yet, the purpose of this speech was not to declare War or give ultimatums to certain countries and individuals. The purpose was to reach the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims, and at least some of their leaders, and to set the stage for genuine dialogue. This purpose was also clear in his Notre Dame speech where he quoted Cardinal Bernardin, a master of dialogue, as saying “You can’t really get on with preaching the Gospel until you’ve touched minds and hearts.”
Obama’s Cairo language was not tepid, and not conciliatory. It was often brief, but extremely clear. For example:
“America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.”
“Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.”
“No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.”
On Religious Freedom:
“People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind, heart, and soul. This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive, but it is being challenged in many different ways. Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of another’s.”
On Women’s Rights:
“I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.”
“I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice.”
This is the language of Dialogue. It is radical, because it challenges beliefs and practices on both sides of heated controversies, which affirm that hostility is the best or only way to deal with the other side, that only one side can win, that any effort of finding common ground is betrayal. It is radical because it encourages people to take on new and uncomfortable habits of speaking, and listening, and hardest of all, suspending one’s own position, and rage, long enough to really listen, and to look for a greater whole. And interestingly, dialogue is radical because it challenges the authority of leaders of one side and the other — leaders whose prestige and ability to influence people on their side comes from displaying their outrage, and ridiculing, humiliating, or defeating their opponents.