Monday, April 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Obama, Yoo, and you

A plea for the marketplace of ideas

Obama, Yoo, and you

I'm on the run today, so I'll spare you at least some of the usual verbosity. I just want to address two questions that came up the other day while I was speaking to an audience. The questions are actually interrelated. My answers, too.

(1) What do I think of Notre Dame's decision to have Barack Obama deliver its commencement address this Sunday? (2) What do I think of the Philadelphia Inquirer's decision to sign up torture-memo author John Yoo as a monthly columnist?

Answers: (1) Cool. (2) Cool.

Notre Dame was right to invite Obama, despite his support for abortion rights; the conservative Catholics who have sought to deny Obama the forum are preposterous. These are my secondary arguments:

The Catholics who want to protest and boycott the Obama event don't even speak for the majority of Catholics; last November, 54 percent of Catholic voters backed Obama, and, perhaps more tellingly, a new Quinnipiac University poll reports that 60 percent of all Catholics support Notre Dame's decision to invite Obama, with only 34 percent opposed. Moreover, the vocal minority is being quite hypocritical; capital punishment, as well as abortion, is antithetical to church doctrine, yet there were no calls for a boycott when Notre Dame invited George W. Bush, who, at the time of his invite, had only recently presided over Texas' vigorous capital punishment program. Moreover, Notre Dame is not a church; rather, it is a university - devoted like all universities to the free exchange of ideas, however disagreeable some of those ideas might be.

Such are my secondary points. My main argument is strictly from a civil libertarian perspective: Censorship is bad, period. Everybody should be allowed to express themselves freely everywhere, and people should be totally open to hearing and reading arguments that might tick them off.

It's called the marketplace of ideas. Just because somebody is hawking their wares, it doesn't mean you have to buy them. But, at the very least, let them be heard. The Notre Dame protesters (led by some Catholic bishops) are wrong to want to muzzle Obama just because they don't like some of his views...just as, years ago, the left-wing protesters at Harvard were wrong to insist that the university cancel its speaking invitation to Reagan foreign policy advisor Jeanne Kilpatrick.

Rather than censoring people, we should let them rise or fall on the strength or weakness of their arguments. If the listeners at Notre Dame don't like what Obama says, they can always vote against him in '12. Which brings me to John Yoo, the torture memo author and newly contracted Inquirer scribe. Let him be heard. If it turns out that he has something worthwhile to say as a once-a-month columnist – if he can challenge and surprise skeptical readers with his arguments - then he’ll surely find a market. And if it turns out that he’s nothing more than a predictable Bush apparatchick with nothing new to say – as happened at the New York Times, with William Kristol – then he’ll essentially price himself out of the market.

Here is how Mickey Edwards, a former high-ranking conservative Republican congressman and former chairman of the American Conservative Union, assailed the Notre Dame protesters the other day:

"Shutting out the voices of those we disagree with is shameful and intellectually indefensible."

As a general rule, I concur.

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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