The National Catholic Review
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In early February, I received a packet of letters from eighth-grade students at Saint Joseph School in New York City. The students suggested ways to be both challenging and respectful while discussing politics, and many sounded more mature and honest than some adult Democrats and Republicans or MSNBC and Fox News commentators. I hope that as they grow up, they will not become contaminated by the degraded discourse of our politics and media.

Our political discourse suffers anomie, or normlessness. There is little respect for any position other than self-interest. Instead of thoughtful critique we hear knee-jerk expletives. If you watch the three major networks and PBS, you may not see much of this, although I think it is true that they are slanted to the left. But if you tune in to the cable channels, you will find grist for every mill—pundits who deride Sarah Palin as stupid and pundits who “wonder” if President Obama is a citizen. Watching some of these programs could make a person feel he or she is in a near occasion of sin. Whether you are a liberal or conservative, the sin might be wrath. Worse still, it could be despair.

As for myself, I will take my young correspondents’ advice—to respect President Obama but also challenge him. The president was thrust, even before his swearing in, into a daunting state of affairs, a country that was militarily and economically compromised. This does not mean he can blame everything on former President George Bush. President Obama should give Bush credit for the good decisions he had made, acknowledge what programs the new administration maintains and announce what policies it will change.

Most important, he should be ruthlessly honest with us. This is the only way to lance the boil of self-interest inflaming the body politic. But it will be a difficult task, because members of his audience do not want to hear any bad news, at least none that touches them.

Instead of naming and confronting this delusion, it seemed the president, until now, wanted only to please everyone. As it turns out, no one seems pleased. Just look at the health care reform mess. Pro-choice groups claim that a conscience clause for doctors and hospitals is violence against women. Trial lawyer lobbyists do not want restraints on lawsuits. Insurance companies object to interstate competition. Patients oppose limits on the procedures or coverage they seek. The right wants less government and less taxation. The left wants more programs and services. The reason most people are resistant to true health care reform is that they are afraid of losing something.

The president displays many virtues—especially in matters requiring prudence, justice and temperance. What he must call upon on now is his fortitude. He should admit that all of us are going to lose something. And he should ask this: What, specifically, is any of us willing to accept for the common good? More taxation? Fewer entitlements? Both are required of us. But if the answer is a resounding no from the right and left wings of our country, we can be assured that things will only get worse. With trillion-dollar wars and trillion-dollar deficits, the economy will reel. Without health insurance reform, it may come apart.

In health care, no matter what the upshot of the recent White House summit, we need a single-payer system insuring basic care for all. And we need competition among the insurance plans, even across state lines, for those purchasing a Cadillac, boutique or special options plan. We need the tort reform and limits to lawsuits against beleaguered doctors that will displease many lawyers. But we also need the freedom to buy approved medications from other countries, which will displease big Pharma. And we patients must finally realize that in matters of health, we do not have a right to everything possible.

As Americans, we must be willing to sacrifice a bit of our vested interest, if our economy and health-care system are to be preserved. In late January, the president told Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “World News,” “I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” He now has the opportunity to prove it. Maybe his fellow Americans will be inspired by his own willingness to sacrifice a second term in order to tell us not what we want to hear, but the truth we need to hear.

Read this article in Spanish. Translation courtesy Mirada Global.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

Comments

Rita Peters | 3/7/2010 - 10:21am

I wish this article could be put in the hands of every elected official in this country.

Helena Loflin | 3/6/2010 - 7:52pm

Ms. Winifred Holloway, you nailed it.  I could not agree more with your entire comment. 

There is no "left" in the media because Big Media is big business and is run by  right-leaning (in at least one case, far-right) ownership and management.  Not too many decades ago, there was a left slant in the media, but that is all but gone now except for MSNBC in the evening.  I can remember when media ownership/management did not dictate "news" content.  Those days are long gone.  Even CNN is so busy trying to capture some FOX viewers that it has stopped reporting facts and simply repeats misinformation that drives controversy.  Sort of "fauxFaux."  Let's not forget that 92% of talk radio is right-to-far-right.

So, the center can indeed appear to be left now because Big Media has gravitated so far to the right.  It's good to know that someone else has noticed the descent.   

James Richard | 3/6/2010 - 10:27am

Well said Fr Kavanaugh.

Mary Therese LEMANEK | 3/6/2010 - 4:56am

Amen.  The dreaded "S" words ~ sacrifice, sharing (AKA to some Socialism), solidarity and selflessness  have pretty much been eliminated from the American lexicon.  Without labeling it as left or right, I must agree with Fr. Kavanaugh that we hear very little from the media, elected officials or Church leaders that challenges people to step out of their own world to consider the needs of others now or in the future. 

C Walter Mattingly | 3/5/2010 - 9:15pm

I can't agree with Father Kavanaugh that President Obama has shown justice and prudence in regard to health care. Prior to the election he stated no less than 7 times publicly that he would correct the behind-closed-doors formulation of health care that the Clintons had mistakenly attempted and debate the health care issue publicly on Cspan. Then what did he do, likely because he saw he had supermajorities in both the house and senate? He went back on his word and had Pelosi and Reid formulate the health care plan behind closed doors, eliminating that open process. Nor has he been any more honest in his presentation of the costs of his health care proposals, which cost analysis is again deceptive.

These are not examples of justice or prudence, but rather of dissembling. The public perceives it. I suspect it has caused a loss of trust in the president, which, sadly, he has clearly earned.  And more well-crafted speeches read from a teleprompter or podium PR productions will not regain it.

Winifred Holloway | 3/5/2010 - 5:12pm

Ah, for the age of enlightened despots.  President Obama cannot mandate any of the sensible suggestions you make.  I, too, and many others would like to see a single-payer system for  health care. In fact, I think all Americans would love such a system.  The moneyed and all powerful interests  however, have been very effective in scaring people into believing they would lose their freedom and liberty, not to mention their very lives to the decisions of death panels.  Certainly, the bipartisan commission that the President urged Congress to agree to in order deal with entitlement programs is absolutely necessary.  However, the congressional republicans sees the latter as an excuse to raise taxes (it's against their religion- the common good be damned). As for health care reform - they are just not interested.  If they cannot accept the center right bill now being proposed, they would certainly block a single-payer, non-market based solution as they are now trying to do with this quite modest reform bill.   Socialism, marxism !  Run for your lives!  My major disagreement with your commentary is your statement that PBS and the networks lean "left."  Father, there is no "left" in the media that comes streaming into our homes.  The Right has been quite successful over the last two decades in labeling the "center" as the "left."  In our house, we have tuned out and turned off the so called cable news.   Like you, we see it as a near occasion of sin.  Way too much screaming, no recognition of ambiguity, and just plain dumb.

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