Michael Moynihan

06.21.13

Blarney! The Faux Outrage Over Obama’s Belfast Comments

An expression of hope for Catholic and Protestant school communities is fodder for yet another manufactured scandal twisted into place by the president’s context-deaf opponents.

It must be exhausting to be a political-outrage hunter; rummaging through speech transcripts and scrutinizing cable-news clips, divorcing quotes from context, and inflating gaffes into threats to the republic.

Consider this latest ineffable outrage making the rounds on conservative websites. Speaking in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Monday to a mixed group of Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren, President Obama meandered through a eye-glazing history of Irish America and praised his host country, long beset by religious violence, for forging a fragile but lasting peace. It was paint-by-numbers stuff. But by Thursday, those indefatigable outrage hunters (who double as guardians of democracy and religious liberty) had extracted the following two sentences from Obama’s address:

“If towns remain divided—if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs—if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.”

One would have to be a special kind of dunce to miss the context and message here. But the Internet is, unfortunately, full of dunces. Splashed across the Drudge Report, readers were told that Obama made an “alarming call for end to Catholic education.” Over at Breitbart.com, John Nolte hyperventilated about Obama’s “chilling” attack on religious education. The speech showed that “leftists like Obama loathe parochial schools because they put children outside of the reach of government,” and drop them into “an environment void of Bibles and trans-fat but loaded with condoms and victimhood.” If you thought some of the stock conservative bugbears were missing from this list, fear not. Nolte did, thankfully, get around to the president’s soft spot for Muslims: “Obama singles out Catholic and Protestant schools, and not Islamic schools.”

Oh dear, oh dear.

Perhaps there is some Prism-like computer program that produces this type of rote outraged prose, hitting the key themes of identity politics, religious persecution, and government intervention into what we—or the children of Northern Ireland—are allowed to consume (It’s worth pointing that I, too, am opposed to all of these things). Need I even mention that Muslims, for reasons of history and geography, chose to sit out the brutal sectarian war that consumed Northern Ireland for 30 years?

Not to be outdumbed, the popular conservative blog Gateway Pundit was so shocked—and outraged—that it adorned its headline with a phony quote (“WHOA! Barack Obama Knocks Catholic Schools: ‘Catholic Education Divides People and Blocks Peace’”) and claimed that the actually boring and banal speech contained “one of Obama’s most outrageous comments ever.”

Need I even mention that Muslims, for reasons of history and geography, chose to sit out the brutal sectarian war that consumed Northern Ireland for 30 years?

And it wasn’t just the conservative blogosphere. A Washington Examiner headline blared: “Obama disses Catholic schools.” CNS News offered this subtle opening paragraph: “Likening religious schools to segregation—a racist system that forced blacks to attend different schools and use different facilities than whites in the American South—President Barack Obama told a town-hall meeting for youth in Belfast, Northern Ireland…” Townhall.com wondered: “Does this signal hostility to Catholic education in America—or hostility to religious education in general?” The Media Research Center said that President Obama opened up a European front in “his War on Christianity.”

You get the idea.

The sectarian nature of education—and public funding of religiously segregated schools—has long been a sore point in Ulster and the president simplified a hugely complex situation by suggesting that more community integration would erase tensions between the two communities. This is “We Are the World” nonsense. As one local Catholic bishop told the Catholic Register, “We all welcome the president’s presence, but would encourage his speechwriters to support a less hackneyed analysis of our situation and prospects.”

But such calls for an end to everyday sectarianism are so common in North Ireland that the Belfast Telegraph mentioned the school line only in passing; its editorialists ignored it entirely. The churn of news, though, demands fresh outrages—a simple accomplishment when you either have no knowledge of history or have decided that context rudely intrudes upon your predetermined narrative. (That Breitbart post, for instance, makes no mention of the Troubles.)

After Obama’s speech, a columnist for the Belfast Telegraph happily observed that, with the Troubles effectively over, “we really don’t feature much at all in the American news coverage.” It’s a point perfectly underscored by the sputtering outrage hunters, who seem to have already forgotten about a little religious war between Catholics and Protestants that took 3,600 lives.