Please tolerate the length of this essay. Hopefully you will be rewarded by staying with it:
othing causes conservatives more consternation than hearing the truth about what actually makes human societies flourish.
Such a truth was spoken by President Obama last week during a campaign stop in Roanoke, Va., and what he said has driven already hateful right-wingers even further into the abyss of Obama-hate. Here is the part of his speech you usually hear critics play:
That one phrase is played or quoted again and again, including on Tuesday by Mitt Romney:
If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
So, what was Mr. Obama’s point? Oh, I’ll let him tell you, in context and as as part of the rest of what he said:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.
Wow. What a controversial idea! We’re in this together? Nobody can do it alone? Are you kidding me? No wonder Rush Limbaugh said this about Obama’s words:
Somebody who loves America, who loves the founding, who understands it and knows everything about it, this is a declaration of war against the country. This is a declaration of war from the White House. This is a declaration of war against what this country’s always been.
And Limbaugh said this:
I think it can now be said, without equivocation — without equivocation — that this man hates this country. He is trying — Barack Obama is trying — to dismantle, brick by brick, the American dream.
Now, it is easy to dismiss an ideological prostitute like Limbaugh. But rising Randian star Paul Ryan—who Romney is considering as a VP pick—had something to say about Obama’s remarks too:
This is not a Bill Clinton Democrat. He’s got this very government-centric, old 20th century collectivist philosophy which negates the American experiment, which is people living in communities, supporting one another, having government stick to its limits so it can do its job really well … Those of us who are conservative believe in government, we just believe government has limits. We want government to do what it does well and respect its limits so civil society and families can flourish on their own and do well and achieve their potential.
Gawd. As an aside, you gotta love the right’s recent embrace of Bill Clinton (see here for Romney’s version), a man some of them accused of drug trafficking and murder just 15 short years ago. But beyond that, look at what Paul Ryan said more closely. He contrasted “collectivist philosophy” with “the American experiment, which is people living in communities, supporting one another…” Isn’t “living in communities, supporting one another” what collectivist philosophy ultimately entails? Huh?
We want government to do what it does well and respect its limits so civil society and families can flourish on their own and do well and achieve their potential.
How, you have to ask yourself, can civil society and families flourish “on their own,” if it is conceded that government is necessary for them to do that? I have discussed before the incoherence of the anti-collectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand (and Ryan is a Rand devotee, despite what he claims now), but the incoherence here is stunning.
But perhaps the most stunning thing I saw related to Obama’s common-sense comments about success was on MSNBC on Tuesday. S. E. Cupp, who used to spout Obama-hate on Fox and other places, is now a regular panelist and rotating host on a show called The Cycle. Today she offered an incoherent commentary that included an on-screen quote from none other than Ayn Rand:
According to President Obama, you don’t get anywhere through your own hard work or ingenuity. Every success you have is thanks to the collaborative work of thousands from the people who collect your taxes to the people who pave your roads. Well, of course that’s true in that most folks have a kind friend, a nurturing relative, a wise mentor or, well, a paved road to drive. We’re all products of an American community that helps each other out from time to time. But that generosity of spirit is the very reason the president thinks we should abandon the notion of the American dream and individual success in favor of collectivism, that incredibly inspiring belief that success is shared and the state alone can make all your dreams come true.
Besides the shocking incoherence of this paragraph—she is criticizing Obama’s remarks even though she admits, “We’re all products of an American community that helps each other out from time to time”—Cupp lies about what Obama said. He did not say, “you don’t get anywhere through your own hard work or ingenuity,” nor did he say, “we should abandon the notion of the American dream and individual success in favor of collectivism.” What he actually said was a variation of what Cupp herself admitted:
…when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.
You see, the problem with the right-wing punditry and the right-wing political class in the Age of The Scary Negro is that even a simple declaration that we’re not in this world alone, that we can and do depend on others for help—something that conservatives gladly admit—becomes on the lips of the right-wing’s black devil, a thing of disgust, of hate-inducing hysteria.
When these hysterical reactionaries, most of them Christians, invoke the name or reference the ideas of Ayn Rand, they are endorsing a strange and silly philosophy, one which completely misunderstands how mankind has engineered success against the vicissitudes of nature.
Ms. Rand’s heroes were “the men who produce,” those,
who think and work, who discover how to deal with existence, how to produce the intellectual and the material values it requires.
These “forgotten men of history,” she said,
are first to discover any scrap of new knowledge, are the men who deal with reality, with the task of conquering nature, and who, to that extent, assume the responsibility of cognition: of exercising their rational faculty.
“The task of conquering nature” is given to those producers and everyone else is a parasite, living on their efforts. The “rational faculty” is man’s “unique reward,” his instrument of survival, his means of conquering nature:
…animals survive by adjusting themselves to their background, man survives by adjusting his background to himself. If a drought strikes them, animals perish—man builds irrigation canals; if a flood strikes them, animals perish—man builds dams; if a carnivorous pack attacks them animals perish—man writes the Constitution of the United States.*
Ah, there’s the obvious silliness, the unmistakable flaw in Rand’s elaborate, self-created philosophy she called “Objectivism.” In that Constitution she praises, in that document she regards as the product of man’s reason designed to combat the “carnivorous pack,” are the words,
We the people…a more perfect union…common defence, general Welfare…
In the preamble to our Constitution those collectivist words represent the secret of man’s tentative success, the only hope he has of conquering nature, of overcoming the carnivorous pack. Our Constitution, with its appeal to collectivism, is perhaps the last best hope of mankind for conquering the worst angels of our nature, of making a civilization out of competing individuals, of ensuring that “success” includes all of us, not just a fortunate few.
And in their obvious and embarrassing hatred for Barack Obama, conservatives are willing to attack the premise of our American civilization, so eloquently expressed by the President:
We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.
* All of the Rand quotes are from my copy of For The New Intellectual.