Sunday Night Journal — July 22, 2012
Sympathy for the Truth
I almost felt sorry for President Obama for a little while this week, because of the “you didn’t build that” controversy. In case you managed to miss all the fuss (which actually I think got relatively little attention from the pro-Obama press), he included the following words in a speech:
If you’ve got a business. you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
The right leapt on this with the wildest enthusiasm, repeating it as often as possible as proof that Obama believes that individual effort and achievement mean little or nothing, with the further suggestion that the owner of a business has no real title to it.
In its rawest and simplest form, the charge is unfair. My reading of the entire context indicates that this is almost certainly a case of a clumsy ambiguity in the use of the pronoun “that.” Here are the statements with a bit more context:
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.
It seems pretty clear to me that the antecedent of “that” is meant to be “roads and bridges,” not “business.” And this is a more plausible reading because no politician in his right mind would say that a person who built a business did not build it, even if he believed it. This is the sort of verbal misstep that anyone could make when speaking extemporaneously, which I’ve been assuming was the case although I haven’t seen anything definite to that effect. (If it was a written speech, it was an inexcusable blunder and would serve as further support for the view that Obama is not nearly as smart as he and many others seem to think he is.)
In a reasonable and fair discussion in which the object is to find and propound the truth, Obama’s opponents would grant, at least for the sake of argument, that he meant to say that the person who builds a business makes use of resources that he did not create, and go on to demonstrate that the speech as a whole, or at least this passage, nevertheless was a conglomeration of straw men, banalities, and falsehoods. A number of conservative commentators did this, more or less. Here is just one example, from Neo-neocon (I laughed out loud at “great teachers all the way down.”) Just to note a few important points: no one outside a few extreme libertarians really believes that the individual stands or falls purely on his own, or that the government should not be involved in building roads and putting out fires. And the person who builds a business paid taxes to support those things just like everyone else. And Obama, along with almost everyone on the liberal side of this debate, persistently, insistently, and falsely equates “society” or “community” with “the federal government.”
But Obama gets no sympathy from me, because liberals and their allies in the media, now so outraged by the treatment of Obama’s remarks, generally practice exactly the same sort of willful distortion against Republicans at every opportunity. Consider two examples from Mitt Romney over the past months, which I still hear repeated by the left, and no doubt will continue to hear until the election, and afterwards if Romney wins.
“Romney says he’s not concerned about the poor.”
Yes, he did say the words “I’m not concerned about the poor,” and they were ill-chosen. But they had a context which gives them a quite different meaning. He was talking about the need to help the middle-class, and saying that there are measures already in place for the poor:
I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there,” Romney told CNN. “If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”(link)
“Romney says corporations are people.”
Yes, he said that, too, but he was not talking about the legal construct which treats corporations as persons for some purposes. He meant only that corporations are composed of people, and that a tax on a corporation is in fact a tax on those people. It’s nice to see a fair-minded liberal, Jonathan Chait, grant this.
If truth is the first casualty of war, the frequency in politics of attempts to kill it would suggest that politics is now a form of warfare, which it certainly seems to be. Democrats, in the long-established habit of showing no mercy in situations like this, should expect none. But if I have no sympathy for them, I do have it for the truth. We’re all losers when the truth–or the justice, or the logic—of what is said matters much less than whether it is politically effective or not. That’s a sin against the word, and the Word, which Christians fighting these battles ought to remember.
I was going to say "Very nice," but that's what I said on the last post and I was afraid you would think I was a robot.
Very good. Very truthful.
Posted by: Janet | 07/23/2012 at 01:55 PM
Haven't seen any robots sign off with "AMDG" yet, so I would have figured it was genuine.
Posted by: Mac | 07/23/2012 at 07:20 PM
Yes, that's a really good post, Maclin and is a definite reminder that we must search for the truth and not just barrack for our "team."
Our PM in the 1980's, Bob Hawke, famously said that there would be no child living in poverty by 1990. I can't remember the exact context, but I only heard it quoted again the other day. I feel inspired to research it now.
Posted by: Louise | 07/23/2012 at 07:42 PM
He said in the 1980s about 1990?!? That was a foolish boast. One general wants to put such bold predictions out of easy reach.
Posted by: Mac | 07/23/2012 at 10:10 PM
thanks for the explanation! Friends of mine having been putting photos of all kinds of things on FB, with the phrase 'you didn't build that'. It sounds like what OBama said was reasonable and true, if expressed in a garbled way. Everything any politician says is taken out of context and distorted
Posted by: Grumphy enjoying TLC in England | 07/24/2012 at 03:39 AM
Once they get on to that AMDG thing, we are in a lot of trouble.
Posted by: Janet | 07/24/2012 at 07:57 AM
Obama was only stating the obvious, even if the way he stated it gave the opposition a nice sound bite,
But I think he should have also noted the role of labor; someone with an idea and investment money isn't going to make a dime without the workers who build the product or provide the service. This is what the Church calls "the primacy of labor" and is why workers have fundamental rights that are rarely acknowledged by market fundamentalists.
Posted by: Daniel Nichols | 07/24/2012 at 09:08 AM
I didn't realize this had become one of those fad-phrases, Grumphy. Which is too bad because this would have been one of the few times I would have known what people were talking about.
Posted by: Mac | 07/24/2012 at 09:17 AM
Posted by: Mac | 07/24/2012 at 09:23 AM
Wow. I almost looked up that Obama business quote but figured it was accurate. I just thought he was gunning for the far-left crowd or something. I think I'll be more vigilant from now on.
I knew about that Romney poor quote, but not the corporations are people one. Man, this must drive politicians crazy. I think it did actually drive Santorum a little crazy (though he was a little crazy to begin with), I remember one instance where he cursed at a reporter saying something to the effect of "you're all liars, why do you always twist my words?"
Anyway, thanks for this.
Posted by: Noah G. | 07/24/2012 at 09:28 AM
Yes, what Obama said was "reasonable and true" as far as it went. It's also a strawman argument, since there is no political constituency of any size arguing that the government should get out of the infrastructure business, or that education isn't important and is generally provided by teachers, etc. And yeah, if he was going to make this point, he might also have mentioned the employees of the business.
Posted by: Mac | 07/24/2012 at 09:29 AM
Cross-posted with you, Noah. I've gotten to the point where I take nothing in the news beyond the most obvious facts at face value if there is any controversial or sensational aspect to the matter.
Posted by: Mac | 07/24/2012 at 09:33 AM
I agree it is annoying for a conservative always to be treated as an extreme libertarian who doesn't believe in the rule of law
Posted by: grumpy in England | 07/24/2012 at 12:57 PM
Sort of like the reaction when a conservative thinks something should be changed: "Conservatives are opposed to change! you're not a conservative at all!"
Posted by: Mac | 07/24/2012 at 01:37 PM
Not sure those Obama and Romney examples are exactly parallel. In the case of the “corporations are people” and “I’m not concerned about the very poor” quotes, the context actually does make taking them out of context unfair. But with the “you didn’t build that” quote, I think the overall context of the speech instead reinforces the idea that the efforts of individuals are as nothing beside the larger community/government, especially the paragraph just before the paragraph you quote, which has the added bonus of heavy mockery:
"If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.”
You can watch it here http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/07/24/obama-claims-romney-twisted-his-words-on-didnt-build-that/#ixzz21a02TNFO.
So, maybe it really shouldn’t be a pox on both their houses? At least in this instance.
Posted by: Marianne | 07/24/2012 at 06:10 PM
Yes, I think that's true, and if I'd been writing a longer piece I would have gone into it. For reasons of time and space I deliberately focused only on the two sentences that most of the fuss has been about, and I think the cases are comparable if you look at them narrowly like that. But I agree that if you zoom out, so to speak, they're pretty different. Obama did in fact seem to mean something like what he's accused of meaning, whereas Romney meant the opposite.
Here's one of the better commentaries I've read: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/312203/romney-didnt-build-lie-john-osullivan
Posted by: Mac | 07/24/2012 at 09:21 PM
About Obama not mentioning the workers who helped build a business: it occurs to me that that's of a piece with his general idea, which seems to be that government is sort of the center of things, the principal source of good things.
Posted by: Mac | 07/24/2012 at 10:18 PM
Mind you, there are some really spectacularly competent people out there who just have no concept of the struggles other people have and therefore no empathy and who more or less believe, therefore, that if you're struggling it's obviously your own fault and you're a lazy bum yada yada. It's fair to say that I can't stand such persons (like Third Base Guy I told you about a while back). Anyway, it does seem to me that many of those folk are more obvious, shall we say, among the conservatives. (I'm sure they exist among the liberals, but will present differently).
Posted by: Louise | 07/25/2012 at 07:24 AM
Yes, he [former PM] really said that, Maclin!
Although, I dunno, I would have hoped his biggest regret was being unfaithful to his poor wife, Hazel.
Posted by: Louise | 07/25/2012 at 07:27 AM
"We’re all losers when the truth–or the justice, or the logic—of what is said matters much less than whether it is politically effective or not. That’s a sin against the word, and the Word, which Christians fighting these battles ought to remember."
WB wrote on this subject in a book I reviewed for Touchstone some years ago:
Posted by: Rob G | 07/25/2012 at 07:33 AM
Sorry I haven't responded to anything here. Major work emergency in progress. Back later today, I hope.
Posted by: Mac | 07/25/2012 at 12:30 PM
Excellent review, Rob. I had not heard of that Wendell Berry book. I've been planning to read Orwell's essay on politics and language, which I've seen quoted for years but not read, and Berry's book might be a good follow-up.
Posted by: Mac | 07/25/2012 at 07:27 PM
In context your PM's remarks are a bit sad, Louise. I couldn't help sort of chuckling at this: "He said his government had given extra money to low-income families, but instead of spending it on their kids, some "p---ed it up against the wall"."
Brutal reality comes crashing in on the liberal mind. It's like that character in...oh, what's the name of it, that self-congratulatory movie from the '80s about disillusioned leftists...if I hadn't just had a martini on an empty stomach I'd be able to remember it...anyway, one character who had become a lawyer representing poor criminals says she "never dreamed they'd be so *guilty*", or something to that effect.
Posted by: Mac | 07/25/2012 at 07:32 PM
The Big Chill
Posted by: Ryan D. | 07/26/2012 at 10:23 PM
Thank you. I kept thinking it was The Big Something-or-other.
Posted by: Mac | 07/26/2012 at 10:26 PM
I couldn't remember the name. It really annoyed me. Grumphy
Posted by: Grumphy in Hastings | 07/27/2012 at 10:14 AM
It didn't annoy me as much as it once would have, because I'm getting used to it. Apparently the inability to fetch a proper name on demand is a standard feature of getting older. Not surprisingly, by the time Ryan D offered the answer, I'd forgotten I'd brought it up.
I've been trying for several days to remember the married name of someone I knew many years ago, and I can't come up with it. I'm going to have to break down and ask the mutual friend who's still in touch with her, and I'm going to be embarrassed.
Posted by: Mac | 07/27/2012 at 11:55 AM
It will come to you in a flash of light in the second between when you ask and the mutual friend answers.
Posted by: Janet | 07/27/2012 at 12:31 PM
Probably so. The reason it's come up is that I met some people last weekend whom I thought might possibly know her, but had to stifle the question because I couldn't remember who I was going to ask them if they knew.
Posted by: Mac | 07/27/2012 at 12:57 PM
I sat through the Olympic ceremony trying to remember the real name of the actor who plays Mr Bean. And James Bond....
Posted by: Grumphy | 07/28/2012 at 10:20 AM
Rowan Atkinson! I don't know which Bond it was--I am exercising a curmudgeonly disregard of the Olympics.
Posted by: Mac | 07/28/2012 at 10:44 AM