Tuesday, August 14, 2012

History Lesson: The Context of "You Didn't Build That"

My friend Chauncey DeVega over at We Are Respectable Negroes commissioned me to write this piece, and I am glad for the opportunity to delve once again in the misuse of history by right-wingers.

The Romney campaign, flailing amidst their candidate's incompetence and manifest unlikeability has been resorting to misrepresenting president Obama's words, or just flat out lying about him.  At the center of all of this is the furor over the president's "you didn't build that," line.  When taken out of context, it might indeed be inflammatory, but context is everything.  Here's the whole section of the president's speech:
"There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back. They know they didn't -- look, 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.
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 G.I. 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."
What the president was essentially saying here is that the individual successes in this country have been assisted by social and governmental forces.  Apart from the uncharacteristically maladroit way that he tried to get the point across with the "you didn't build that" line, the message is pretty clear.  It's also not all that controversial, since Mitt Romney said something pretty similar to Olympic athletes ten years ago.  Those who are trying to claim that the president was saying that the hard work and effort of entrepreneurs are meaningless and that only the government creates useful things are just lying.  Their claims are so outrageous that they are beneath refutation.

However, there are some who are willing to view president Obama's comments in their proper context and still take him to task for it.  Writing recently in The Atlantic, Andrew Cline has attacked the president's words as contradicting the true nature of America's history.  As a historian, I find many of his claims to be specious, and reflective of a simplistic, blinded view of American history that is fast becoming popular on the political Right.  Invoking that idea of the past, Cline goes back to Thomas Jefferson to say that the government was created only to protect rights, nothing else, and that colonial society, without any help from governmental forces, had created the middle class, in contradiction to what the president said.  There are some problems with these claims that I will detail, but the main problem with Cline's interpretation of history is that it completely misses the reality of American life at the time of Jefferson and beyond.

Cline's blindness to the realities of the American past is actually completely betrayed by the image below the title: a painting of the building of the White House in 1792 with its architects in the foreground.  This benign-looking image masks the reality of the White House's construction, which was accomplished through the use of hired-out slave labor.  The white guys in powdered wigs in the foreground didn't "build that;" they may have drawn up the plans, but many more unfree black slaves did the hard work of actually constructing the White House.  It should be a reminder that this nation's wealth was built in large part on what Abraham Lincoln called "the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil" in his second inaugural address.  When the Civil War began, the most valuable economic asset of the United States was not its factories or railroads, but its human property.  That fact was inescapable in 1865 when Lincoln said those words, and in that speech he considered the Civil War to be a punishment from God for the sin of slavery, a sin so grievous that the hundreds of thousands of dead had yet to fully repay it.  The inseparability of American history from slavery could not be denied then, now it seems to happen all of the time.

I should also add that the relatively prosperous conditions for whites in colonial America didn't just come from their own entrepreneurial endeavors, but also from the ready available of cheap or even free land, which did not exist in Europe at the time.  Of course, Cline never thinks to ask who once lived on that land, or how it came into the possession of the colonists.  Genocide and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans allowed colonists to take the natural resources that rightly belonged to others.  In later years, the main purpose of the United States Army would be to continue this bloody work as part of westward expansion.  Those western pioneers of the nineteenth century, always mythologized by conservatives, were only able to settle once the government moved the original inhabitants off the land, gave settlers free land via the Homestead Act, and lavished subsidies on the railroads to make western lands economically viable.

Cline's lack of vision is very evident in the way he discusses Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence.  He says that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence on behalf "of all Americans," and that "the people of the United States created the government for one purpose only: to secure their rights."  As with the picture of the White House's construction, he seems to act as if all of "the people" were affluent white men, and that the Founders represented the interests of all of American society.  While Jefferson's words inspired and were used to expand freedom by great Americans from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr, neither Jefferson nor the others with him in Philadelphia really thought they were securing equal rights for all Americans with the words "all men are created equal."  They had a pretty narrow definition of who "men" were: propertied white men.  Women did not factor in at all, and the Founders made sure to protect the property rights of slave owners over their human chattel.  The Constitution created eleven years later that so many today uncritically see as a perfect document had provisions for the hunting down of fugitive slaves.

Conservatives like to invoke the Founders and the earliest period of American history since it helps to obscure the historical changes that came afterward that have necessitated a much more active role for the government in the economy.  The "middle class" referred to by president Obama in his speech has nothing to do with colonial America.  He talking about the modern "middle class" of our industrialized society, one that was created by moderating the forces of extreme capitalism.  The industrial revolution of the nineteenth century created vast amounts of wealth, but that money tended to benefit a small few.  The market itself was responsible for the vast inequalities of wealth in America, which is why the government stepped in during the Progressive Era and New Deal to ensure that those who did the work actually got more of a fair share, and were provided with a protective social safety net.  Through sponsoring education, home loans, and protecting the right of workers to organize, the capitalist system was saved from its worst excesses.  Of course, there were very real issues of inequality that remained, but we have spent the last thirty-five years making them worse rather than correcting them.  Nevertheless, the more general prosperity in America helped out the wealthy, since there were more and more people able to spend money to buy more and more products.  Consumer demand, not the plutocratic class, is the real "job creator."  Is it really that extreme to ask for those with the most to contribute more to the system that sustains their wealth?

At the bottom of all of this bellyaching about president Obama's words is an ideology of individualism in this country where a lot of people -almost always white people- refuse to acknowledge that they owe a lot of what they have to others and forces beyond their control.  Those who buy into this ideology have predicated their entire identity on being "rugged individuals," and so must deny any facts that complicate their self-image.  These are the same people who say things like "get your government hands off my Medicare. " I see this in my own family quite a bit.  My mother grew up on a farm, and hence her family received a great deal of money via the government's crop subsidies.  Her father had been badly wounded in World War II, and received veteran's benefits.  After he came home from the war and it still raged, the government provided German POWs from a local prison camp to work as farm hands.  My mother attended a state university back when they were much more fully state supported, which meant that she could pay her yearly tuition out of what she made working over the summer.  She was a public school teacher for several decades, and benefited from the collective bargaining agreements negotiated by her union.  Thanks to Social Security and Medicare, my parents have been able to retire in their sixties.  Yet after all that she has gained though the government and collective action, my mother supports the Tea Party and disdains the government.

The ideology of individualism that so many use to laud themselves at the expense of others is predicated on a self-serving fiction.  That's the fundamental point that president Obama was trying to make, and it has struck a nerve because it hits very close to false image that so many people have of themselves, and of this country's history.  It's time to expose this myth for what it is.

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