So “That” Happened

Probably futile to fight against a sticky idea simply on the basis of its falsehood, but here goes.

President Obama said something last week about success which was not only true, but obviously true. Then some people pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, invented the internet and started blogging about it, and today the truth has become a falsehood used as an attack line. That’s politics, I guess, but the business seems important for a couple of reasons.

Here’s the quote in context, from a campaign stop in Virginia. The quote comes from about 53 minutes into the event; I’ll try to paste a shorter clip into the message below. But here are the ipsissima verba.

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.”

There are two reasons why this matters to me–one trivial, one essential.

One is that I have a bad habit of using pronouns with unclear antecedents. This is a cautionary tale about that. Obama is clearly talking about the infrastructure created by the community, but the “that” allows people to pretend otherwise, as long as they shear away the context.

More importantly, if what Obama says here were not true, human civilization would be impossible. He is simply describing things as they are. If that is, in fact, in dispute (like evolution, global warming, and a range of other realities that partisan hysteria has managed to make controversial), then we’re all in trouble.

And conservatives need to worry as much or more than liberals. No matter how convenient it may seem as an electoral tactic, an ideology in conflict with the very idea of community can’t be used as a basis for governing a community.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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