Dear Reeder (and those of you who are too busy reading this to put grooves on the edge of coins),
Like everybody and anybody eager to see Barack Obama get to work on his third autobiography as soon as possible, I have not been immune to feelings ofschadenfreude over the president’s recent troubles.
When a politician takes out an ad saying, in effect, “What I meant to say was . . .” It’s like sending your girlfriend flowers with a note that begins, “When I said you could lose a few pounds I didn’t mean . . .”
By the way that analogy works better with “girlfriend” instead of “wife” not only because I would never say anything of the sort regarding my own lovely bride, even in a generic hypothetical, but also because in America we do not marry – even metaphorically – our presidents. We date them. If we vote out Obama this November, it won’t be a divorce, it will be a dumping. And the voters will be telling Obama, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
At least that’s what I hope they will be saying. When a politician loses, we tend to hang the failure on his (or her) shoulders alone. That’s a good thing, most of the time. But it’s not necessarily true, either. Sometimes the fault lies not in the political stars, but in ourselves. Indeed, sometimes a politician’s failure is a sign of their integrity. The politician who will say or do anything to get reelected may be a winner electorally, but he’s a failure in terms of his honor.
For conservatives, it’s easy to understand this point looking rightward. The reason we can’t get, say, Phil Gramm elected president isn’t that he’s not qualified, or a poor communicator, or anything of the sort. It’s because the American people won’t buy what he’s selling. I see that as a shortcoming of the American people more than I see it as a shortcoming of Phil Gramm. (If you’re not a Phil Gramm booster, this illustration works just as well if you insert your own “extreme” politician who can’t get elected because he’s an “extremist.”)
It’s important for conservatives to stress that Obama’s failures have less to do with his incompetence and inexperience and more to do with the fact that he’s just not sympatico with the American political tradition.
By now you’ve probably seen Charles Murray’s reaction to Obama’s Roanoke gaffe. An excerpt:
There’s a standard way for Americans to celebrate accomplishment. First, we call an individual onto the stage and say what great things that person has done. Then that person gives a thank-you speech that begins “I couldn’t have done this without . . .” and a list of people who helped along the way. That’s the way we’ve always done it. Everyone knows we all get help in life (and sometimes just get lucky). But we have always started with the individual and then worked out. It is not part of the American mindset to begin with the collective and admonish individuals for thinking too highly of their contribution.
That brings me back to the creepiness of it all. It is as if a Dutch politician – an intelligent, well-meaning Dutch politician – were somehow running for the American presidency, but bringing with him the Rawlsian, social-democratic ethos that, in the Netherlands, is the natural way to talk about a properly run society. We would listen to him and say to ourselves, “He doesn’t get this country.” That’s the thing about Obama. Time and again, he does things and says things that are un-American. Not evil. Not anti-American. Just un-American.
Obama’s rhetoric, not just in Roanoke, but across a long career as a writer and politician, has always started with the collective. In 1995, Obama told theChicago Reader: ”In America, we have this strong bias toward individual action. You know, we idolize the John Wayne hero who comes in to correct things with both guns blazing. But individual actions, individual dreams, are not sufficient. We must unite in collective action, build collective institutions and organizations.”
Obama hoped to change that, to fix our dogmatic preoccupation with the individual, with personal success. That’s what Michelle Obama meant when she said he would fix our broken souls.
And he’s succeeded, a little.
Obama Ate Our Dog(ma)
Longtime readers should really take speed-reading classes if they want to be faster readers. Longtime readers of the G-File should know my views on dogma (which I discuss at great length in Tyranny of Clichés). I like dogma. I think it’s important. Societies succeed or fail on the quality of their dogma. As Charles notes, Obama’s point – at least the one Obama claims to have been making – is entirely defensible as a general proposition. The Elizabeth Warren-Barack Obama emphasis on infrastructure and the role of government is not necessarily wrong factually; it’s wrong intellectually, philosophically and emotionally. In short it’s wrong dogmatically.
When a Thomas Edison invents the lightbulb, the American way is to celebrate Edison, then his assistants and mentors, then his patrons, and eventually – after his wife, mother, chiropodist, and second-grade math teacher – we congratulate the taxpayers who subsidized the powerlines. And yet the other day, when I made a “Thomas Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb” joke on Twitter, I got a whole lot of smarmy blowback from liberals saying, in effect, “but the lightbulb wouldn’t matter without the taxpayer-funded electrical grid!”
To which a reasonable person must respond, “Arrgghhh!”
This is what scares me about Obama. By virtue of being in power and running one of the two major political parties, he’s forcing millions of liberal Americans to break what few dogmatic commitments they have to the traditional American way of understanding accomplishment. By moving leftward, in terms of policy and rhetoric, Obama gives the left more slack in their leashes to move even further leftward. Change the dogmatic commitments of the people, and you change the people. This is the overarching theme of so much of Mark Steyn’s writing the last few years.
Nobody – nobody – is “born American” save in a legalistic sense. Americans are made in America (some people are Americans by heart, but not by birth). If we Europeanize our dogma; if we start stressing the collective first and the individual a distant second; if our first instinct is to celebrate the wisdom of government in our every success and the stupidity of the entrepreneur in our every failure; then, simply, we won’t be making Americans in America anymore.
Last week I proclaimed that “similarish” is now a word. Nobody disputed the wisdom of my coinage. But I did get an interesting e-mail from my friend Andrew Malcolm over at IBD:
Do you know where the -ish thing came from?
It’s British. 800 years ago (seriously) a rural doctor was studying a patient’s urine sample. He held it up to the light and made notes, couldn’t think of a word for the appearance so he made one up. He called it cloudish, as the skies often are in Britain. That’s the first known use in Middle English of the -ish as in Hollywoodish.
I learned that reporting an editorial on language once and found it fascinatingish.
And here I thought it came from a dyslexic man who found a tar-like substance and wrote in his notes that it was “Ishtar.”
I’m in Friday Harbor, Wash., today and through the weekend. I love this part of the country. My sister-in-law lives here and the Goldbergs always try to spend at least a little – and hopefully a lot – of time out here. Cosmo is too old to make the trip anymore, but longtime readers of the original Goldberg File (OGFers) will remember this is where Cosmo and I drove to for my wedding (click here [BROKEN LINK] or here if you want to feel old (“Or bored” – The Couch)).
I’m flying home Monday, but my wife and daughter are driving to drop off my progeny at summer camp in North Carolina (a Mr. Jerry Aldini explained to us that my daughter will be able to stalk and kill her own bear). Then, I’m taking my wife on a real vacation. Woot!
This is a long way of explaining why the G-File is late today. Hard to get up really early to write it when you’re already three hours behind the home office.
Various & Sundry
My column on Aurora and the death penalty.
My review of Dark Knight Rises.
My take on Chick-fil-A, Sista Souljah & the Liberal Gleichshaltung.
Olympic medals in fine arts?
So the brain is a teenage boy? “Brain sees men as whole, women as parts.”
The Internet’s carbon emissions equal half of the U.K.’s.
The seven worst parasites on the planet. (Note SEIU omitted.) (Second note: Don’t look over lunch.)