Sunday, December 15, 2013

Barack Obama on Social Darwinism and Collective Salvation circa 2005/06

After some people reacted to President Obama's speech on income inequality by suggesting he was a newcomer to the topic, I went back through some of his earlier speeches as President to demonstrate the consistency with which he has approached the topic. And then I saw this tweet from David Axelrod:

That got me curious. So I dug back a little further. An example of what I found is the speech then-Senator Barack Obama gave at Knox College in 2005. Because the Great Recession hadn't happened yet, he talked about it a little differently back then. But overall, the message was pretty much the same.
Here in Galesburg, you know what this new challenge is. You've seen it. You see it when you drive by the old Maytag plant around lunchtime and no one walks out anymore. I saw it during the campaign when I met the union guys who use to work at the plant and now wonder what they're gonna do at 55-years-old without a pension or health care; when I met the man who's son needs a new liver but doesn't know if he can afford when the kid gets to the top of the transplant list.

It's as if someone changed the rules in the middle of the game and no one bothered to tell these people. And, in reality, the rules have changed. It started with technology and automation that rendered entire occupations obsolete...Then companies like Maytag being able to pick up and move their factories to some Third World country where workers are a lot cheaper than they are in the U.S...

So what do we do about this? How does America find our way in this new, global economy? What will our place in history be?

Like so much of the American story, once again, we face a choice. Once again, there are those who believe that there isn't much we can do about this as a nation. That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their government - divvy it up into individual portions, hand it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care, education, and so forth.

In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it - Social Darwinism, every man and woman for him or herself. It's a tempting idea, because it doesn't require much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say to those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford - tough luck. It allows us to say to the Maytag workers who have lost their job - life isn't fair. It let's us say to the child born into poverty - pull yourself up by your bootstraps...

But there a problem. It won't work. It ignores our history. It ignores the fact that it has been government research and investment that made the railways and the internet possible. It has been the creation of a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools - that has allowed all of us to prosper. Our economic dominance has depended on individual initiative and belief in the free market; but it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity - that has produced our unrivaled political stability.
What you don't hear from President Obama back then or more recently is an excoriation of Wall Street greed. I'd suggest that's because he thinks that is a problem that goes beyond the confines of the financial industry. When I was looking around at his speeches, I found this one at Northwestern University back in 2006 that hits a theme he comes back to regularly.
There's a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us - the child who's hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.

As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier. There's no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You'll be free to live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what's going in your own little circle.

Not only that - we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principle goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.

They will tell you that the Americans who sleep in the streets and beg for food got there because they're all lazy or weak of spirit. That the inner-city children who are trapped in dilapidated schools can't learn and won't learn and so we should just give up on them entirely. That the innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes half a world away are somebody else's problem to take care of.

I hope you don't listen to this. I hope you choose to broaden, and not contract, your ambit of concern. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all of those who helped you get to where you are, although you do have that debt.

It's because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. And because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential - and become full-grown.
As a matter of fact, you might want to listen to this whole speech. It hits on themes we've heard often from this President and is a good reminder of who he is behind the never-ending policy battles.

9 comments:

  1. Great work, Smartypants. We are so lucky to have you.

    It is astonishing how people who are supposed to be smart and experienced are called our pundit class when in reality they have no concept what-so-ever of historical context. They only see the distractions. They are so pitifully uninformed about this man and they have the nerve to call themselves experts. They don't even try--even just a little. It's all knee jerk reactions and follow the first person who comes up with a meme for the day. What a waste.

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  2. Being atomized makes us weaker as a people and as persons. That President Obama addresses the big picture, the deep issues, and the long term is what impressed me about Obama as a person in the first place. Reactively jumping from one media campaign to the next is not going to make us better citizens, it's not even going to make us better attuned to what is happening. Liberals seriously need to change the conversation and include ourselves in it. You are doing a great job of it Smartypants. Rock on. Obama has years worth of perception, perspectives, and factual images to draw from. He is a great example of what being an American in a democracy is all about.

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    1. After I read Dreams Of My Father I knew that this is someone that I wanted to become President, because he actually wanted to fix what wasn't working for most of the citizens in this country. He, also, encouraged us to get involved. I know I have complained about bush's policies, but other than sending money to certain causes I didn't actively get involved in the process of getting my "voice" heard to change things.

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  3. Great post.
    With your permission, I'd like to include you on my blog roll call. http://nomadicpolitics.blogspot.com/

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    1. Done!
      No problem. Let me know if you'd ever be interested in guesting!

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  4. Thanks for the reminder - I wish he'd speak like this every single day. People just don't get it. And here the Post allows George Will to blather on about how the gov't shouldn't interfere with a worker and his employer deciding between themselves what wage that worker should be paid, completely ignoring the fact that that sort of set-up is what led to people working for almost nothing and ignoring the obvious imbalance of power between an employer and an individual desperate for money. A willful ignorance of history, displayed on the editorial pages of one of this country's major newspapers - I just don't understand how that can happen.

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  6. Is is technical difficulty day? I didn't hang up my phone earlier, if we we didn't have unlimited calling in the U.S. it would have been a very costly mistake. Anyway, rewriting the post I deleted--- if you have stories about anyone getting coverage through the ACA you can tell your story at http://www.whitehouse.gov/get-covered.

    Remember when President Obama wanted to extend the tax cuts for working people and invited people to write the White House and tell him what 40 extra dollars a month meant to them? This is the most transparent and democratic White House, ever; but somehow the press can't see that and some in the press think that the White House being transparent means that the press can follow the POTUS around like a puppy dog, hoping to find something they can twist into a scandal. If the White House Press corp behaved like they had read anything about the topic of their question, it would be surprising.

    I'm going to send another love letter to the President now, just because.

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