We have not featured a guest post here at WARN in some time. I saw this piss poor article over at The Atlantic and had to reach out to Werner Herzog's Bear, our resident historian (who also writes over at his own site Notes from the Ironbound) for the assist. Here Mr. Bear proceeds to eviscerate and maul Andrew Cline's bandwagoning against President Obama for his now (in)famous "you didn't build that" line. As always, Werner Herzog's Bear delivers in fine form.
"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.