Ezra Klein of the Washington Post recognized very quickly that Barack Obama’s comment “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” was a real problem. In an article in the Post called “Mitt Romney’s Misleading Attack Ad,” Klein indicates “So, in Romney’s ad, ‘that’ refers to building a business. In Obama’s remarks, ‘that’ refers to the roads and bridges.” I really wonder how long it took for Mr. Klein to come up with that one? Highly imaginative.
The greater text from Obama’s speech, which Klein quotes, is as follows: “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 ‘cause 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.”
While I am no logician, nor linguist, nor Professor of English, this journalistic rationalizing, or cover-up, is nearly as absurd as the original comment from the President. It is also, interestingly, far less honest.
Clearly, all accomplishments in life are conditioned on the actions and ideas of those who have come before us. None of us operates in an “inter-personal vacuum” devoid of the influence of others. But, that was not the point of Klein’s defense of the anti-capitalist, anti-personal dignity/accomplishment comment from the President. Klein attempts to take a set of well-stated thoughts, clear as to intent, and add a layer of pure intellectual obfuscation.
And, as usual, it is in an attempt to provide all of us neophytes-of-nuance with an interpretation as what the comments really mean. Klein knows exactly what Obama meant, but also knows that only the self-declared elite and loony left fringe agree with the sentiment. The message is so offensive to traditional American sensibilities that it forces Klein to purger himself with his editorial slight-of-hand.
Each of Obama’s statements, before the last two sentences, are passive-voice and rhetorical. No one would disagree that most of us have had great teachers in our personal history. That we have a great system in which we operate…well, sure. That we should all be appreciative that tax-payer funded roads and bridges have been built is hardly to be questioned. We would all agree. But then Klein slips into the deep end of the pool, and he is clearly not much of a swimmer.
Contrary to Klein, in those last two ill-fated sentences, Obama radically changes the tone of his message. He moves from the blandly rhetorical into the politically assertive. He quits using the words “helped” and “allows” and uses the very aggressive and dogmatic terminology “did not” and “made.” The attempt that Klein makes to link the obvious message of “you didn’t build that” with the prior sentence about roads and bridges is beyond laughable. It is comprehensible to a kindergartener that the “that” refers to “a business.” Why would you go back two sentences, and arbitrarily pick “roads and bridges” as the object, as opposed to the sentence immediately preceding the “Somebody else made that happen?”
So Klein goes on to conclude that this was simply a Presidential “gaffe.” (Thus rationally eliminating the need for his clarification of the intent of “that,” (or was it “is?”)) He goes on to indicate that what Obama meant to say was that we are all part of some grand and cosmic ecosystem, to be neatly and naturally hemmed together with the cunning hand of civil society. He concludes that we are making way too much of these gaffes in the politically-charged media, and that we should focus on the more important issues. I guess that would be building more road and bridges.
The problem is simple: we all know exactly what Obama meant. We know it because that is what he actually said. More importantly, we know it because “what he said” is completely consistent with our observations of his actions and behavior. So Klein writes an article that masquerades as journalism, and in the process makes himself into a completely disingenuous fool…and simultaneously insults the intelligence of each and everyone of his readers. Was that another gaffe?Image © Azuki – Fotolia.com
About the Author
Mr. Nygaard is a Managing Director with Atticus Advisers, a marketing consulting firm in Atlanta, Georgia.
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