When I was a child at camp, one of the summer highlights was “color war.” The entire camp, including counselors and staff, would be arbitrarily divided into two teams — “red” and “white” and then for a week would engage in athletic and other contests to build up points for a final victory. I particularly remember the intense discussions around the “bunk,” of how disgusting our opponents were — fellow campers who had been our friends yesterday!
Now I am not saying that the present stand off between Democrats and Republicans is exactly the same as color war. I recognize that there are differences between the parties, and like everyone else I know, I plan to vote for Obama. But I must say that the way in which my progressive and leftist friends are focused on how terrible the Republicans are does remind me of Junior High School. Having been in New York after 9/11 I know what it feels like to be in a panicky environment in which loyalty is everything, and I don’t like it.
What I am talking about is the need to think independently of Obama, even as we vote for him. An example of what I mean is the discussion of his now-famous remark about who built America. The Republicans made “We built it” the slogan for their first night, and the New York Times took them up on it, calling Obama’s remark “poorly phrased” and “deliberately taken out of context.” According to the Times, “President Obama was making the obvious point that all businesses rely to some extent on the work and services of government. But Mr. Romney has twisted it to suggest that Mr. Obama believes all businesses are creatures of the government, and so the convention had to parrot the line.”
Here is the core of Obama’s original text, delivered July 13:
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.
Now the first thing to note is how implausible The New York Times characterization of this as “poorly phrased” is. Every word that Obama delivers is very carefully scripted, and this was too. I am a professor and if a student handed me this I would send it back, but this is not a classroom. Obama deliberately delivered a vague, abstract, uncoordinated series of statements because he did not want to say what he should have said: “If you are a successful businessman, it is because American workers created a government that supports your efforts, and it needs that government to correct the incredible imbalance that exists in American society between the rich and everyone else.” Instead he throws together meaningless clichés on which everyone agrees– the “great teacher,” a series of “somebodys,” a mysterious investor who financed “roads and bridges” and then throws in a valid point about the Internet. Obama can do this because he doesn’t have to communicate directly with his base. In effect, he winks at his base, certain that we will say, “we know what he means, he just can’t clearly state it.”
In earlier posts I have tried to explain why Obama is often so opaque and abstract. He represents a new social class, which looks back on the New Deal and the 1960s with decidedly mixed feelings. Those were great days, to be sure, but now the real problems are technical and pragmatic. We have to wink at people who still live in the past, but we need to live in an austerity-dominated present. The point is that so long as we reward Obama for talking in unclear, abstract terms, we will never move the country forward. That is why we need to make this election about something more than another Color War. We need to see an independent left come out of it.
Eli Zaretsky is the author of Why America Needs a Left: An Historical Argument.