Friday, July 20, 2012

Charlie's Angels

There was, I assumed, little I could add from Jerusalem to the you-didn't-build-that debate now roiling (actually, entertaining) journalists "covering" the presidential campaigns, but then I happened on this column by my old classmate from Montreal, Charles Krauthammer. The column begins with the quote, played endlessly on Fox-News, and attributed to President Obama--“If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen”--and Charlie takes off  from there:

Of course we are shaped by our milieu. But the most formative, most important influence on the individual is not government. It is civil society, those elements of the collectivity that lie outside government: family, neighborhood, church, Rotary club, PTA, the voluntary associations that Tocqueville understood to be the genius of America and source of its energy and freedom.

Now, Charlie is a smart guy. The only problem with him in the seventh grade--and straight through McGill, actually--was that he took this just a little too obviously for granted. Anyway, he is surely smart enough to figure out the noun a pronoun is referring to. Here is what Obama actually said:

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.

In other words, the "that" was clearly referring back to "roads and bridges," the "internet, etc., not to the business itself. But I'm not writing to challenge Charlie's grasp of grammar and syntax, which Fox pays him handsomely to play dumb about. It is his argument about the tangential role of government that, coming from him, of all people, creeps me out. Bear with me.

Obama was not talking about our consciousness being "shaped." He was talking about our families being helped--that is, by institutions that advance us, some of which may crucially be supported by government. Obama needs lectures from nobody about the role of "family, neighborhood, church," and so forth. He never fails to pay tribute to his mother and grandparents. And unlike Romney--who, as they say, was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple--Obama is the self-made man in the race, the real embodiment of the American dream such as it is--or was.

Very much like Malcolm Gladwell in his poignant book, Outliers, Obama nevertheless, and with humility, also pays tribute to the various ways public institutions enabled his success--schools, scholarships--institutions lacking in the Indonesia of his childhood, for example. In the case of Gladwell, who is from Canada, these public institutions are even more prominent than in the US.

Which brings me back to Charlie. He mocks Obama, absurdly, by suggesting that inherent in the president's humility is the notion that government agencies should somehow take credit for genius--viz, "We don't credit the Swiss postal service with the Special Theory of Relativity because it transmitted Einstein’s manuscript to the Annalen der Physik."

This extrapolation from Obama's remarks is so cute I have to believe Charlie didn't write it. Incidentally, Einstein kept body-and-soul together working (not too hard, I'll grant you) at the Swiss patent office. When you think about, this is yet another case of public sector support for pure research--but never mind.

Charlie's most fervent mockery is reserved for "The Life Julia," a somewhat trite but instructive series of panels describing the kind of help a young person can expect through life owing to the social safety net. Julia's world "contains no friends, no community and, of course, no spouse. Who needs one? She’s married to the provider state," Charlie writes.

This is really too much. The Hebrew school he and I went to was heavily subsidized by the Quebec government; all schools in the Protestant and Catholic school boards were, too. (By the way, Obama is for chartering schools run by religious groups so long as they meet standards in teaching the general curriculum.) McGill was so heavily subsidized that yearly tuition cost about what a washing machine cost. When we graduated, Charlie went on to graduate school on a Commonwealth Fellowship (I told you he was smart), but we all got graduate fellowships of one kind or another.

When he came back to Harvard Medical School, and broke his neck, his wonderfully supportive family's fortune was not wiped out by his years of rehabilitation, insured as he was both from Canada and Harvard. His first job was at Mass General which would be--where exactly?--without state supported medical schools, Medicare, NIH research money, and myriad state and federal grants. Oh, and Charlie's first job after leaving medicine was with the Carter Administration, including a stint as a speech writer for Walter Mondale.

It is fine to say, albeit pretentiously, that a conservative is a liberal who was mugged by reality. But it is quite another thing to be Charlie's kind of conservative when reality mugged you and the institutions liberals and social democrats put in place were your family's guardian angels: educated you and saved you from penury. What, with so much ingratitude, can a conservative be trusted to conserve?

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