Society and Culture


President Obama addresses a special joint session of Congress

Photo Credit: Pete Souza via

President Obama’s horrendous political gaffe last week—“You didn’t build that”—triggered the same reaction I had when he insisted on pushing through Obamacare. Then, I had the creepy feeling that I was living in an occupied country. American politics didn’t work that way. Neither Democrats nor Republicans had ever forced through a transformative piece of legislation without substantial bipartisan support. A major American politician had never (to my knowledge) been indifferent to the kind of voter sentiment so clearly expressed in the Massachusetts senatorial election.

“You didn’t build that” is another example of the president’s tone-deafness when it comes to the music of the American culture. The phrase is not taken out of context. It didn’t come after a celebration of the inventiveness and risk taking of individual Americans that has made this country great. The president gave the mildest of acknowledgements to the role of the individual, followed by a paragraph of examples that cast American history as a series of collective accomplishments.

There’s a standard way for Americans to celebrate accomplishment. First, we call an individual onto the stage and say what great things that person has done. Then that person gives a thank-you speech that begins “I couldn’t have done this without…” and a list of people who helped along the way. That’s the way we’ve always done it. Everyone knows we all get help in life (and sometimes just get lucky). But we have always started with the individual and then worked out. It is not part of the American mindset to begin with the collective and admonish individuals for thinking too highly of their contribution.

That brings me back to the creepiness of it all. It is as if a Dutch politician—an intelligent, well-meaning Dutch politician—were somehow running for the American presidency, but bringing with him the Rawlsian, social-democratic ethos that, in the Netherlands, is the natural way to talk about a properly run society. We would listen to him and say to ourselves, “He doesn’t get this country.” That’s the thing about Obama. Time and again, he does things and says things that are un-American. Not evil. Not anti-American. Just un-American.

627 thoughts on “Un-American

  1. So if I’m following you correctly, you’re not disputing the truth of what the President said. You just don’t think he said it in the right way.

    • Can’t be sure who you are responding to, but I’ll give you my take.

      As to the specific “You didn’t build that..” sentence, Obama may or may not feel that strongly about the societal contribution behind individual business success – I don’t know and won’t try to read his mind. I don’t think he meant that sentence to come out like that. My main reaction to that is – why no clarification? Why, instead, the torturing of the rules of grammar and syntax, and an ad implying that Romney is a liar for repeating verbatim what Obama said in that sentence.

      As to the overall message of the importance of societal structure and infrastructure as foundation within which all success takes place, to the extent that it’s true, it’s a truism – everyone who has ever given it any thought knows it’s true (and anyone who denies it is ignorant or foolish).

      But to pound away at that message is to imply that most business people have an over-inflated sense of their own importance and would deny the importance of societal goods. Of course that’s true of some but, to me, his speech sets up an implied straw man by lecturing all businesspersons about society and infrastructure. Very few successful entrepreneurs are so ignorant or misguided as to not understand the importance of societal structure.

      His speech also has an implied conflation of society and government: “Because society contributed to your success, you should pay more taxes to the government.

  2. I am amazed that the entire apparatus around presidential speech making let that remark pass. The message check, the fact check, the gut check, the advance copy to local VIPs., and lead on the advance team. Easily, twenty smart staffers read it before it was printed up on Air Force One and put into a blue folder marked with the Seal of the President of the United States.

    And yet, it said “you didn’t build that.” Presidential? On message? Factual? No red flag raised? No objections? Or was it just one red flag, just one we haven’t collectively seen in awhile…. comrades.

  3. Not to be persnickety, but John Rawls was an American philosopher, so I don’t know how un- or anti- American applying his ideology would be. Admittedly, he pontificated against the traditional American free market system.

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