May 29, 2008

Be More Like Me

From the start of the Obama campaign, even before the leftist policy proposals and the glaring inexperience had become apparent, I had been personally put off by the consistent tone of condescension and the self-righteous posturing in the speeches of both Obamas. This attitude was perhaps best expressed in this quote from Michelle Obama on the campaign trail in Ohio:

“We left corporate America, which is a lot of what we’re asking young people to do,” she tells the women. “Don’t go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need, and we’re encouraging our young people to do that. But if you make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry, then your salaries respond.”

Set aside the fact that her salary certainly "responded" just after her husband became the Democratic front-runner, going from $122,000 to $316,000 to help her get by in the "helping industry" of a large university hospital system. No excess profits there.

Set aside the fact that she didn't "leave corporate America" at all, as she sits, or has sat on several corporate boards in return for some of that unwholesome, money-making industry loot.

Set aside the campaign theme of 'hey, we've only been millionaires for the last few years...really'.

Set aside the misleading claim that Barack "left" corporate America at all. I'm no expert, having read neither of this 40-something's two autobiographies, but my impression is that he declined the offers to go into corporate America directly from law school, and has been in community organizing and running for President ever since...that is, when time off from writing autobiographies permits.

What gets under my skin is the prevailing attitude of "here's what we did...we think you should be more like us" that is implicit if not explicit (as above) in so many of their public statements.

Then yesterday Jim Manzi at The Corner expressed so eloquently what I have been feeling about this "be more like me" attitude, that I must share...and of course excerpt, while recommending you read it all.

I don’t have a visceral reaction to Barack Obama one way or the other, but I sure found his commencement address at Wesleyan to be pretty off-putting. He smugly put himself forward as an exemplar of the well-lived life, and proceeded from this to the more politically significant solipsism of imagining how much better America would be if it were filled with people who were a lot more like Barack Obama.

Manzi excerpts the Obama commencement address at some length, which you can read at the link, but it is similar to Michelle's exhortations above to pass on entering the private sector and enter the public sector, in order to do what our society really needs you to do ("we need you to lead the green revolution") to fulfill you as a person. If you don't, he suggests you are "thinking only about yourself." Manzi continues...

This incorporates, but is not limited to, the normal helpful advice that a completely materialistic life is usually not the most fulfilling — “With all thy getting, get understanding.” But it also incorporates the assertion that the well-lived, or at least the best-lived, life must be one centered on engagement with political affairs or a social movement. (Though notably lacking on this long, long list of potential forms of service is any mention of the military.) While Obama throws an occasional rhetorical bone to the idea of responsibilities to jobs and immediate families, and certainly calls out homey service at a small scale to those nearest us as admirable, I challenge anybody to read this speech in full and not conclude that Obama is presenting a hierarchical view of human flourishing that sees becoming absorbed in something big and political like transforming American society, addressing global warming, or bringing an end to the slaughter in Darfur as the highest form of self-actualization.

Ironically, Obama’s vision strikes me as quite narrow. While it is surely true that striving to overcome the innate tendency to self-love is an important part of what it means to become fully human for almost every person on earth, it does not follow that the highest form of this struggle for everyone is centered on political projects or organized social movements. It also doesn’t follow that society would be better if everybody devoted more of their energies to such crusades.

At the level of individual psychology, different people are different. Shocking as it is to professional politicians (and maybe readers of political blogs), most people don’t care a whole lot about big causes. If I devote my energies to starting and running my dry-cleaning business and helping to raise my kids, am I a lesser person than my neighbor who works full-time at Human Rights Watch? Surely, it is more realistic and humane to think of a healthy society as a mosaic in which different people play different roles based on temperament and circumstance.

More importantly for a presidential candidate, at the political level, would the United States really be better off if everybody spent less time at the office and devoted more of it to ameliorating global warming, stopping the killing in Darfur, and joining the Peace Corps? If the U.S. were not the largest and most productive economy in the world, it would not have the world’s most powerful military, it would not have the luxury of trying to solve problems from sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East, it would not have created awe-inspiring collective achievements like getting to the moon, and the vast majority of poor households in America would not have already have TVs, cars, and air conditioning.

Where do you think all of this wealth comes from? I’ll give you a hint: not from protest rallies, public-interest internships, and petition drives. One thing that reliably motivates people to work hard and produce economic output is the promise of getting more money so that they can buy things they want (a.k.a. “the big house and the nice suits”). This isn’t quite as romantic as losing yourself in service to others, but it seems to work pretty well.


The whole American political leadership class seems to be drunk with imagined power. America represents about 20 percent of the world economy. This has been roughly constant for almost 30 years, but the primary geostrategic fact of our current world is the economic rise of the Asian heartland. It will be very difficult to maintain American power in the face of those who may have deeply contrary interests over the upcoming decades. Simply assuming that we'll always have this giant ATM machine called the American economy to pay for our political dreams, instead of devoting a lot of energy to figuring out how to make the economy continue to prosper, strikes me as a focus on pretty blossoms while ignoring the roots of the plant.

Do read it all.

One other thing grabbed me from the Obama speech. In the context of encouraging graduates to "hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself", Obama said, "Because our individual salvation depends on our collective salvation."

This may amount to no more than semantic hair-splitting, but it seems to me that he has that exactly backwards. How can being "saved" collectively be a precondition of being saved individually? The implication is that he can tell us how to achieve this collective salvation.

The great flaw of the leftist utopian fantasy has been its insistence that man is perfectible by enlightened government, and society can be successfully re-engineered away from human self-interest if the right people are in charge. As someone once said..."nice theory, wrong species." And of course, tens of millions have perished in the various tries at the experiment.

It's been a while since I read Kirk's "The Conservative Mind", but I'd suggest that at the heart of conservative thought somewhere is the idea that self-reform, man's choice to strive for the victory of his higher nature over his lower one, in the individual heart, is the only true starting point for self-understanding and just society. Attempts by equally flawed humans who happen to be in positions of power to "reform" men collectively, in defiance of their nature, are doomed, and necessarily result in the loss of precious freedoms.

To be fair, maybe this is what Obama was trying to say to the graduates as individuals in his admirable call to public service, and he merely garbled the message. But he strikes me as more of a "top-down" guy, based on all the policy proposals and the "I know what's good for you" rhetoric. And the trademark liberal ignorance of, and antipathy toward the private sector is readily apparent as well in Obama's talk. As if millions of people engaged in the manufacturing and service sectors of the economy are not just as involved in "helping" people in society as is any social worker.

As Manzi says, the message is pretty narrow and simplistic.

Unfortunately, Obama’s guidance pretty much boils down to: Greenpeace good; Goldman, Sachs bad; U.S. Army not worth mentioning.

"Out of touch" just doesn't cover it.

Posted by dan at May 29, 2008 8:04 PM