The Destruction of the Individual: A Foreign Concept
by Barbara_Donnelly_Lane
 Politics
July 18, 2012 11:13 AM | 1556 views | 13 13 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

There is a series of statues in Prague that serves as a memorial to the victims of communism. This series is called the Pomník Obětem Komunismu. It was erected twelve years after the Velvet Revolution, which was the historic pulling away of the Iron Curtain from a Czechoslovakia too long obscured by the dark powers of Stalinism.

Today, Pomník Obětem Komunismu reminds citizens of all nations of the brutal oppression and loss of hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in the dark days of totalitarian despotism when the Soviet Union was the undisputed Big Brother of Eastern Europe. It can be found at the base of Petrin Hill in the Czech Republic, and it is, indeed, a visually powerful work of art.

In fact, out of all the many amazing things I have seen in extensive travels, this memorial has impacted me in a way that many other, similarly focused works have not. I’ve thought about it often, and as a teacher, I’ve even used images of it when addressing themes in George Orwell’s masterpiece 1984.

However, I did not ever expect an American president to make me recall this memorial as President Obama did last week in a campaign speech extolling the virtues of government sponsored group work, the illusory power of the individual.

First, I need for you to imagine a long flight of stairs cutting up a green hill. On those stairs walks a bronze man with an expression of misery. His body is naked and vulnerable. But what you notice most is the same man a few steps further up the hill. This version is cracked. Now he is missing a limb, two limbs. Now he is not himself, not a man, not a whole human being. Now he is broken.

The system under which this man—and the many real people he symbolizes--lost his very sense of self was an insidious one built in parallel to the ideology of double-think used to destroy Orwell’s fictitious Winston Smith in the aforementioned 1984. Under its banner, the government was glorified, and the worker became an insignificant drone in a living hive focused on collective perpetuity.

So why did President Obama recall this memorial to my mind?

I do not think that President Obama is a communist. (In truth, British author George Orwell was a democratic socialist, not a capitalist.) But I do think the president’s speech shows an ideological bent counter to my understanding of the United States.

For example, when praising the higher income tax rates President Bill Clinton imposed in a time of prosperity on higher wage earners, President Obama said, “We created 23 million new jobs… We created a lot of millionaires.”

This simple statement, which has not garnered much attention from any press, is the most shocking to me. It puts “we”—which is the government per the president’s use—into an almost God-like position, shaping the financial fortunes of the chosen few, as if it is through the power of the state that men are made.

This is not the idea upon which the American system is built.

Rather, our Founding Fathers formed a government to deal with collective affairs of state in a way that keeps the individual sacrosanct. Voters dictate policy to the government and then consent to fund that government’s initiatives, not the other way around.

Therefore, “we” in Obama’s sense of the word never create jobs or millionaires.

People in the nineties were allowed to pursue happiness as they saw fit to create their own wealth. They then gave a percentage of their earned income to a government that worked for them to maintain the infrastructure and hire public servants needed for the country to run smoothly, not the other way around.

In other words, the private sector creates jobs, is responsible for millionaires, and employs everyone who works for the government, not the other way around.

President Obama then said, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Again, this foreign sentiment strips an American of the right to any contributions made to his own system. It suggests “somebody else” dictates success. Therefore, no one should have pride in ownership, no sense of accomplishment, no right to the forging of his or her own destiny because the individual isn’t important.

To visualize this worldview is to visualize the Czech statues. To think this way is to deny that some individuals squander every advantage; others press even the most miniscule of opportunities, and all free people have the power to choose.

Furthermore, if one reads the president’s entire speech made in Roanoke, there is a great deal of class demagoguery couched in contradictory populist platitudes (or double speak), which suggests all good comes from government programs, not the other way around.

My favorite sentiment toward the end of all this blather is the promise that the president said he has fulfilled, which is to wake up every morning to think about how to make “your life a little bit better.”

I suppose he is deciding which of us precious few drones shall have jobs in his command economy. Perhaps he is choosing which of us is allowed to walk up that government-built staircase on the green hill of success for certainly we cannot get to the top without him or improve our lives on our own.



Truly, it must be nice for him to be such a powerful individual in this country where only he can stand alone.

Comments
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misterbill
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August 04, 2012
B D L

In reading the posts, I find that you are far too kind in your responses, but I admire your knowledge, reasoning, respect and patience with those with whom you disagree..

You are a better man than I am...
B. D. Lane
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July 20, 2012
Mr. Foley,

This has been fun, but I'm just not sure how productive it is. You know very well that your portrayal of Paul Ryan's budget is a bit of demagoguery. At least I hope you know this. After all, while I know that President Obama has cut Medicare, I don't think that's because he wants to shoo grandmas over the cliff.

And of course my tax dollars paid for the roads that get your employees to work. And property taxes in Cobb go to pay my salary as a public school teacher. But your employees are not automatically successful because they take a road. While I think I am actually a pretty good teacher--not something that is automatic either--my students must earn their academic successes. Just because I'm there doesn't mean they will automatically learn. (President Obama did concede this point in his speech.)

Anyway, I've already stated scope of government is the ideological question here... not usefulness of the tool that is government. We can agree to disagree about what this scope should be as it is readily apparent we will not come to a different understanding here. We're not that unique in our two party system. People have argued about this topic for centuries. I'm always up for a respectful debate.

Take care.
Kevin Foley
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July 20, 2012
Ms. Lane - See Paul Ryan's budget that Romney calls "marvelous" if you want to see what conservatives think of the social contract in America today. "Here's your voucher, grandma. Best of luck using it to buy health insurance to replace the Medicare we're taking away."

OK, you don't buy that your tax dollars built the road that my employees take to get to work in the morning where they help generate my profits. Or that your tax dollars built the schools and paid the teachers where they were educated and I now benefit from that education. Or your taxes pay for the police and firemen who protect my building in Smyrna where those profits are generated.

It's all interconnected, united, a commonwealth.

B. D. Lane
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July 20, 2012
Mr. Foley,

In addition to teaching English, I have taught US History. You are right that we are the "United" States for a reason, but this has little to do with the ideological positioning I've discussed in my piece, so it is quite irrelevant as a point. In fact, until after the Civil War, though federalism bound them together, Americans viewed themselves as citizens of different states as if states were separate countries. (Think of the United Kingdom model.) And don't say this was just in the South. (As you may recall, the first states that ever wished to secede from the union were actually in New England.)

So would you like me to say that Republicans should recognize that no one takes a life journey alone? That we as people benefit by being born in the US? That we are given opportunities to thrive because we live in a stable society to which we all contribute? That the government has an essential role to play in our society? Okay.

But that's not the argument.

The premise from which you're working per your last statement is that Republicans believe government doesn't have a role to play. Who says this? The question is one of scope.

By saying that government builds roads--because that's what we want the government to do--President Obama is stating the obvious. And so what? Dogs bark, too. What's his broader point? That government is the reason people are successful? I reject this.

Come on, Kevin. If you're really going to pull out social contract theory, can't we at least agree that our country was partly founded on rejecting the Leviathan??? Move at least up to John Locke, friend. ;)
Kevin Foley
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July 20, 2012
Ms. Lane - Not for nothing is it called the "United" States of America. It's also interesting that some states that were among the original 13 like Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Virginia refer to themselves as "commonwealths."

It's impossible for an entreprenuer in 21st century America to claim success without acknowledging that it came with the help of the public education system and public infrastucture everyone else paid for. That's the social contract Obama wants to preserve and conservatives want to destroy.
B. D. Lane
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July 20, 2012
Mr. Foley,

I did read and enjoy your blog post. I understand your argument there though I might point out that "from many to one" refers to a cultural melding in a nation of immigrants built on the Protestant work ethic and a concept of rugged individualism... but I digress.

Yes, I understand one can argue that the big line with which the president will be beaten on the head may refer back to the infrastructure that businessmen didn't build from scratch. But it's still revealing. It neglects the fact that government was funded by taxpayers, so the businessman paid for the infrastructure he uses.

In other words, the idea that government creates rather than is created puts the government's contributions above the individual's efforts. It's sort of like giving a hammer credit for driving in a nail instead of crediting the man who is using the hammer with building the house.

Anyway, this ideological positioning is clear throughout the president's speech.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify. Whether we agree or not, I really appreciate the dialogue.
Kevin Foley
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July 20, 2012
Ms. Lane (I'm anonymous - I neglected to fill in my name when I posted) - Here are the president's exact words the far right noise machine and Mitt Romney deliberately distorted:

"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."

He meant, you didn't build the roads and bridges, which is true. He unfortunately worded his statement in such a way as to give his political enemies ammunition.

See my blog next door. I have actually built a small business from scratch that, 26 years later, is very successful. Obama is exactly right. We're all in this together.

B D Lane
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July 20, 2012
Mister Bill, I think there were a lot of Obama voters from every demographic who believed in the rhetoric of hope and change without understanding the real substance of the politician. They'll have to decide now if the policies the president's pushed still align with the vision they voted for in 2008.

Anonymous, My analysis had nothing to do with Fox News. I simply listened to--and read the full transcript for--the entire speech. In full context, if you look at the totality of what he said, it is very clear that the president believes in a government centric approach to society... the power of the collective. Per the full thrust of the speech, he clearly thinks government creates rather than is created. This ideological orientation undermines the power of the individual, so I think my allusions are fair.

Thanks to all--including anonymous--for their thoughts. I appreciate your reading my posts.
namtah
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July 19, 2012
I've never understood the left's obsession with "the collective." I think it has much to do with fairness and how success of the individual somehow derails another's access to success. Goodness.
anonymous
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July 19, 2012
See, this is how far right Fox News distortions become "truth."

Obama was referring to DARPA, the government agency that built and maintained the backbone of the Internet.

No DARPA, no dot com millionaires. That was the president's point.

How you get from his speech to Soviet-era oppression, Ms. Lane, is a leap I didn't think you would make. BTW, I've been to Prague. Great spot full of free people enjoying life.
misterbill
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July 19, 2012
BDL

Excellent analogy and astute insight. I'd like to see an article by you explaining how you think Obama got elected in the first place and which groups, race, age, gender, economic position were(was), mostly responsible.
Proud American
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July 18, 2012
I think one of the most valid points of all this discussion is that the roads, teachers' salaries, etc. are paid for by those individuals in our country who actually pay taxes. Anyone who has worked hard to achieve success had access to public education, it's true, but so did those individuals who didn't work hard and who failed. I think our country is in big trouble because of the entitlement attitude that so many have adopted, starting with our current President.
Chris Thiessen
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July 18, 2012
The most insightful analysis of the President's speech I have seen. Ms. Lane has an extraordinary understanding of current events!
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