Unaware of Our Privilege

This reveals how conservatives tend to think about the nature of society. President Obama made a campaign speech in Virginia, in which he 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.

Conservatives have been going crazy. How dare that socialist say that I didn’t build my own business! The Romney campaign jumped at the chance to create an anti-Obama spot:

Jack Gilchrist, the owner of Gilchrist Metal Fabricating in Hudson, New Hampshire, incredulously asks, “My father’s hands didn’t build this company? My hands didn’t build this company? My son’s hands aren’t building this company? …Through hard work and a little bit of luck, we built this business. Why are you demonizing us for it?”

The GOP campaign focuses on that one line, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” and conveniently forgets everything else the President said, implying that Obama said business owners don’t work hard, or that businesses can’t survive without government help. That is clearly a misrepresentation of Obama’s words. Sure, successful business owners have worked hard, but who can claim to have raised and educated themselves or built businesses with no help from anyone? Some of us have lifted ourselves up by our bootstraps, but not literally!

Because I was born in the United States, to a middle-class family, I had plenty of advantages before I was old enough to contribute anything at all to my own well-being. Yet, the myth of the self-made man persists. It’s not hard to see why so many are so quick to accept that interpretation. Most of us are unaware of how privileged we are. It’s one of the big lies that we are taught to believe, and not allowed to talk about. As Jonathan Chait puts it:

Nobody actually disputes Obama’s claim that government contributes some measure toward the success of business owners. They concede it is true, even banally so. Conservatives, nonetheless, feel angry that he would verbalize it.

In order to perpetuate the myth, the conservative dogma, we have to believe (or pretend to believe) that America was founded by good Christian freedom fighters, and that anyone who works hard enough can make a fortune. We have to deny that we owe any part of our national progress to taking the land by force from the Natives, relying on slave labor, or creating laws that favor White males.

No, you did not build that business without some help along the way. You built it on the backs of many who went before, who, willingly or not, built a society and an infrastructure for you to take advantage of. You built it with the help of laws and social conventions. You built it in a stable, secure country, thanks to the work and sacrifice of many citizens before you.

Here’s more conservative heresy: America is not perfect, not even close. But we do have elements of greatness. This much is true; if you are smart, strong and enthusiastic, and get a few good breaks, you can make it big in America. If you aren’t so well-equipped, or so lucky, you likely won’t starve, because we also have heart. That’s the real America. I like it better than the myth.


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