Did You Build Grand Central Station?
by Stephen Cox | Posted November 07, 2011
On Sept. 29, President Obama gave a TV interview in which he said, “The way I think about it is, you know, this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft and, you know, we didn't have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades. We need to get back on track."
Notice that when the president said that “we need to get back on track,” he didn’t mean that “you and I” need to do so. He didn’t mean that he had lost his competitive edge during the past 20 years and needed to reform himself. He meant that you had lost your edge. The I he reserves for such statements as “I’m going to be signing an executive order today,” or “I urge Congress to move forward,” or “I need to win elections so I can become my own father.” (That last statement is something that he’s never actually said but that he has probably, poor man, always felt.)
In 1927, Charles Lindbergh published a book about his solo flight across the Atlantic. The book was called We. The reference was to Lindbergh and his airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis. Those two were “we.”
Please imagine the effect if he had called the book I. Even Ayn Rand changed the name of her second novel from Ego to Anthem. If you want to call a book I, it had better be your autobiography. (And it had better be good.) But Lindbergh’s book was the story of his exploit, not the story of himself. Without the plane, he wouldn’t have had the exploit. His title showed appropriate courtesy to the plane.
Now imagine the effect if he had gone in the other way and called the book We, the American People. That wouldn’t have been discourteous. That would have been preposterous. It wasn’t the People who crossed the Atlantic. It was Lindbergh and his plane.
I’m not talking about metaphysical issues. I’m talking about literary effects. But there are certain large areas of American life in which neither metaphysics nor aesthetics are understood. The chief of these areas is politics. In this field, we is now one of the most common terms, and it is almost always misplaced — misplaced in a way that is shocking both to fact and to intellect.
As usual, President Obama provides the reductio ad absurdum. Here is what he said during his “give me money and I will create jobs” tour, on Sept. 22, in Cincinnati:
Now, we used to have the best infrastructure in the world here in America. We’re the country that built the Intercontinental Railroad, the Interstate Highway System. We built the Hoover Dam. We built the Grand Central Station.
So how can we now sit back and let China build the best railroads? And let Europe build the best highways? And have Singapore build a nicer airport?
Andrew Malcolm, reporting on the president’s speech (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 23), asked a “quick question”: “Has anyone ever heard any American express jealousy over Singapore's sweet airport?” That’s a good question, but it’s not the important one. The important question is, Who is this we, anyhow?
I don’t remember having built any dams or train stations, and I’ll bet you don’t either. Obama’s we is simply a way of inciting people’s emotions by confusing their ideas about how things get done. We the people don’t raise capital, draw up plans, and pour cement. We may pay taxes or buy train tickets, but we can’t take the credit if a train station turns out to be a work of art, or take the blame if an airline terminal looks like a prison, but without the charm.
It should be noted that “we” is not a term of agitation simply on the Left. It is also a weapon of the Corporate Power — you know, that “1% of the country that owns 99% of it.” This putative 1% appears to consist mainly of oil companies, and they are fighting back, in their feckless way, with commercials in which simulacra of ordinary people say obnoxious, accusatory things — things like, “The oil companies are making a lot of money. Where does it go?” — and then are answered by the unsurprising news that the companies invest the money they make, thereby creating jobs. But many of the obnoxious statements refer to the alleged energy shortage. These take the form of hysterical outbursts such as, “We have to do something about this!” or “We gotta get on this now!”
But there are certain large areas of American life in which neither metaphysics nor aesthetics are understood. The chief of these areas is politics.
None of the average citizens whom Chevron depicts as looking up from their busy lives to demand that something be done is portrayed as having any professional qualification to do something himself. We the people aren’t up to that. So the greasy oil company spokesman is free to step in and proclaim that certain other we’s, we the energy experts, are indeed doing something with those invested profits, something to better the lives of everyone, etc. It’s a contest between one we and another, which puts it on a very high intellectual level indeed.
I find it painful even to notice nonsense like this, so I’ll be content with one more example. A big, thumping, classic example. A confused person named Julianne Malveaux (who used to be visible pretty frequently on television, when television was an entirely leftwing venue), once posted a favorable review of a popular book about religion and morality, in which she made these comments: “Still, I could not read the book without wondering how [the author] or anyone else would expect morality in a nation of thieves. How could we expect our political leaders to be honest when we stole from the Indians, enslaved the Africans, interred [sic] the Japanese, disenfranchised the Chinese, conscripted labor from the Mexicans and so on and so on and so on.”
Clearly, Dr. Malveaux does not consider herself a part of this nation of thieves, or she wouldn’t trust herself to discuss its morality. Yet somehow she can’t avoid using we and our, thereby confessing herself to be a dastardly American after all. Having seen this nice lady on TV, I can hardly picture her forcing Chinese (presumably Chinese Americans) away from the polls, persecuting Mexicans by “conscripting” their labor (huh? when did that happen?), or enslaving Africans — much less burying the Japanese. By her account, however, she has done all these things, and is also several hundreds of years old.
Silly as it is, this kind of rhetoric is increasing. It is growing even faster than the national debt — although formerly, even the worst orators tried to avoid its worst excesses. But whenever I say things like that, I try to check them against Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural address (1965), which I regard as a standard by which bad writing can be measured. Bad, worse, worst: this speech is one of the worst things ever written. (I’ve discussed a few of its features before, in "The Great Man Speaks," Liberty, April 2009. I haven’t talked about any of its good features, because there aren’t any. ) So how is we handled in Johnson’s speech?
Johnson makes some borderline uses of the first person plural — innocuous generalizations about “we” as “we” are today: “Under this [the exact referent isn’t clear, but it’s meant to be something that happened, or maybe didn’t happen, sometime in American history] covenant of justice, liberty, and union we have become a nation — prosperous, great, and mighty. And we have kept our freedom. But we have no promise from God that our greatness will endure. We have been allowed by Him to seek greatness with the sweat of our hands and the strength of our spirit.” Blah, blah, blah. Yes, we don’t know what God has in store for us. This is perfectly true and fully supported by fact. Most of Johnson’s other we statements, however fallible or flaky, are also observations about current reality, about what we supposedly see now:
For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say “Farewell.” Is a new world coming? We welcome it — and we will bend it to the hopes of man.
To this we can only respond, “When was it that we said farewell to our world?” I, for one, can’t recall any worlds disappearing. And I know I never contemplated bending a new world to the hopes of man. Sorry, can’t picture that. But even baloney like this isn’t as bad as the oil company ads, which insist that we actually start doing something to bend the world, or the Malveaux review, which insists that we (you and I!) once actuallydid something like that, but it didn’t turn out very well.
Nevertheless, there is a disturbing parallel between Johnson’s speech and the more modern remarks I’ve been analyzing. It comes in the following paragraph, where Johnson says:
No longer need capitalist and worker, farmer and clerk, city and countryside, struggle to divide our bounty. By working shoulder to shoulder, together we can increase the bounty of all. We have discovered that every child who learns, every man who finds work, every sick body that is made whole — like a candle added to an altar — brightens the hope of all the faithful.
The Simpsons has the First Church of Springfield. America at large has the First Church of All. One of its dogmas is that all of usare always learning helpful things about all of us. For example, we learned to work shoulder to shoulder (now there’s a fresh expression), because we discovered that competition (the “struggle to divide”) doesn’t “increase the bounty of all.”
This notion goes a long way toward explaining America’s melancholy political history from the 1960s until now. No politician ever opens his mouth to say that we were once taught to believe that we should work shoulder to shoulder, but that now we know we were wrong, because competition increases the bounty of all. But that’s the plain, though unutterable, truth.
Somehow Malveaux can’t avoid using “we” and “our,” thereby confessing herself to be a dastardly American after all.
One thing we plainly did not discover, because it is patently absurd, is that everyone benefits from everything good that happens to everyone else. If this is what every child who learns is learning (and I’m afraid it is), then we are in serious trouble. But in case you haven’t noticed, we are in serious trouble, and it’s because some people actually accept the ridiculous assumptions behind these ridiculous uses of every, all, and we.
I hate to say it, because it seems so fundamentalist, so retro-libertarian, but this also is true: what I’ve been discussing here is collectivism, pure and simple, and collectivism is a very bad thing. Not only is it economically harmful; it’s destructive of thought, and today it is more prominent than ever in America. There is nothing more common than the linguistic collectivism that was planted in President Johnson’s idiotic remarks about “the hope of all the faithful” and now blossoms in President Obama’s amazing idea that we (of course including he) somehow constructed the Hoover Dam and summoned Grand Central Station out of the primordial ooze. Yet on this false conception, this linguistic folly, has been erected the vast framework of modern socialism, the system of thought and action that is now imperiling the future of us all.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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