Obama and the Harvard “We”
by Michael Christian | Posted March 07, 2012
When I attended Harvard Law School, just before Barack Obama and at the same time as his wife, it was (surprise) a place steeped in a particular sort of elitism. I think there are two kinds of elitism, a good one and a bad one, and that President Obama may have been corrupted by the latter during his time at Harvard. I don’t suppose that the Harvard of my and Obama’s generation intentionally aimed to produce the bad kind of elitism, but it soaked its students in a bad elitist culture. Even the vocabulary of the students changed to accommodate elitism. The best example is what I call the Harvard “we.”
You have heard the editorial “we,” as in “we believe that HLS promotes insidious elitism.” In that case “we” means “I,” because the editorialist thinks that “I” is bad style. You have also heard the nursing “we,” as in “have we had our daily enema?” The nursing “we” means “you,” and I think might be derived from baby talk. Further, you have heard the spousal “we,” as in “we need to take out the trash,” which actually means “we,” but as between the two of us, it’s really your job. And you have heard the royal “we,” as in “bring us our scepter and our breakfast.” The royal “we” means “God and I,” because the king’s power derives from God. In addition, you have certainly heard the Harvard “we,” and I’m going to tell you what it means.
The Harvard “we,” as in “we need to make a rule prohibiting home schooling,” means “we” but not just any “we”; it means we who know better than you. It means we who have power, or should have power.
The “we” speakers themselves often are unaware of this, but any sentence in which the Harvard “we” occurs refers to the uses of state authority. It’s sort of the obverse of “they,” as in “they just passed a new law that says you can't drive and talk on your phone,” or “they say we don’t have enough information to make our own health insurance decisions,” or “check this out: they made somebody put a warning label on a toilet brush: ‘do not use for personal hygiene.’”
The Harvard “we” means we who know better than you. It means we who have power, or should have power.
(By the way, when “we” elites become the all-powerful “they” of whom regular folk speak, you become an inferior “them” as in candidate Obama’s notorious observation, “It's not surprising then they get bitter. They cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”)
At Harvard, the professors constantly use the elite “we,” and most of the students pick it up within the first month or two. Like their professors, they become the mighty “they,” at least in their own minds; and so when referring to the powerful “them,” they say “we.” The students don’t openly admit it; they simply assume that they are fit to make decisions for other people. The Harvard “we” is a paternalistic “we.”
Right now, unkempt, spotty geeks who got better grades than you did are sitting in Harvard (and Stanford and Princeton and Yale) lecture halls saying things like, “We should deconstruct the bundle of property rights into its constituent parts and eliminate the strands that impinge on legitimate community rights” — which when translated means, “The government should have the power to take your property in the name of certain social interests that my classmates and I consider to be worthy.”
By the end of the first year, the habit is ingrained. The students have become the “they” and have lost the natural fear of being told what to do by bureaucrats, agencies, and policemen — because they assume that they will now be making the rules. They no longer see any humor in Ronald Reagan’s famous line, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.’”
By the end of the first year, the students assume that they will now be making the rules.
I’m happy to say that when I was at Harvard Law, I didn’t go in for that “we” business. Despite my own snobbery and angry-young-man ardor, I didn’t want to be part of an elite class that would beneficently lord it over the little people. I still don’t.
The Harvard “we” is an elitist “we.” I admit that elitism isn’t always wrong. People in the good elite stand for good values and set an example that encourages good behavior. People in the bad elite use power to dictate your behavior, because they know better than you. Meanwhile, they exempt themselves from the constraints of values, because they think that their ends justify their means.
Barack Obama is the greatest living practitioner of the Harvard “we.” To understand that is to understand his presidency.
How would the elitist-in-chief govern? He would seek to expand his rule, intervening in important areas of life, without respect for process or checks or balances.
Are there examples?
Certainly there are. One is the fact that “we” want much more power over financial transactions, so “we” — that is, Obama — put Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren in charge of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau without the inconvenience of a Senate confirmation or any other kind of open political process. She probably would not have survived a confirmation hearing. Even the left-liberal Senator Chris Dodd warned Obama that she might not be confirmable and objected to his nomination maneuver. Naturally, she is one of “us,” having been a professor of Obama’s at Harvard.
This new bureau can grant itself its own budget and has independent rulemaking authority. It is not subject to the oversight involved in congressional appropriations. But it will largely determine how credit is extended by banks, other financial firms, and even small businesses that grant credit to consumers. It will be a huge office with extensive powers. Its director is an important officer of the government. What about the advice and consent clause? Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution says the president “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint . . . Officers of the United States.” The Wall Street Journal put it this way: “To deflect this question, the president’s lawyers have cobbled together yet another legal fiction. The trick is to give her [Warren] a second appointment. In addition to serving as President Obama's special assistant, she will also serve as a special adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. This allows her to pretend she is Mr. Geithner’s humble consultant when she and her staff come up with an action plan for the new agency. This legalistic gambit serves as a fig leaf for a very different reality: Mr. Geithner will never reject any of Ms. Warren's ‘advice.’ The simple truth is that the Treasury secretary is being transformed into a rubber stamp for a White House staffer.”
Of course “we” also want power over the businesses of medicine and health insurance. By use of a recess appointment and without a debate in the Senate, Obama put Harvard professor and Harvard alumnus Donald Berwick in charge of Medicare. Under ObamaCare, Medicare has extensive new powers to reshape the business of medicine.
Obama and the man he chose to run the newly empowered agency don’t seem to see any difference between actual government-mandated rationing and the “rationing” that occurs through individual cost-based decisions resulting from a market for services. Berwick said, “The decision is not whether or not we will ration care — the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open.” And the White House, according to the Wall Street Journal, issued an internal memo with this talking point: “The fact is, rationing is rampant in the system today, as insurers make arbitrary decisions about who can get the care they need. Don Berwick wants to see a system in which those decisions are transparent — and that the people who make them are held accountable.”
Stunning spin. That really is the same as my saying that Ferraris are being unfairly rationed, because I can’t afford one.
By the way, don’t ever think that Obama’s Harvard “we” means “my constituents and I” or even “my supporters and I.” To know how he really thinks and acts, observe him in a tight spot. My definition of “character” is how you behave under pressure. By October 2010, with midterm elections coming up and his party on the ropes, President Obama was under some pressure. So he said it would be “inexcusable” for Democrats to sit out the November 2nd elections, given the stakes for the country and the potential consequences for their own agenda. He went on to criticize the enthusiasm gap between energized Republicans and members of his own party. Asked about his party’s political troubles, he said, “And so part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument does [sic] not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared, and the country is scared, and they [sic] have good reason to be.”
That really is the same as my saying that Ferraris are being unfairly rationed, because I can’t afford one.
What a linguistic nightmare. Trying to explain why so many of his supporters were abandoning his party, he used another “we” — we the lame-brained human animals who were not admitted to Harvard. Not for a second, though, did he sincerely include himself in the class of great apes not smart enough to “think clearly” when fear strikes. No, he made that very clear. In the same sentence, he ungrammatically shifted to the second person plural, saying, “They have good reason to be [scared].” There, I have to agree.
The idea is that the president is right and rational and, if you voted Republican in 2010, you are scared and irrational. But don’t worry. The president will take some falsely modest blame for the election results. As he told a reporter for the New York Times, “Given how much stuff was coming at us, we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right. There is probably a perverse pride in my administration — and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top — that we were going to do the right thing even if short-term it was unpopular.” Allow me to translate that into Obama’s Harvard-we voice: “We spent all of our time figuring out how to make you do what is best for you, and not enough time telling you fairy tales.”
Obama’s own aides, it seems, learned a little wisdom and humility, unlike their boss:
"It’s not that we believed our own press or press releases, but there was definitely a sense at the beginning that we could really change Washington,” another White House official told me. "‘Arrogance’ isn’t the right word, but we were overconfident." (New York Times, October 17, 2010)
Yet the question remains: what were they “overconfident” about? What did they want to “change”? All the evidence indicates that these apparatchiks, as well as their boss, were overconfident about their ability to change “they” into “we,” to turn a set of blinkered, bigoted, undereducated elitists into a committee with absolute power over everyone else. Pardon me if I fail to sympathize.
Michael Christian is an ex-expatriate in California trying to avoid working a real job.
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