‘You didn’t build that’ and the Jews

When a charismatic politician starts rallying an angry crowd against successful people who think they’re smart and hardworking, start worrying. It rarely ends well for us.

If a gaffe is when a politician accidentally reveals his actual feelings. President Obama may have committed his worst last week:

“Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. [Audience: Right!] You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. [Derisive laughter] There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. [Applause]
“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. [Audience: Right!] Somebody else made that happen.

Presumably the president meant to limit himself to a simple platitude like “you didn’t build that all alone, other people helped make that happen.” But he got swept up in the applause and derisive laughter of those with a lot of anger and scorn toward people who have been successful.

Once again, President Obama’s statements helped turn him into a punch line. It also framed the most central issue of the election in perfect terms for Governor Romney. The president already told Charles Gibson that he’d support higher capital gains tax rates even if it led to less tax revenue, “for the purposes of fairness.” This latest gaffe puts his scorn toward successful people at the center of the growth vs. redistribution debate. Further, it lets Romney argue that the president’s anti-success rhetoric is preventing a cultural and economic recovery:

When you attack success … you will see … less success. I will celebrate success, reward success, encourage it, help it and our kids and families will be a more successful and a prosperous nation with more jobs and rising income. That’s the direction for America. Not this denigration of success and achievement in America.”
“And among the rights given to us not by government but by our creator, are our right to life, and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. People in this country are free to pursue happiness as we choose. We’re not limited by the circumstance of our birth. This idea of criticizing and attacking success, of demonizing those in all walks of life who’ve been successful is something which is so foreign to us, we simply cannot understand it.

This meme also reflects on the Israel story.

Did the Jews take a desolate piece of land and revive it? Do you believe that for millennia this land acted no differently from the 99.4% of the Middle East still controlled by Arabs? People who think the Jews built Israel have a certain context for evaluating the sources and solutions to inequalities.

But what if you believe that somebody else made it happen? That the UN created Israel because Jews made the world feel guilty about the Holocaust? That somebody else made whatever wealth and freedom exist here happen.

What a peculiar phrase — “somebody else made that happen.” Not “other people,” but “somebody else,” singular, implying some individual entity that’s being denied credit. And not “somebody else did that,” which would at least acknowledge that somebody did something, but “made that happen.” The word “happen” is one of those weasel words that implies that something occurred on its own. When somebody says, “I’m sorry that happened,” it’s quite different from “I’m sorry I did that.” There’s a reluctance to acknowledge human power and responsibility. Or is it just that “other people did that” would have sounded too stupid?

But I digress. If success, wealth, growth and freedom just happen, then inequalities are unfair and we should spend our time correcting them. We shouldn’t focus on creating things, because that stuff just happens. But what if success, wealth, growth and freedom are primarily caused by people? Then we should focus on how to help others achieve the same successes as we achieved.

The same goes for bad things. If you don’t give people credit for their successes, you probably don’t hold them accountable for any of their actions. So if a man walks into an ice cream store and murders women and children, it’s because of the poverty. He didn’t do that. Or if a man straps on explosives and walks on to a school bus, well, somebody else made that happen.

If you liked this post, please share it. If you didn’t, don’t blame me. I didn’t build it.

About the Author
Gil Reich is the author of If You Write My Story, which helps kids deal with life, love, and loss. He is also co-founder of internet marketing and development company Managing Greatness. Previously Gil was VP of Product Management at Answers.com. He has been a popular speaker at internet marketing conferences around the world.