If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.
Thanks to an old friend, I revisited the now-famous, allegedly anti-business Obama quote that’s getting conservatives’ dander up across the country. My thinking, though, led me in a slightly different direction than my friend might have hoped. Being a supporter of Obama, I would suspect he might hope that my conclusions might be a little more left-leaning.
Anyone notice what I did there? Hopefully someone asked the question, “Wait — who is the supporter of Obama? You or your friend?” I purposely concluded that paragraph with a sentence using an English teacher’s old nemesis: the dangling participle. Technically, that “being a support of Obama” modifies the nearest noun or pronoun, in this case, “I.” Yet I don’t think many people doubt that I certainly don’t support Obama, though I did vote for him in 2008. Then again, maybe not everyone knows that.
Oh, see, I did it again. This time, I used one of English teachers’ other enemies: the unclear pronoun antecedent. Just what was I referring to when I said “Then again, maybe not everyone knows that?” Just what is “that” taking the place of? There are two possibilities:
- “Yet I don’t think many people doubt that I certainly don’t support Obama”
- “though I did vote for him in 2008″?
In this case, it could be either of the two. We just don’t know what I might have been referring to when I said some people don’t know “that.”
Looking back at what Obama said, it’s clear that he’s not being the blatantly anti-business ideologue everyone on the right is accusing him of being.
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.
What is he referring to when he says, “you didn’t build that“? Technically, as with my first example, it’s modifying the nearest possible agent, in this case, the subordinate clause, “If you’ve got a business.” But look earlier: “Someone invested in roads and bridges.” Could it be that that is the “that” that he’s referring to?
See how confusing “that” can be? It serves so many roles in our language. Among others:
- Demonstrative pronoun: “That is stupid.”
- Demonstrative adjective: “That idea is stupid.”
- Relative pronoun: ”On the plus side, death is one of the few things that can be done just as easily lying down.” (Woody Allen)
Is it any wonder that that “that” can get just a bit confusing? In other languages, there is differentiation, different words entirely, but not in English.
Obama made a grammatical error. It happens all the time, to all of us.
Granted, Obama should not have even said “that” if he were referring to “roads and bridges.” He should have said “those,” which would have eliminated the confusion. And this leads to a likely conservative rebuttal: “Alright, so he made a grammar boo-boo. It’s a slip, though, that is nothing more than a manifestation of his anti-business ideology.” Possibly, but I don’t see that we can make that claim here. It was an error: in spoken English, even the best of us make mistakes like dangling participles and unclear pronoun antecedents.
Still, it is worrying that so many are making such a big deal out of this. It makes the right look relatively foolish, especially when (and here’s where my liberal friend will likely begin disagreeing with me) what he said was a thousand times worse than merely a clumsy anti-business remark. Look at the whole context of that “that,” with some of my emphasis added:
We’ve already made a trillion dollars’ worth of cuts. We can make some more cuts in programs that don’t work, and make government work more efficiently…We can make another trillion or trillion-two, and what we then do is ask for the wealthy to pay a little bit more …
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me, because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. 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. 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.
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.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for president — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.
Obama is not simply suggesting that businesses succeed because of others’ work; he’s suggesting that because of that, those who succeed owe something to those who didn’t. He’s suggesting that the only fair thing is to ask those who are successful to pay more than those who are not successful. After all, they got successful off of our hard work as well as theirs. They rode our backs to success. Their success depends on us.
Isn’t that starting to sound familiar? Say, Moscow, circa 1915? No, I’m not suggesting that this is an attempt to recreate a communist revolution in America. I’m not even convinced one can say Obama is a socialist. I do see myself as a right-leaning moderate, after all.
Still, it strikes me as yet another attempt to frame this whole issue in terms of class struggle. “Dang it, those rich folks used our roads to run their dump trucks on to build their fortune.”
So what do we do? We “ask the wealthy to pay a little bit more.”
Yet this is missing the obvious point: the rich did help pay for those roads, and if certain figures I’ve heard bandied about are to be believed, they in fact paid a great deal for those roads. Not only that, but they often are paying for services they aren’t getting: if they chose to spend money to send their children to private schools, they’re paying taxes for public education and tuition for private education. That’s a choice they have and are free to make, but taking that into consideration, it seems a little odd to complain about how they’re not paying their fair share.
So it seems conservatives are really missing the significance of this speech. Obama made a grammar goof that they’re jumping all over while ignoring the real issues in his ideology.
They’re hearing what they want to hear.
Of course, being human, liberals are also guilty of that charge, but that’s for a later post.