President Barack Obama has been at it again. Back in 2012, he told American entrepreneurs “You didn’t build that.” His point, such as it was, was that those who work hard, work smart, and create successful businesses should be thankful to the government for providing infrastructure and assorted other taxpayer-funded programs that are essential to any going concern. The government, not they, deserved credit for their success, and so has a right to call on them to contribute ever more to its tax coffers and impose ever more regulations in what it deems the public interest. Recently, in delivering a commencement address at Howard University, the president doubled down on his statist ethic by telling college graduates that their own success is the product of mere luck and they, in effect, must become Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) who use government to rearrange society to make it more “fair.”Mr. Obama told graduating students at Howard not to take pride in their talent and hard work. Instead, they should see their success as a kind of accident, a stroke of luck denied others no less deserving than themselves. A number of commentators have reprinted the core of Mr. Obama’s message, but it bears closer scrutiny because it tells us a great deal about the mindset of the current administration and of far too many in our corrupt, prideful ruling class. For Mr. Obama’s attempt to shame Howard graduates is part and parcel of the ideology of victimization, the politics of resentment, and the demand for ever-more government action to rearrange our society and our very characters—things that have done great harm to our society, our Constitution, and our way of life.
According to Mr. Obama,
We can’t just lock up a low-level dealer without asking why this boy, barely out of childhood, felt he had no other options. We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.
And that means we have to not only question the world as it is, and stand up for those African Americans who haven’t been so lucky—because, yes, you’ve worked hard, but you’ve also been lucky. That’s a pet peeve of mine: People who have been successful and don’t realize they’ve been lucky. That God may have blessed them; it wasn’t nothing you did. So don’t have an attitude.
Because Howard is a Historically Black College (HBC), it is natural that Mr. Obama would speak to the students as African Americans (though not all of them are). But note the tone in which he addresses them, and note the underlying assumptions concerning individual character and the nature of the United States as a society and a people. The drug dealer simply must have “felt he had no other options.” If smart and talented people fail to succeed (and apparently for Mr. Obama we all are equally smart and talented) they simply must have “got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.” And those who do succeed must not “have an attitude” that says they are in any sense better than those who have succumbed to the unjust, unfair structures of our society that are the only barriers standing in the way of success. Neither, apparently, must successful people give back to their communities through personal actions, by participating in the families, churches, and local associations that shape most people’s lives. Instead, they must see their task as using the government to change society as a whole, to tear down and rebuild “structures that are unfair and unjust.”
Life is just a crap shoot, according to Mr. Obama, with the odds stacked against the oppressed by an illegitimate power structure.
That we do not choose our origins is obvious. That our origins matter greatly in shaping who we are and to shaping the opportunities with which we begin life is equally obvious. But Mr. Obama’s sadly unsurprising language is that of the most radical of campus radicals, the most radical among those who deny the grounds for free and open government in America. In a less resentful tone, this radicalism was that of the socialist academic, Michael Harrington, most active during the 1960s and 1970s. Harrington’s academic work and activism were rooted in the declaration that we do not own our own talents and characters. He was part of a broader radicalism, carried on in the angry realm of today’s Critical Legal Studies, Critical Race Theory, and other academic ideologies, that claim social structures are the root of human character, that none of us “deserves” our place in life, and that the state should rearrange our institutions, our life options, and of course our economics to establish substantive equality. Few people actually believe this nonsense outright. Fewer still are willing to give up their own privileges to equalize things for others. But Mr. Obama is happy to perpetuate the rhetoric of resentment and state-worship as a means of tearing down “structures” he deems illegitimate. Now, at the nadir of his presidency, it seems obvious that for Mr. Obama those structures include pretty much every aspect of our lives, from the economy, to the university, to the public school, to the family.
None of this is to say that luck is not an element in one’s success or failure in the world. One is lucky if one is born into a good family that helps one develop the character traits and attitudes necessary to succeed. Thanks in large measure to decades of government policies openly hostile to family formation, three-quarters of African Americans in contemporary America are denied the good luck of being born into a stable two-parent household. And, given the horrible shape of our public education system, children of wealth and privilege like Mr. Obama’s (who have attended some of the most expensive private schools in the country) are supremely lucky. They are far more likely to graduate and go on to good colleges than most other Americans.
I save for another time consideration of the horror show of sky-high costs, dormitory self-indulgence and intellectual squalor that has become college life. One is lucky, in effect, if one comes out of college with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed and make a contribution to society. Increasingly, the college experience is more likely to inculcate an attitude of resentment qualifying one only to join the ranks of SJWs and community activists. And this means one will spend one’s life scolding people and using a combination of poisonous rhetoric and uncivil conduct to bully them into allowing the government to rearrange and run their lives.
May we all have the “luck” to work with our families, friends, and co-workers to develop in our children the habits and virtues necessary to resist this sirens’ song of arrogant resentment. May we have the “luck” to restore our families, churches, and local associations, now struggling under the thumb of an angry federal government, to reestablish self-governance for themselves and the persons who make them up, so that we may relearn and pass on the character of a free people. May we have the “luck” to take the good with the bad in our own backgrounds and instill in ourselves and our posterity an appreciation for what we have and a determination to make it better, rather than destroying it in the attempt to remake it in our own image.
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