For People Who Think

October 21, 2011

Here’s Looking at You…. by Dan Lynch

Filed under: Uncategorized — 4peoplewhothink @ 8:33 pm

Here’s Looking at You …

October 19, 2011 at 10:32

The first person I thought of when I heard about the flap between Elizabeth Warren and George Will was Rick Blaine.

Warren, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Massachusetts Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy, said that people who make big bucks in business in this country owe much of that success to the government’s contributions in the form of schooling, public utilities, police and fire protection. That, she said, is what makes progressive taxation fair, especially at a time when less fortunate people are suffering so conspicuously.

George F. Will, conservative thinker and columnist, responded that Warren’s “collectivist” view is “antithetical to America’s premise, which is: Government – including such public goods as roads, schools and police – is instituted to faciliate individual striving, a.k.a., the pursuit of happiness.”

All I could of was, “How would Rick react to all that?”

One of American cinema’s most memorable characters is Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine in “Casablanca.” World-weary and proudly cynical as war looms between the United States and Hitler’s Germany, saloon owner Blaine early in the film describes his nationality as “drunkard.” The only cause that interests him, he proclaims early in the movie, is him.

By film’s end, though, Rick has undergone a striking change of heart. At Casablanca’s airport, he tells his girlfriend, Ilsa, that she must go off with her Czech freedom fighter husband and support him in his noble task of battling the Nazis. She can’t run off with Rick and spend the rest of her life with him, as they’d planned. Rick, too, plans to fight the Nazis.

Ilsa is shocked at Rick’s sudden flip-flop. She says, “But what about us? …I said I would never leave you.”

Rick then tells her, “And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world…”

The America of 1942, a nation of rugged individualists if ever there was one, loved that movie. It got the Oscar. Its theme was self-sacrifice – the subjugation of individual self-interest to the welfare of the larger community in time of crisis. Yeah, sure, everybody understood and sympathized with Rick’s early self-focus in a difficult, dangerous and treacherous world, but that film hit the screen during an era when Americans, regardless of their political views, understood that in time of national crisis we’re all in this together – and that we all need one another for most of us to succeed in the long run.

That, ultimately, is what civilization is about. That’s why human beings got together in the first place. That’s essentially Elizabeth Warren’s point when she maintains that people who succeed conspicuously in this society owe a big portion of that success to the benefits that civilized society provides. George Will condemns that view as an example of “the collectivist agenda.” I don’t know if he would similarly characterize public sewerage systems, but that’s the logical extension of his point of view.

Will’s argument is that government’s sole purpose is to “facilitate individual striving.” That’s certainly one purpose of the government created by Madison, Franklin, et al, but hardly the only purpose. The best indication of what the Framers had in mind as government’s proper role is to be found in what they wrote about that role.

The purpose of the federal government, they wrote in the Constitution’s preamble, is to “… establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty …”

Justice is like beauty; it exists in the eye of the beholder. That whole domestic tranquility thing suffered a bit of a setback in 1861. It’s clear, however, that the Framers were at least as concerned with the general welfare as they were with individual liberty. Quite clearly, what they were after was a fair and rational balancing of those interests when they come into conflict, as will often occur in discussions of taxation and government power.

It’s absurd, however, for anybody to argue seriously that the creators of this nation did not expect some sacrifice on the part of some citizens for the benefit of all citizens. The Framers were exceedingly smart guys. If that’s what they’d meant, that’s what they would have written; they didn’t.

That doesn’t mean that the general citizenry should enjoy a bottomless entitlement to the wealth accumulated by productive people, and only a tiny percentage of Americans believe that it should. It also does not mean that productive people can claim all the credit for their success for themselves. Herman Cain, who proclaimed the other day that if you’re not rich it’s your own fault, is a classic example. He’s clearly a bright, purposeful, energetic guy, but would Herman Cain have become Herman Cain without the Civil Rights Act, without the Voting Rights Act, without the actions taken by the federal government to clear the path to success for African Americans?

The fact is that Herman Cain might well have become Herman Cain without those government actions, but the odds would have been longer for him – considerably longer, actually. It says something not terribly complimentary about Herman Cain that he lacks either the character or the self-awareness to acknowledge that.

This battle over what America really stands for has raged on since long before I drew my first breath. It’s essentially a battle between people who respect the obligation of membership in a larger community and people whose general mindset is, “Screw everybody but me.”

That’s why the Americans of 1942 fell in love with Rick Blaine’s epiphany that life in the real world involved something more than his own desires. At the time, Americans faced a common enemy whose danger to all was obvious even to the most dim-witted among us.

Today, this country has 25 million people looking for fulltime jobs – one out of five of us in the workforce. Yet a disturbingly high number of the four out of five people who still have jobs and income don’t grasp how that situation can adversely affect them.

They lack the knowledge of history to understand how corrosive and universally devastating large-scale, long-term unemployment can be to a society. They don’t grasp the dangers of immense disparities in wealth – of people at the top of the heap getting richer and richer over decades while the masses grow ever poorer, day by grinding day.

They know nothing about the forces that gave birth to the French Revolution or to the Nazis a century and a half later. They simply don’t see how somebody else’s enormous economic problem is their problem, too.

So, while loudly annunciating their fervent love of country, they hide behind utterly false interpretations of this nation’s founding principles. They ignore words meticulously chosen by the Framers, and they cling to the totally fallacious view that success involves only effort, drive and individual commitment. To them, there’s no such thing as luck, no such thing as disadvantage, no virtue in community, no universal benefit to be derived from a public support system designed with the goal of giving everybody an equal chance.

“Casablanca” was fiction – great fiction that celebrated the concepts of altruism and mutual obligation. The mindset that I’ve just described is also fiction.

But it’s hardly reassuring as a window on human nature.

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