We were watching The Statue of Liberty, one of Ken Burns’ early documentaries, the other night, and one of Burns’ trademark secondary narrators was Vartan Gregorian, now the President of the Carnegie Corporation, at the time (1985) President of the New York Public Library, at various times before and in between a professor, dean, and president at a number of prestigious colleges and universities, all his life a Christian Armenian born in Iran, and since he was twenty-two, when he came here to study at Stanford University, a resident of the United States. I presume that somewhere along the way he became an American citizen but his biography at Wikipedia doesn’t say when he did or even if he ever did. Doesn’t matter. The point is that the Statue of Liberty as the symbol of the United States as a nation of immigrants has a special meaning to him, and during the course of the film, in answer to a question we don’t hear asked but which is apparently along the lines of What is the greatest threat to individual liberty? he says:
Ignorance is the first threat to liberty. The second is to treat ourselves as economic units rather than as spiritual beings.
Given the subject of the film and what he did with the liberty afforded him by his coming to America, which was to get a world-class college education and the devote his life as a scholar, thinker, and administrator to helping countless others get their educations, I took it that Gregorian was reacting to the idea that people immigrated to the United States just to make money and that the American Dream is simply to get rich.
I also thought, He’s predicting the rise of Mitt Romney! How’d he know?
But here’s the thing. He wasn’t predicting the rise of Mitt Romney. He was watching it. Watching the rise of a thousand young Mitt-a-likes, at any rate. Reagan was President. Greed was good. I Got Mine, You Get Yours and He Who Dies With the Most Toys Win were vying to replace E pluribus unum as the national motto. Instead of Out of the many, one, we were becoming a nation of ones, Number Ones, each looking out for itself.
In Mitt Romney, Republicans have given us the first major Presidential nominee who sees the United States purely as an economic enterprise and all its citizens as economic units.
To him, America is all about success which as far as he seems to believe or care is synonymous with getting rich. This makes him the ideal candidate for the Republican Party these days. Never mind the Tea Party. It’s still the corporatist party, the party of rich people infatuated with themselves as “wealth-creators", which is really their way of pointing out that they have bundles of it and you don’t. The supposedly Christian party believes in nothing so strongly as storing up treasure on earth. Everything else, every good in life, follows from that, from getting rich, from having the money to buy whatever you need and want. And if you don’t have that money, you don’t get to have it, any of it, even if you desperately, desperately need it to keep yourself and your family healthy, sheltered, clothed, and fed.
That was the theme of the Republican Convention. We Built It…We Own It. (Clint finished the thought for them.) Yesterday I said I wanted to turn a Mitt Snit into a meme. His whole convention was a Mitt Snit. Thousands of people got together to express their collective indignation at the President’s suggestion that they owed even a bit of their success to anybody or anything else especially government aid. That they were holding this self-pity fest in a venue that government picked up 62 percent of the tab for while a hurricane was bearing down on them and if it hadn’t veered to the west and had struck Tampa they’d have been screaming for the Feds to come bail them out, literally and figuratively, were ironies entirely lost. Speaker after speaker took to the podium to brag about their successes as self-starting, self-reliant, self-sufficient entrepreneurs, including, risibly, one whose business was started entirely with the help of government loans and survived on government contracts.
There were several messages behind this, not the least insistent of which was that the Republican Party is the party of hard-working, enterprising wealth-creators in contrast with the Democratic Party, the party of Welfare-dependent layabouts, slackers, moochers, and takers. But it was also a come on for the lottery: Vote for Mitt, Vote Republican, and You Can Be Rich Too. Ultimately, though, it was a reduction of the American Dream into a get rich quick scheme and it divided the nation into Those Who Have It and Those Who Don’t and since Those Who Don’t were invisible at the convention, the final message was that only Those Who Have It count.
The whole point of life is to make piles of dough and the United States exists mainly for the care and feeding of millionaires.
This was so blatant and so fundamentally not just un-American but inhuman that folks at The American Conservative noticed and were appalled.
Reacting to Paul Ryan’s speech, which besides the lies included his cramped, Ayn Randian-warped vision of America as a nation of predators, sharpers, and speculators eyeing the main chance, Scott Galupo wrote:
In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there are job creators and entrepreneurs on one side and parasites on the other. There is no account of the vast gray expanse of janitors, waitresses, hotel front-desk clerks, nurses, highway maintenance workers, airport baggage handlers, and taxi drivers. They work hard, but at the end of the day, what can they be said to have “built”?
And Samuel Goldman, noting that “most Americans are not entrepreneurs or business owners” followed up with:
We heard a great deal last night about what a President Romney would do about America’s enemies, at least as John McCain and Condoleeza Rice understand them. We also heard something about Romney’s dedication to freedom, although without much explanation of what that means. But we heard almost nothing about what another Republican administration offers Americans who work jobs rather than “creating” them.
It’s part of the so-called American dream, as Sen. Paul put it, that “any among us can become the next Thomas Edison, the next Henry Ford, the next Ronald Reagan…” Another part is that those who don’t reach the towering heights of achievement can hope for stable lives that include a reasonable measure of comfort. Republicans once endorsed this rather modest ambition. Does anyone believe they care about it now?
A theme of the Burns documentary is that we are a nation of outcasts coming together to help each other make a place---a home---for ourselves in the world. In his Wikipedia entry, Gregorian is quoted reflecting on the all help he got when he first arrived here:
In Palo Alto, an Armenian family adopted me for all Sunday meals and holidays. All of this reinforced my conviction that diasporas are not ghettos—rather they are connecting bridges to larger communities, be it Jewish, be it Irish, be it Chinese, Armenian, Indian, and so forth. I never realized that until then…
At the Republican Convention, the theme was that we don’t need bridges, literal or metaphorical, because there are no communities that need connecting. We’re all on our own in a land of opportunists, each of us a little would-be Mitt on the make.
Read Goldman’s whole post at The American Conservative, We Are Not All Entrepreneurs.