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A Long Response to a Short Tweet About Obama’s Speech to Schoolchildren

Posted by oshane | Leave a comment at the end of this post.

My brother posted a tweet on Twitter, which I reproduce below.  My response to him required more than one or several tweets, so I emailed him.  He suggested I blog this.  I have edited it slightly, because the email had no prior proofreading.

For context: I, myself, succeeded greatly in public schools.  I graduated high school summa cum laude with a perfect 4.0 cumulative average and maybe received one B in middle school and one S- in first grade.  Other than that, my grades and behavior were exemplary.

From your tweet:
Obama speechgate is so stupid! Have you read the transcript?! How is advocating personal responsibility socialist?!

Allow me to give you a few quotations from Obama’s speech (per the transcript) and respond to them in-line.  Quotations are indented1.  My commentary is not.

I will demonstrate that it is socialism par excellence and that it would be so if a Republican were making the speech too.

I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.

Why does the government have responsibility for education at all?  One can only assume it does or should if one believes a) that government should create laws to compel children to school and do so at the implied point of a gun and b) that government should take your money (or someone’s money) to pay for it.

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.

Clearly assumed in this statement is that government mandated education is not only the responsibility of the other agents listed, but also the responsibility of the student.  That is, he is persuading his audience to be willing and active participants in a system in which they largely have no or little choice.  They are required to attend upon penalty of punishment, so he is also advocating they attend cheerfully and good faith.  True, they will not “succeed” at education, by whatever standards he or public school administrators define success, if they do not put in the effort, but that is not the issue.  At issue is whether the speech is socialist, and the mere fact that the federal government is involved at all in education is a form of socialism to some degree.  That Obama is taking time out of his busy presidential schedule to reinforce his views that public school is an unmitigated good for which students should care and tend reinforces his own belief in socialism.

Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.
. . .
And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it.

President Obama is impliedly conflating the word education in these facially arguably true statements with public education.

What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

This is a patent falsity, but good propaganda.  Does he really think that the so-called greatest challenges can be met by what an 8th grader learned on his first day of middle school, or rather, that they will be outcome-determinative for the nation?  No, but it is excellent advertising for public schooling.

You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

My bemusement at the juxtaposition of “critical thinking skills” and social studies and the implied meta-theory that the highest form of thought lies in the social sciences rather than in something more fundamentally logical, i.e., mathematics, aside, it is socialist to consider poverty to be the first ill to be fought and to conflate crime and discrimination.  Discrimination is not (or should not be) criminal.  Discrimination is an ugly form of treatment that is uncontrollable in a so-called free society except by peer pressure.  Obama is using the bully pulpit to exert pressure, but criminalizing speech and most forms of behavior tends toward socialism as practiced for a century all over the world – in a way that strips people of freedom.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

An honest subordinate clausal ending of the sentence would have stated, “because if you are all not productive, then we will have a smaller bounty of gross national product to tax.”

But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude.

Why not?  Why should family problems not take paramount precedence over schoolwork?  He is essentially stating that the fealty of the student to the government institution comes first.  He couches it in the form of the student helping himself, but again, the student effectively has no choice to participate, so it’s a false statement commending the audience to pride their work.

That’s why today, I’m calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education – and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book. Maybe you’ll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community.

Why does community volunteerism have anything to do with school or education in the hard subjects proper?  More propaganda. In fact, the mere fact that government is positively moralizing certain kinds of behavior (beyond negatively moralizing against violent behavior, usually in the form of a basic criminal law), demonstrates a belief that government’s role is to paternalize and moralize to people. That is also part of socialism.

If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.

Or it means that you realize at the core of your being that school is a form of prison and you are rebelling.  Or it means that school is ineffective at teaching, because its mesmerizing commands and structure have sucked the joy out of learning for you.

It’s the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation.

Actually, no.  Now President Obama is farcically rewriting history.  Most of the founding fathers were entirely privately or self-educated.  They learned by reading on their own time; they, mostly, came from moneyed families and learned at their leisure.  George Washington stated, “I am a soldier so that my son can be a farmer so that his son can be a philosopher.”  Washington recognized that a) education and success required an environment where the equality of man was recognized (not in a British peerage system) and b) that the highest forms of thinking required the productivity of past generations to enable it — that it wasn’t automatic for everyone.  The founding fathers did not, as a whole, sit in schools taught with a large cohort of age-peers in the same grinding manner.

Furthermore, they waged a revolution, because the people were totally fed up with the British system of searches for contraband, which required no warrant, and with the imposition of high taxes by a Crown in a faraway land.  How much were “high” taxes?  The Sugar Act prescribed a 3% tax on each gallon of sugar.  Its follow-up Stamp Act required about as much to file paperwork.  3%.  What do we pay in taxes now?  Our founding fathers fought a revolution for freedom from taxes that were up to 18 times less than what we pay now (in some instances).

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be?

To contribute, one must have an object.  To whom should the students contribute?  Society?  The government?  How about to themselves, for themselves and for their families?  No, clearly the implication is a far greater number of worthy beneficiaries than just one’s own family, which smacks of socialism.

I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn.

“I am continuing to enforce taxation regulations, i.e. the taking of assets, money and property at the implied point of a gun and prison, to ensure that money is expropriated from the haves to give to you children, the have-nots, in order for you to learn in this government-controlled environment.”


Never mind the fact that one of the ten pillars of communism is compulsory public education for children.

1 In the original email, I italicized, and such was this word. I chose to indent on the web for readability

23 Responses to “A Long Response to a Short Tweet About Obama’s Speech to Schoolchildren”

  1. chevas says:

    I got owned. GJ O.

    My brother schools me on why the Obama speech actually does relay socialist undertones:

  2. Brian R says:

    Thanks, O.Shane, for posting this thoughtful response.

    Now will you write a post explaining why everyone freaks out at the merest hint of the ‘S’ word? I am always leery when opponents to an idea (or speech or whatever) dismiss it with little more than one word. I am admittedly not well educated on the subject of Socialism and the USA’s (or the Republicans’) seemingly unthinking rejection of anything remotely resembling Socialism and would benefit from a primer from a thoughtful American’s point of view.

    As I see it, ‘Socialism’, at least in the way it is used in the media and in partisan rhetoric, is no longer a helpful term. It is so taboo, so caricatured, so charged with vague affiliations with amorphous, unquestioned badness, that it becomes a sort of trump card that sweeps away any thoughtful, nuanced discussion.

    Politically, Obama can’t afford to admit how Socialist his leanings are, but in my imagined ideal world he could say, “So what? Maybe I do subscribe to some Socialist ideas. Let’s talk about why that is or is not a bad thing.” But of course that’s asking too much. It’s easier to appeal to the arational and irrational sides of human beings. Not to mention it would take too long.

    So what say you? Care to enlighten a politically undereducated resident alien?

    • O.Shane says:

      Brian, I apologize for taking so long to respond, but I liked your question and its attendant thoughtfulness.

      Americans have traditionally had strident reactions against the concept of Socialism, because Communism (the more extreme version) arose at about the time that the United States was affirming industrial capitalism both culturally and legally.

      There were a string of cases in the late 19th century and early 20th century at the Supreme Court that affirmed the Freedom to Contract and continued to do so more fervently after the Bolshevik Revolution.

      The Bolsheviks, for their belief that wealth should be violently transferred to ensure ‘equality,’ struck us as, well, the morally equivalent to pillaging, looting and theft.

      Culturally speaking, Americans have always been more strongly independent economically speaking. Yes, we participated in mercantilistic trading (mercantilism is the reliance on government sanction and protection of certain industries) to some extent. But by and large, even the meekest of citizens could buy and sell and make a profit if they wanted without incurring much taxation at all. There were exceptions, but those exceptions, notably, served as the predicate to the vast majority of our political crises up through the Civil War.

      When New England’s trade was harmed by Jefferson’s decision to blockade the United States to protect their ships from the Barbary Pirates, New England threatened secession. Later, the forty years predating the Civil War were marked by a series of significant political disputes over taxation and protectionary tariffs.

      The English in England, even when irritated by taxes, did not rise up against the King. It was the American colonists, a different breed, who felt that most of the money that they earned should be theirs to keep, who rose up. The American Revolution was fought over taxes.

      Taxes, by their nature, are always distributive. For some, the benefits may turn out to be a wash, but by and large, most people who are taxed do not ever see benefits totaling a 100% equivalent of what was taken. For this reason, and for philosophical notions of independence – that man should be independent, largely, from government, Americans have historically looked at taxation with a healthy amount of suspicion.

      Compulsory socialism, by its nature, is concomitant with greater taxation. It denies the worth and the right of the individual to live unfettered and free, because socialism demands a substantial portion of one’s labor to be given to others.

      Since 1937, however, our anathema toward socialism has largely been in name and degree only. Since the Supreme Court in that year began upholding the constitutionality of more federal programs for which there are no clauses in the Constitution, the federal government has expanded rapidly, and has increased the amount of money it takes from Americans in order to fund and redistribute.

      The United States takes a great deal of everyone’s money in the form of income and related taxes, though certainly not as much as is taken by other European countries or Canada. Still, we give lip service to the notion that socialism is bad, but Americans fought a revolution over 3 and 4% taxes. Now we incur 35% income taxes + state income taxes + social security + Medicare + sales + property and all sorts of other taxes that affect us daily.

      The real difference between European governmental spending and American governmental spending is that the civil law and nationalist governments of Europe are able to tax and spend money far more consistently. That is why residents in the Netherlands receive vacation spending money, taken from prior taxes, deposited into their bank accounts like clockwork. American government (again, since 1937) is driven by political pluralism and election cycles. Spending cannot change too drastically, else representatives and senators are voted out of office, and they are always attuned to pleasing the maximum number of their own constituents most of the time. The conflicts of ideals between various states and regions make for very inconsistent spending policy. Because of that, it still doesn’t ‘feel’ socialist from a benefits perspective, because benefits are given out by government in a haphazard manner under inconsistent and conflicting programs. Democratic pluralism in our federal system almost ensures that we have a dizzying array of grotesquely incongruent spending programs.

      It is, thus, easy for us to believe that we do not live under socialism, since most do not receive money from the government. Even social security recipients see the money as theirs because they ‘worked for it’ and paid into the system. There is a view of the system that is markedly American, because even though the notion of being taxed to later receive benefits is socialism, most of us believe the idea that we individually deserve what we receive, because it was ours to begin with, because we originally earned it (even if most do not realize that the amounts they receive have no real relationship to what they previously earned).

      We have been living under a de facto socialism for decades, tempered only in some cases by jurisdictional federalism (a Californian’s state income tax will not fund anyone outside California, for example). Still, however, politicians invoke the specter of socialism when they want support from constituents against this bill or that bill, but who will readily spend (and thereby tax) in other areas. So I agree with you, socialism is largely partisan rhetoric, or rather, bipartisan rhetoric, since there is little fiscal difference between either major party in the United States. Both are willing to tax (or print-cum-inflate) and spend, the key differences are the targets of the spending.


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