Friday, September 18, 2009

Angry Americans

One by one they stood up to speak their minds. At town hall meetings across the country, angry Americans, their voices muted by the mainstream media, spent the summer telling their representatives who is the real boss.

While many of them voted for this president and this Congress, they did not think they were voting for what they are seeing. Feeling defrauded they were standing up in opposition.

For their pains they have been treated with contempt. Congressional leaders have called them un-American evil-mongers. Administration satraps have questioned their sanity, defamed their character, and disparaged their motives. Dim-witted celebrities have ridiculed their intelligence.

And, in what was surely one of his strangest rhetorical flourishes, President Obama declared that these everyday Americans had caused the problem. He advised them to stop talking and get out of the way.

Why would they not be angry? The ruling class has been assaulting their honor, their integrity, and their dignity. When someone attacks your pride, anger is the normal reaction. Not because it will restore your pride, but because it tells your adversary to back off and apologize.

It is not a Republican cabal. Many of those who have come out to town halls and tea parties voted for Barack Obama. Most of them have wanted him to succeed.

Last November, at a time of grave financial crisis, they invested the nation's pride in Barack Obama. They had believed that he could restore our diminished self-confidence and morale.

They saw a President Obama leading the nation by standing tall and proud. A new symbol of our greatness, he would remind the world of our past glories and show the way to better tomorrows.

If that was their hope, they are still waiting.

People are not just angry because their personal pride has been attacked. It is a bad idea to write off policy differences as a function of personal pique.

In fact, people are angry because President Obama has dissipated the nation's pride in an exercise that resembles a moral Ponzi scheme.

Income redistribution was bad enough. Less concretely, but more importantly, the president has been redistributing American pride. Those who are most sensitive to this scheme are the senior citizens who have spoken out so clearly at town halls.

Senior citizens worked hard all their lives, fought for the country, and had seen their friends and family die for it. They did it willingly because their lives had taken on meaning for being part of a great enterprise. They worked to build a great and proud nation.

Far from respecting their outstanding achievements, Barack Obama began his presidency by apologizing for America. He bowed down to the King of Saudi Arabia, trafficked in moral equivalences, alienated our allies, placated our enemies, and invited the world to identify us by our worst, not our best.

Obama seemed to imagine that American greatness lay exclusively in his person. Everything that had gone before could be discarded, the better to illuminate his glory.

Obama declared that our victories were tarnished. We had done bad things; we were not standing atop the moral high ground; we had committed grievous crimes. Our successes were failures; they were gained by corrupt practices.

In the end, we were not the international alpha male. We were no better than anyone else. Our pride was arrogance; our confidence a sham.

Obama's America was not strong and proud. It was weak and guilt-ridden. It was atoning for the sins of the past, wanting desperately to be liked by its critics, not caring whether it was respected or trusted by its allies.

How could its citizens not be angry? They were watching an American president working to diminish a great nation, a nation whose pride and honor they had built and maintained.

In one sense Obama was an original. World leaders never, ever travel around the world repudiating their countries' successes. How can you lead a nation when you have showcased its failures and diminished its accomplishments?

You cannot lead people after you have stripped them of the pride they take in belonging to your group. Viscerally people understand that the pride Obama has been handing out like so many alms is their pride, pride they worked for and fought for.

Whether or not there was a method to this moral reset, there was a theory behind it. The theory said that our successes and our victories had made other people feel bad.

Winning creates losers, and losing feels bad. Then, losers resent winners. If there are no winners, there are no losers, and if there are no losers everyone will like everyone else.

So, Obama set out to change the culture. He would jettison a culture that valued competitive striving through hard work and replace it with a culture of caring. If you are wondering how Obama can imagine that health care reform will solve the nation's financial dilemma, the answer is that he wants to transform the culture, directing it away from competition and victory, toward care and empathy.

Americans elected Barack Obama in the midst of a major financial crisis. They thought they were voting for a leader who would inspire them to work their way out of the crisis, to restore American greatness.

If so, they misread him. Once in power Obama started attacking the financial community. In his mind markets were merely a way for the rich to exploit the poor. He was acting as though the financial crisis was... justice.

It was not an aberration, a setback on the road to greatness. It was the truth of the market-based economy. The whole system had been systemically corrupt. The nation's values, its competitive spirit, its faith in free markets and free trade, were defective.

Obama thought that he had received a mandate to perform radical surgery on the American way of life. If so, he seems to have misread his mandate. At the least, we can hope.

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