Charlotte, N.C. — Let’s talk about the other speech.
Yes, Bill Clinton delivered a 48-minute stemwinder to the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night that was so mesmerizing even Republicans praised it. But after the huzzahs for Clinton fade, save a little nod of affirmation for Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a Roman Catholic social justice group. She did not speak long — about seven minutes. Her delivery was not particularly powerful. But with the moral authority of her calling, she did something that has sorely needed doing for some weeks now.
She rebuked “I built that.”
Granted, the rebuke was only implicit: she never specifically mentioned the new GOP slogan of rugged individualism. But it was no less powerful for that.
As should be obvious to any fair observer, this latest spasm of feigned outrage is built upon a lie, i.e., that in a speech in Roanoke, Va., President Obama told business owners they did not build their businesses, that their success was not a product of their own initiative: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”
What Obama actually said in 170 words or so is the same thing Martin Luther King used to say in four: “All life is interrelated.” So if you built a business, said Obama, part of its success is due to the fact that “there was a great teacher somewhere in your life” or that someone sacrificed to “create this unbelievable American system” that allowed you to thrive, or to the fact that “somebody invested in roads and bridges” over which your inventory traveled. Contrary to the GOP narrative, he didn’t deny the importance of initiative. “The point,” he said, “is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
Of course, if it’s true Obama’s comment has been mischaracterized, it’s also true that, contrary to what an inarticulate ad lib and the Democratic spin machine would have you believe, Mitt Romney doesn’t “enjoy firing people.” No surprise there. Building mountain ranges out of sand grains is part and parcel of politics.
What’s vexing, then, is not that the GOP lied but that it seems to believe its own lie. On signs, websites, buttons and T-shirts from the streets to the Web, to the convention hall, “I built this” has become the party’s new war cry.
Enter Sister Campbell. This nun, whose social activism has put her at odds with the Vatican, did not talk business. She talked about the “nuns on the bus” tour she undertook to contest cutbacks to services for vulnerable Americans that would be necessary under the budget envisioned by Romney and his running mate. And about the people she met along the way.
Like the 10-year-old twin boys in Toledo who act as sole caregivers for their bedridden mother. Like “Billy,” from Milwaukee whose job has cut back his hours and who could not make it without food stamps. Like “Jini” in Cincinnati whose sister Margaret lost her job, lost her health insurance and so, lost her life when she was diagnosed with cancer.
“I am my sister’s keeper,” said Campbell. “I am my brother’s keeper.” Can you remember when that went without saying?
This was Obama’s point. In a recent song, Bruce Springsteen put it like this: “We take care of our own.”
And we do. Or at least, we should.
Rugged individualism is great. But in shredding social safety nets while chanting, “I built this,” the GOP doesn’t celebrate individualism so much as deny the interconnectedness of life, scorn the notion of a social covenant or greater good, exile conscience from the public arena. “There but for the grace of God” becomes “Every man for himself.”
On Wednesday, a nun gently reminded us of what should be obvious: “We are better than that.”