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Sep 5, 2012

Michelle Challenges Nineteenth-Century Myth


Official White House portrait of Michelle Obama, 2009.

I’m an unabashed Michelle Obama fan, and my wife is even more so. It’s not just Michelle’s extraordinary set of talents. It’s the way she carries them so gracefully. If her air of humility and naivete is not genuine, then in addition to all those other talents she’s the greatest actress of our time. So as we watched her speech to the Democratic National Convention we ooh-ed and aah-ed over her delivery and her magnetic presence.

But to be honest there was not much interesting substance in the speech beyond the expected, politically necessary words. There was just one sentence that made my wife exclaim, “Good line!”, and I had to agree: “When you've worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”

The Obama campaign has done a pretty good job of creating the impression that Mitt Romney, having walked through that doorway, quickly slammed it behind him. No doubt Romney would protest that it just ain’t so, that he cares as much as any Democrat about reaching back and helping others succeed. And he might very well be telling the truth.

The crucial difference between the two candidates and the two parties is in how they see that metaphorical hand reaching back.

The Republicans see it primarily as an act of charity, a personal decision by individuals who get ahead to reach back and help individuals of their choosing who lag behind. Communities that vote overwhelmingly Republican are filled with churches, clubs, societies, and organizations whose main purpose is to help others. And they do help others, immensely, every day.

It’s a tradition that goes back to colonial times, when its prime motivation was rooted in religion -- as it still is for so many Republicans. Calvinist theology (in the version most popular among the colonists) taught the successful to see themselves as blessed by God and obliged by God to help others less blessed. But it also taught that success was a sign of being right with God, while lack of success showed some flaw in one’s relationship with God. In its cruder (but very popular) form, the message was that lack of success was a sign of sin. So charity was a way not only of giving the sinners a helping hand, but also of publicly reinforcing the message that they were, indeed, sinners.

That tradition continued to dominate the American view of the helping hand through the end of the nineteenth century.

By the early twentieth century, though, a revolution was occurring. The Progressive movement was on the rise, spreading a new message: Lack of success was a sign of failure not by the individual but by societal structures and institutions that limited the individual’s opportunities, no matter how hard he or she worked. That premise dramatically changed the view of the helping hand. Now it had to be not merely a personal decision to bestow charity, but a decision for structural change. Without that change, all the charity in the world would merely perpetuate the problems and insure that some people would lag behind, that they’d never get the help they needed to make it through the doorway of success.

In a democratic republic, structural change can never happen at the whim of one or even many separate individuals. It has to be initiated through the political process. So, in the Progressives’ view, the helping hand had to be extended by the body politic as a whole. And the obvious agent of the body politic is government.

That’s what Michelle Obama meant, of course, when she said, “You reach back”: We, the people, change our laws and policies to make sure everyone can get through that doorway.

Insofar as this election is a choice between those two visions of the helping hand (and that’s just a part, maybe even a small part, of what this election is about), it’s a choice that twenty-first century voters will make between nineteenth century and twenty-first century worldviews -- the stuff that myths are made of. It’s a useful reminder that when a myth is eclipsed, it doesn’t always die. Often it lives on in the shadows, just waiting for a chance to make its comeback. 

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