By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. Originally published at at Down With Tyranny. GP article here
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
Sometimes the thing that matters is not the thing seen, but the way of seeing it. Thus it is, I think, with Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s words in a speech Trump gave before the Republican national convention.
What They Said
“From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect. They taught and showed me values and morals in their daily life. …
“Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
“And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: like, you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond, that you do what you say you’re going to do, that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them and even if you don’t agree with them. …
“Because we want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
Now for two ways of looking at this event, we turn to two “blackbirds,” writers who’ve examined the story in some detail.
David Frum: “Plagiarism draws attention to content of the passage plagiarized”
David Frum reacted to this clear literary theft by focusing on Trump. In a piece in The Atlantic entitled “Ten Reasons Why Melania Trump’s Speech Will Have a Lasting Impact,” he wrote this…
9) Plagiarism draws attention to content of the passage plagiarized. In 2008, Michelle Obama summed up the values that she had learned from her parents and that she and Barack Obama now tried to instill in their children: work hard; tell the truth; keep your promises; treat others with dignity and respect. Donald Trump epically does not tell the truth, does not keep his promises, and does not treat others with dignity and respect. A plagiarized speech (and the failure to detect the plagiarism) pretty strongly confirms that the Trumps do not much care about hard work, either. “Thine own mouth condemneth thee, and not I: yea, thine own lips testify against thee.”
…which proves, to my mind, that he missed his own point: “Plagiarism draws attention to content of the passage plagiarized.” The eye of his blackbird, in other words, looked at the subject, then looked away. We need to consider what both of these women actually said, the actual message.
Is What Michelle Obama Said a True Statement?
Consider for a second the bare statement — “the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them” (Obama’s version). Is this true? Is it true that if you dream big enough and work hard enough, the “limit to the height of your achievements” disappears?
Obviously not. As a young high school graduate, working summers in a General Motors assembly plant to earn college money, I saw hundreds of men and women, many the lowest of the low, the sweepers, for example, whose lives mark “lie” to that statement. The next time you stay in a hotel, look at the woman who cleans your room and ask if she’s where she is because she won’t work hard. Most people like these are trapped, the way billions are trapped around the world, working in powerless service to others for the scraps those others allow them?
Oren Nimni: Obama’s statement “is an insult to every tomato-picker and hotel cleaner in the country”
The fact that Michelle Obama’s statement is blatantly false (and that a woman of color in the United States said it) is revealing. Current Affairs writer Oren Nimni on that (emphasis in original):
If anything, the whole plagiarism scandal reflects somewhat poorly on Michelle Obama. One reason Obama’s words were able to play so well at the RNC was that in the lifted passages, Obama was speaking using the conservative language of “bootstrapping.” Obama’s sentence, that “the only limit” to one’s achievements is the height of one’s goal and the “willingness to work” toward it, is the Republican story about America. It’s the story of personal responsibility, in which the U.S. is overflowing with opportunity, and anyone who fails to succeed in such a land of abundance must simply not be trying hard enough.
People on the left are supposed to know that it is a cruel lie to tell people that all they need to do is work hard. There are plenty of people with dreams who work very hard indeed but get nothing, because the American economy is fundamentally skewed and unfair. This rhetoric, about “hard work” being the only thing needed for the pursuit of prosperity, is an insult to every tomato-picker and hotel cleaner in the country. It’s a fact that those who work the hardest in this country, those come home from work exhausted and who break their backs to feed their families, are almost always rewarded the least.
Far from embarrassing Melania Trump and the GOP, then, it should be deeply humiliating for Democrats that their rhetoric is so bloodless and hollow that it can easily be spoken word-for-word in front of a gang of crazed racists. Instead of asking “why is Melania Trump using Michelle Obama’s words?” we might think to ask “why is Michelle Obama using the right-wing rhetoric of self-reliance?”
This is, of course, the myth of “meritocracy” that Thomas Frank has exposed with scalpel-like precision in his latest book Listen, Liberal. It’s clear that the Democratic Party, at its core, believes with Michelle (and Barack) Obama the comfortable and self-serving lie that no individual has anyone to blame but herself if she fails to achieve high goals. She should just have reached higher; she should just have worked harder.
It’s not only a lie, it’s a “cruel lie,” as Nimni says. So why is she, Michelle Obama, telling it? Clearly it serves her interests, her husband’s interests, her party’s interests, to tell the “rich person’s lie,” that his or her achievement came from his or her own efforts. To call most people’s success a product of luck (right color, right gender, right country, right neighborhood, right schools, right set of un-birth-damaged brain cells) or worse, inheritance (right parents), identifies the fundamental unfairness of our supposed “meritocratic” system of allocating wealth and undercuts the “goodness,” if you look at it writ large, of predatory capitalism. By that measure, neither the very wealthy themselves (Charles Koch, Jamie Dimon) nor those who serve them (Barack Obama et al) are “good” in any moral sense.
(The idea of the supposed “goodness” of the successful capitalist, by the way, his supposed “greater morality,” goes all the way back to the 18th Century attempt of the wealthy to counter the 17th Century bleakness of Protestant predestination. How could people, especially the very rich, know whether they are among the “elect” or the damned? God gives them wealth as a sign of his plans for them, just as God gives them morally deficient poverty-wage workers to take advantage of.)
A Third Blackbird
There’s a third issue arising from all this: What happens now that the Democrats and Republicans are in obvious and complete agreement? Under normal circumstances, not much more than has been happening. But with the rise of Trump, we are not looking at normal circumstances. Do the Democrat see an opportunity?
Answering my question involves a third blackbird, a very political one, with a third way of looking at this story.
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
It involves another attempt to take over the Republican Party, this time by the Clinton-led Democratic leadership. I’ll discuss that in greater detail in a future piece, but it’s pretty clear by now that the Democratic Party thinks that if they attract all but the most crazed Republican voters, they can leave the Republican organization itself to rot, a half-empty shell useless for winning elections for a generation, for whoever may want it.
Blackbird number three says, of course they’re wrong and they’ll pay a price for that, win or lose in November. “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” But more on that thought later.