A Question for Bob Herbert: What Do You Mean “We” Kemosabe?

Bob Herbert echoes the frustration many have felt with Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s decision to scuttle the plan to build a much-needed tunnel connecting New Jersey to New York City:

The United States is not just losing its capacity to do great things. It’s losing its soul. It’s speeding down an increasingly rubble-strewn path to a region where being second rate is good enough.
The railroad tunnel was the kind of infrastructure project that used to get done in the United States almost as a matter of routine. It was a big and expensive project, but the payoff would have been huge. It would have reduced congestion and pollution in the New York-New Jersey corridor. It would have generated economic activity and put thousands of people to work. It would have enabled twice as many passengers to ride the trains on that heavily traveled route between the two states.

Where I disagree with Herbert is his use of “we” when a more descriptive pronoun is appropriate. For instance:

No one can accuse the governor of New Jersey of being a visionary. But his stumbling and bumbling and his inability to chart a clear path to a better future is, frankly, just the latest example of the dismal leadership that Americans have endured for many years. Where once we were the innovators, the pathfinders, the model for the rest of the world, now we just can’t seem to get it done.
We can’t put the population to work, or get the kids through college, or raise the living standards of the middle class and the poor. We can’t rebuild the infrastructure or curb our destructive overreliance on fossil fuels.

You see, it’s not all of us. Some of us, who happen to be Democrats and even, Intelligent Designer forbid, liberals, have pushed for improving education (as opposed to improving the bottom line of for-profit education companies), raising living standards, moving away from fossil fuels, and rebuilding our infrastructure.
Others of us–movement conservatives, Tea Buggerers, recidivist segregationists, and John Birchers, and selfish well-off people–have consistently opposed these efforts. One reason they have done so is because they have taken advantage of structural faults, such as the filibuster in the Senate. The other reason is that there are too many people who have cast stupid votes.
Herbert wrote a very good column–and his criticism of Christie is dead on target–but it isn’t all of us who are failing. Only some of us.
And by lumping them into “we”, we let them off the hook for their failures.

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5 Responses to A Question for Bob Herbert: What Do You Mean “We” Kemosabe?

  1. Rick Stiles says:

    America was great by the individual actions of millions, each with a personal vision for improving life. When those visions concurred, a voluntarily combination of efforts benefited all. Rewards were based on individual contributions. Granted, rewards were seldom equal, but the right to pursue those rewards was evolving towards equality. It was not, and was never intended to be, a perfect system. But it was better and more realistic than we now experience.
    Every necessity of life is limited by the effort it takes to acquire. It takes effort to till the garden, plant the garden, nurture the garden, and harvest the garden. The gardener’s reward is in the harvest. The gardener is not wealthy for his harvest, he is wealthy for his efforts and knowledge. The quantity and quality of his harvest are irrelevant, as are his personal needs for the harvest or his dispensation of the same. His neighbors have no “right” to his garden, since they made to effort to produce it. They have the right to make their own garden.
    This holds true for all aspects of life. Necessities of life are limited in supply by the effort required to produce them. As the effort required to get some goes down, and the effort required to get more goes up, fewer people will make the greater effort and the total available amount will decline. Thankfully, the reverse is also true.
    Greatness requires knowledge and effort. Knowledge is pursued, and effort is made, when personal gain is expected. Separating knowledge and effort from personal gain will reduce all, creating a second rate society.

  2. Paul Murray says:

    “America was great by the individual actions of millions”
    And my body stays alive by the individual actions of its cells.
    America’s greatness was not about individual actions – what makes you think that american individuals are better than those elsewhere? It’s greatness came from is structures, its institutions, its laws and unwritten traditions, its history and ideals. Things that libertarian philosophies are simply unable to deal with, to the point of denying that such kinds of thing even exist, even though they plainly do.
    Libertarianism, ultimately, founders on the point that doomed logical positivism: what is the “value” of libertarianism itself? If libertarianism itself can have value, then so can social cohesion, justice, and things of that nature.
    “Knowledge is pursued, and effort is made, when personal gain is expected.”
    A lie. Simply – a lie. Or, at best, the opinion of selfish people who think everyone else is, that everyone else *must be*, as narrow and selfish as themselves.
    False in one thing, false in all. Excuse me if I believe none of your unsupported assertions from now on.

  3. Paul Murray says:

    Oh, and can we please not have “Are you saying that people don’t make effort where personal gain is expected???”. You know as well as I do that RS meant “*only* personal gain motivates effort”.
    Oh by the way, don’t you love all the passive-voice sentences?

  4. JG says:

    Knowledge is pursued, and effort is made, when personal gain is expected. Separating knowledge and effort from personal gain will reduce all, creating a second rate society.
    What tosh. If the pursuit of personal gain produced excellence, Hollywood blockbusters would be masterpieces.

  5. MacTurk says:

    Rick Stiles is possibly an idiot who lives in a vacuum. In his perfect anarchy, there are no social or political structures beyond those transient arrangements arrived at the magical moment “when those visions concurred, a voluntarily combination of efforts benefited all”. Which no doubt explains the plethora of major engineering features which dot the landscape of the USA and other advanced industrial nations…..
    The problem is that the vast majority of the world does not, and cannot, live in this wonderful dream. Here and now, we need semi-permanent political and social structures to ensure continuity in the building of things like the Hoover Dam, or the tunnel canceled by the idiotic Mr Christie. Note: Turkey has almost finished building the rail tunnel under the Bosphorus, meaning – in theory – continuous rail travel between London and Shanghai.
    As for the deeply stupid idea that “Knowledge is pursued, and effort is made, when personal gain is expected”, tell that to Aristotle, Einstein or P.Z. Myers. The assumption that people will only strive for immediate personal gain is utterly idiotic. Mr Stiles is producing tosh, but it is very orotund tosh.
    Ultimately, Mr Stiles is denying the existence of human society, and thus any personal responsibility for the rest of the species.

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