It Was an Outrage, All Right

Conservatives had nothing to complain about. But Obama's school speech was an affront to liberals—borrowing heavily from their nemesis, culture warrior Bill Bennett.

John Moore / Getty Images

“There are no facts,” Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, meaning that reality is composed of competing stories about reality. As in a courtroom trial, the strongest, most believable story wins.

But reality is buried under there somewhere—unlike his fascist followers, Nietzsche believed in the existence of truth—and often the strongest story is a flat-out lie. Take the deceitful uproar over Obama’s speech to schoolchildren. The speech wasn’t “socialist.” It wasn’t even liberal. It was squarely in line with 20 years of profoundly conservative thinking on how to raise a child. Diehard liberals should be appalled:

“When we strive to help our children become responsible persons we are helping them toward maturity.”

“And that's what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.”

“No one's born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You're not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don't hit every note the first time you sing a song. You've got to practice.”

“We can enlist the aid of trainers, therapists, support groups, step programs, and other strategies, but in the end, it’s practice that brings self-control.”

“At the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities.”

The speech wasn’t “socialist.” It wasn’t even liberal. It was squarely in line with 20 years of profoundly conservative thinking on how to raise a child.

This is the conservative line laid down by William Bennett in his Book of Virtues, and used by one conservative politician after another to justify a bootstraps mentality that scorns any type of federal intervention in the lives of its citizens, from Headstart to cost-of-living increases in the minimum wage to the barest Welfare entitlements. Your well-being and fortunes in life are your responsibility; don’t expect a governmental helping hand if you stumble.

Mark McKinnon: Flunk the Far Right Imagine Obama warning the bankers and the businessmen that they could only be bailed out if they fulfilled their responsibilities. But he didn’t hesitate to tell that to the kids. Bennett and his heirs would be proud.

In fact, I took two of the five quotes above from the Book of Virtues itself. The rest are from Obama’s speech.

It’s hard to recall now perhaps, but Bennett’s 1993 bestseller was a watershed in American politics. Published in the first months of Bill Clinton’s first presidential term, the book stressed the qualities of rugged individualism over government’s benevolent intervention. It was the beginning of what you might call the Republican Party’s government-in-exile. Unable to work the levers of government, conservatives began—as left-wing socialists had always prescribed—to shape the contours of popular consciousness.

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Bennett’s chapters had titles like “Compassion,” “Courage,” “Work,” and “Responsibility.” The implication was that these personal qualities were what gave the individual power in adversity, and that liberal technocracy’s idea of an activist government robbed the individual of the only aspect of life he had in his control: his character.

Fueled by Reaganism’s pilfering of the New Deal rhetoric of compassion for the common man, and drawing from the religious sentiments of the newly empowered Christian right, Bennett’s book was the opening salvo of the endless—and endlessly consequential—culture wars.

It is one of the most astounding projections in public life that the conservatives should have, with great success, turned Obama’s speech to schoolchildren into an example of the conservatives’ own Kulturkampf. They have convinced great numbers of people that Obama is out to sway the minds of the young with some subtle political agenda: i.e. they have convinced great numbers of people that Obama is William Bennett’s heir.

It could be that, in their eyes, Obama poses a greater threat to their cultural domination than handwringing liberal pundits, so strangely eager to declare Obama ineffectual, would have us believe. After all, the most potent part of Obama’s campaign strategy was to attempt to make a pragmatic synthesis of conservative emphasis on personal responsibility with liberal faith in a benevolently activist government. Fusing those two world-views together was exactly what Obama did in his speech to the schoolchildren, as he promised better educational environments in exchange for students’ commitment to their own lives.

But I think I know what truly provoked and outraged conservatives. They sensed a paternalistic, socialistic, dictatorial impulse—a cult-of-personality type thing—behind the following, admittedly, audacious justification for attempting to morally educate susceptible schoolchildren:

“We need wisdom—often the wisdom of a wise leader—to give our courage determinate form, to give it intelligent direction. And we need the will, the motivating power that inspiring leaders can sometimes help us discover within ourselves even when we are unable to find it readily on our own.”

Oops. That’s from the Book of Virtues again. There really are facts. It’s just so darn hard to keep them straight.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.