Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The meaning of "that"

To get to the bottom of the latest campaign flap, we need to do a little grammatical analysis.  The other day, President Obama said these words: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that." The Romney campaign is all over this statement, claiming that it insults every businessman and entrepreneur and that President Obama is accusing the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Papa John of not building their own businesses.

I guess it depends on what "that" means, doesn't it? In isolation, it might seem logical to read the antecedent of "that" as "business." In that reading, the president would be saying, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that business." But even in isolation, does that reading even make sense? Does it seem plausible that the president would say that nobody who has a business had anything to do with building that business?

Maybe if we tried reading the statement in context, we might find another possible antecedent for "that." Let's look at the preceding sentence: "Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that." Could Mitt Romney be honest enough to acknowledge that the "that" might possibly refer to "roads and bridges"?

Want even more context? Here is more context:
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for president — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.”
Clearly, the president was not asserting that Steve Jobs lacked initiative. The president expressly acknowledged individual initiative. But the president also recognized that people like Steve Jobs also had a lot of help. For conservatives, that idea should be offensive enough without having to distort it further. For some reason, conservatives find it shameful to acknowledge that we all get some help from the community. Hillary Clinton was pilloried by conservatives for quoting an old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. Barack Obama is now being mocked because he wants to acknowledge our debt to our teachers, and to the people who built our roads and bridges, not to mention the whole "unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive."

Why is that debt so hard to acknowledge? I would ask Mitt Romney: Are you that unpatriotic, and that ungrateful, that you think you owe the Founding Fathers nothing? Do you really think the people who developed the American legal system, and the American financial system, contributed nothing to your success? Do you really believe that infrastructure does nothing whatsoever to help our economy? Do you think Americans can compete in the global economy without a good education?

Of course you don't. It just pains you to acknowledge these facts for some reason. And you'd rather score some cheap points taking the president's statements out of context, than have an honest debate about what the government should or shouldn't do to encourage initiative and innovation.

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