Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rebutting Fairy Dust

[Begin at 8:30 in and listen as long as you can stand it.]

HAVE SOME OBAMA BEANS. Last night I had the privilege of attending a corporate function, a dinner honoring a high-tech business unit's employee anniversaries. I was there as a guest and had no personal knowledge of the people who were being celebrated for 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, and 40 years of service to their company. I did know the executive who emceed the rite of recognition. He's a 40-year-old man (a kid by my reckoning) engaged in a constant battle to apportion his time appropriately to his job, his family responsibilities, and his volunteer efforts for the working-class Catholic parish he was born into. Not for the first time, I found myself awed and humbled by his ability to excel at these overcommitments. During the past year, he has managed a painful reorganization (and RIF) of his workforce without losing their dedication or affection, seen his eldest daughter blossom into a devoted nursing student with a work-study schedule as consuming as his own, and acquired a fluency in Spanish that enables him to keep up with the changing demographics of the parishioners he helps in his "spare" time.

I know him to be, as well, a loyal lifelong Democrat. So as I watched him graciously honoring his company's employees for their longevity and individual achievements on the job, I couldn't help thinking about Obama's Wesleyan address. The ringing call to "public service" sounds good and even inspiring, but in the context of what I witnessed last night it is also ignorant, narrow-minded, and insulting to a huge percentage of the American populace, whether they choose to recognize the insult or not. Yes, it was a corporate function, but as I listened to the well crafted summaries of individual careers, accomplishments, and personal traits of the honorees, I saw -- even as an outsider -- that they hadn't given all those years to one organization because they were in thrall to Obama's contemptuously labeled "money culture." They had committed their lives to exacting and difficult disciplines they were good at, and along the way they had undertaken serious risks to accomplish goals they believed to be important. (In fact, by any objective standard, the goals were important, to all of us, but to say more might make it possible to identify them, and that I won't do.) Yet in our uniquely American way, the tributes to each person mingled memories of extraordinary brilliance and principle on the professional level with anecdotes about personal foibles and -- a constant thread -- all the other things they somehow managed to do for family, charities, and each other. Those in attendance understood all the nuances. They laughed, they applauded, they chimed in with their own approving comments, and they were respectfully silent when the weightiest accomplishments were being described. They were a community and, though I hate to utter a cliche that was repeated several times without irony or any expression of dissent, a family.

I'm not being saccharine. There are bad companies as well as good. There are corporations in which people are valued exclusively for cutthroat devotion to profit. But in my own personal experience I have observed that bad companies, like bad people, eventually get what's coming to them. And there are good companies that forget the need to make a profit and so expire at great personal cost to the people and families who depended on them. It's important to remember, though, that the historic success and affluence of America lies in the fact that so many companies of all sizes are very much like the one I'm telling you about. Unlike Wall Street money machines or Ivy League law firms, most corporate entities in America exist to provide goods and services that people need, want, or depend on without knowing how or why. And regardless of the profit motive built into the capitalist economic model -- the most successful economic model ever discovered -- the people who make it all work are in "public service" to a much greater degree than any not-for-profit example cited by Barack Obama at Wesleyan.

Where do you want the most talented mathematicians, chemists, engineers, biologists, computer jocks, and managers to spend their time? In a lifelong feel-good allegiance to some vast international Peace Corps, unloading sacks of U.N. flour in third-world nations? Or pushing themselves to wring every last drop of productivity out of the one supreme talent they were born with and educated to use?

Fairy dust is the illusion that we can fix everything if
everyone tries to do everything except succeed personally.

Last night I saw the America that Obama knows so little about he feels free to piss on it. And, yeah, it really does look something like this:

You don't know their faces. They won't be on TV or
in the White House. But you owe them everything.

For a while there, it made me mad at Obama, for his blindness, his arrogance, his half-baked experience of the country that's given him so much opportunity, his wife's pampered resentment of things no one should take for granted. But then I had a different thought. I realized that he is one of the clearest examples we have yet had of the emergence of an isolated aristocracy reminiscent of the Brits' class system. Eton, Harrow, Cambridge, Oxford, and ultimate divorcement from the vitality and creative accomplishments of real life. When they realized that their inbred, genetically damaged, and over-educated gang of dukes and earls and "honorable" untitled younger sons couldn't ever achieve anything of value, they consigned them to careers in politics.

Wouldn't you just love to see a like competition for
the Harvard Law School class of [fill in an apt year]?
Think Schumer, the SENIOR Senator from New York.

Clearly, it's been a civiization-destroying move for the Brits. But maybe, just maybe, Obama has hit on a better solution.

Perhaps Wesleyan grads should all join the Peace Corps. And take their Williams and Amherst chums with them. And the graduates of all the Ivy league colleges and graduate schools, and Stanford and Berkeley and Brandeis and the University of Chicago and everywhere else 1400 SAT scores guarantee colossal mis-education. Ship them overseas. Put them to work vaccinating famine victims against chlamydia. Teaching malaria-stricken tribes how to put condoms on bananas. Building mud-brick government offices for the distribution of welfare checks people could cash if they ever learned how to write their names. Would it do any good? Yes. It would keep the fairy-dust fanatics away from the rest of us.

All that's left is convincing Obama to go with them. Overseas. To right all the wrongs of a world he hasn't taken even the first step toward understanding.

What's that he's dusting off his shoulder? Nah. Not the fairy dust.

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